This week marks the two-year anniversary of the end of Operation Protective Edge – the 50-day war fought in Gaza in 2014. During the conflict, 66 Israeli soldiers and six civilians were killed, while approximately 2,000 Gazans died, some 50 percent of them civilians – though the exact figures still remain mired in controversy, with Palestinians putting the civilian casualty rate closer to 70 percent and Israelis calculating it to be 36 percent.
Two years on, Gaza is still ruled by Hamas, a terrorist organisation.
Hamas is supported by Iran, now that the Iranians have apparently forgiven Hamas for supporting the opposition to President Assad in Syria. Israeli public opinion is strongly divided over whether the war achieved its objectives: destruction of all the terror tunnels and prevention of rocket attacks into Israel.
Now, two years on, Hamas is not the only terrorist organisation in Gaza.
There is also Islamic Jihad to contend with and, most recently, a branch of Islamic State is reported to have gained a foothold in the Strip.
The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip borders Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which has become an Islamic State stronghold.
In October 2015 the Sinai branch of Islamic State, calling itself Sinai Province, brought down a Russian jet, killing 224 people. Since then the 23,000 square miles of Sinai desert has seen Egyptian troops battling the Islamists, with heavy loss of Egyptian lives. Tackling Islamic State has become a top priority for Egypt, as it struggles with economic chaos and the fear of another coup.
In May, the IDF’s Major General Yoav Mordechai told a Saudi news site that there is mutual cooperation between Hamas and Islamic State’s field commanders. According to Mordechai, Islamic State operatives have entered Gaza through tunnels from Sinai to train militarily with Hamas.
Conversely, there have been reports that Gazans are infiltrating Sinai to join Islamic State. The general added that Hamas has also been providing medical treatment to IS fighters in Gaza’s hospitals. An Israeli report has claimed Hamas’ military wing has been transferring tens of thousands of dollars a month to the Islamic State group’s Sinai branch.
In June, IS-Sinai leaders met with Hamas officials in Gaza. Exactly one month later, on 1 July, a Friday night, a rocket fired from Gaza smashed through an empty preschool building in the Israeli town of Sderot.
A jihadist organisation, Aknaf Beit al-Makdis, which has as its mission statement, jihad against Jews, enemy of God, claimed affiliation with Islamic State and announced it had fired the rocket. In response, Israel’s Air Force struck four targets in the Gaza Strip that served as terrorist infrastructure for Hamas.
In Gaza, the two Sunni Muslim terror groups – Islamic State and Hamas – are locked in a power struggle, even while they work together. It’s complicated.
According to US think tank The Carnegie Endowment, 10 percent of Gazans believe the Islamic State represents “true Islam”. Gaza’s residents are deeply unhappy; Gaza’s economy is still a disaster. Hamas worries its continued ceasefire with Israel could generate a backlash from the Islamists. Meanwhile, the Sinai’s Islamic State has set its sights on overthrowing Hamas in Gaza.
An Islamic State video entitled A message to our folks in Jerusalem, shows IS members originally from Gaza declaring war on both Israel and what they call the “tyrants of Hamas”: “You are nothing in our reckoning. You, Fatah, and all the secularists, we count you as nothing. Allah willing, we shall uproot the state of the Jews. You are nothing but froth that will be gone as we move in. Allah willing, Gaza will be governed by Shariah despite you.” Abu Qatadah al-Filistini, an IS member who leads a faction in Aleppo, Syria, appears on the video calling on “monotheists in Gaza to join the convoy of the Mujahidin and to join the State of the Caliphate”.
Hamas is reportedly trying to oust Islamic State from its midst. The American news site Breitbart has reported that Hamas has foiled a large-scale IS attack on Gaza government institutions, facilities and officials. Hamas arrested and jailed 10 jihadi activists from Southern Gaza who claimed allegiance to Islamic State, as well as arresting six jihadists who returned from fighting for Islamic State in Sinai.
The Gaza border is calm at present, yet Hamas’s cross-border tunnel network continues to dominate the headlines. Thirty-two such tunnels were destroyed during the 2014 conflict, and in recent months the IDF has used innovative new technology to detect and destroy additional tunnels. Israel is also building a new subterranean wall along the Gaza border, which aims to block the tunnels.
And simmering just below the surface: an internal Gaza power struggle which could blow up at any time.