The notion that an Islamic State could emerge in Gaza gained strength when U.S. Army Lt. General Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said at a forum in Aspen, “If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse … A worse threat that would come into the sort of ecosystem there … something like ISIS.”
The good news is, he’s wrong, says a leading analyst.
The extreme Salafi-jihadi groups in the Gaza Strip exist at the fringes of Palestinian society, notes Matthew Levitt, the Fromer-Wexler Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
“They will find it far more difficult to seize power in the first place, much less govern if in power,” he writes for the New Republic:
These groups—from Ansar Beit al Maqdas to Jaish al-Islam and host of smaller groups—lack the grassroots political, charitable and social services that are the backbone of Hamas. While the same cannot be said for Gaza’s small Salafi-jihadi groups, Hamas comprises much more than just its terrorist cells and militia units. From sports leagues and summer camps to orphanages and medical clinics, Hamas runs extensive “dawa” (proselytization) programs which provide cradle-to-grave services for its supporters.
Gazan Salafi-jihadis tend to do no such things. More concerned with violent methods of establishing a transnational Islamic state, they have neither the resources nor the inclination to set up soup kitchens. As Salafists, they reject Hamas’ attachment to a nationalist—albeit jihadi—cause. Ideology aside, these groups—which are not unified—lack the numbers of Hamas members and supporters. Consider that one of Hamas’ most publicized dilemmas in the past few months was its inability to pay its 40,000 public servants; individual Salafi-jihadi groups typically have no more than a few dozen militants. In fact, several outfits share overlapping memberships. Others exist in name only.
“To the contrary, if the diplomats get this one right, the tragedy of the past few weeks could allow for the reunification of Palestinian society—both the West Bank and Gaza Strip—under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority,” says Levitt:
That could lead to a deal in which massive reconstruction would flow to Gaza so long as Hamas and other groups are prevented from rearming there (like Hezbollah did after the July 1996 war). In the longer term, it would also improve conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by reunifying Palestinian society under a moderate leadership at a time when Hamas is severely weakened.