Salafists in Palestine and Israel

  • Posted on: 31 July 2016

One of the most debated scenarios relating to potential security complications in the Palestinian and Israeli controlled areas is the rise of the so-called “Salafi Jihadists”. This phenomenon has become especially significant given the vacuum in leadership within the Palestinian political arena. A salafists movement is an approach to Political Islam, it was first developed by Imam Hanbal, and involves a new interpretation and understanding of Islamic teachings based on the principles articulated by the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. Over the years, the Salafists movement has undergone a series of peaks and troughs until, under the leadership of Scholar Muhammed Abdul Wahhab and Mohammed Bin Saud, it became strongly established in the Arabian Peninsula. It first appeared in Palestine in 1920, at which time Izz Al-Deen Al-Qassam, regarded as a Salafist, emerged as a revolutionary figure.

Types of Salafists in Palestine

In recent years, two groups of Salafists in Palestine have been identified; Preaching Salafists and (Jihadist) Salafists, who are described by some political scientists as Militants. It has to be emphasized that many Muslim scholars refute this naming (Jihadists) and debate that it has nothing to do with Islam as a religion, as they consider Militant Salafists to be motivated by political objectives rather than religion itself. While other Muslim scholars argue that the concept of “Jihad” is not limited to military activities.

Preaching Salafists believe in separating themselves from politics and military issues. Their main purposes are to improve economic and social status, to entrench Islamic teachings into people’s daily life, and inhibit western influences on practicing Muslims. An example is a libertarian party or “Hizbu Alltahreer” in Arabic.

Militant (Jihadi) Salafists adopt a military method to promote change, whether that change is in the removal of injustices caused by an outside force or changes to modern structures of government.
Militant Salafists believe the method they have adopted is the proper means for the establishment of the Islamic caliphate, examples of movements that have adopted this ideology are Al-Qaeda and ISIS. “Salafi Jihadists” have expanded into many Arab, as well as non-Arab, countries in the last decade.
Such expansion has resulted in significant challenges for citizens, governments, and political groups. The Palestinian Territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip) are not without their Salafi Jihadists and ques- tions have to be asked and answered about whether Militant Salafists have the capacity to succeed in spreading their ideology even further in the territories.

The West Bank and the Gaza Strip

In the West Bank, these groups have a relatively limited presence due to the restrictions imposed on them by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian Authority forces act against any Political Islamic activism or military presence, perhaps believing that these groups are a potential threat to their rule and if they were strengthened, they may be in a position to take over the Palestinian Authority itself. As a result of these strict security measures, Salafists have been prevented from becoming dominant and/or particularly influential. However, Salafists were active in the last wave of violence against Israel and members involved were most likely from the Hebron region. Israel killed 3 Salafists in 2015. Some commentators assume that the movement is focusing on building an underground armed movement in the belief that neither the PA nor Hamas’s policies serve the Islamic nation and they will never be able to liberate Palestine which is a crucial part of the Caliphate project.

The Salafists boycott the Palestinian Authority because they consider it a secular government, with no religious authority to rule over Muslims, and believe it is incumbent on every Muslim to oppose what they consider to be illegal rule. They also consider the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip to be unacceptable because they believe that the movement has abandoned its objectives and ideological basis, particularly the commitment to jihad against Israel, in favor of the perceived benefits of power.

The emergence of Militant Salafists in Gaza

The Militant Salafists movement in the Gaza Strip is a relatively recent development and can be accounted for in a number of ways:

  • Hamas’ participation in the legislative elections, and its interest in political ways of achieving its objectives. This method of acquiring the power necessary to effect change was opposed by Salaf- ists in Gaza on the grounds that it was a secular, as opposed to a religious, approach to the issues that had to be met.
  • The continuation of a ceasefire and truce in Gaza since Hamas came to power in 2006. Salafists consider this policy to be a deviation from, and an abandonment of, armed resistance. Salafists believe resistance must be constantly maintained.
  • After the war on Gaza in 2012, and the siege imposed, living conditions in Gaza substantially deteriorated and it became impossible to carry on with a normal pattern of life. This situation resulted in increasing acceptance of another voice providing alternative ways of ending injustice and providing hope in the future for the masses.
  • The conflict between Fatah and Hamas over power facilitated the development of a more extremist view of the world, especially in the light of the injustice and tyranny suffered by so many Palestinians.
  • The rise or creation of Al Qaeda in the last decade. Al Qaeda seemed to be one of the very few movements that was willing to resist and fight perceived American domination of Arab lands, resources, and culture. Consequently, its philosophy appealed to many, particularly the young, and modern methods of communication enabled the movement to spread its ideas quickly to large numbers.
  • The active existence of Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula creates opportunities for Militant Salafists on both sides of the border; a safe haven in Gaza for the Egyptian groups and a logistical and financial support for the Gaza groups from their Egyptian counterparts. Such an opportunity has motivated many groups to be more active on the strip.

All of these reasons led to increased tension in the relationship between Hamas and Salafists. While at first, Hamas did not take the issue seriously, after the kidnapping and killing of foreign activist Vittorio Arrigoni on April 15, 2011, it took security measures aimed at the restraining Salafists activity. These measures included the mounting of arrest operations, restriction of movement and restrictions on gatherings. It is worth mentioning that other Palestinian groups such as the Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have taken an active part in countering the Militant Salafists aside Hamas.

According to Ahmad Yousef, a former political advisor to Ismail Haniyeh, “the division of Palestinians (Hamas and Fatah) has assisted in the rise of these flawed ideologies.” The Salafist issue is seen by him as a security issue, not a phenomenon, and the movement is seen as intent on destabilizing the situation in Gaza.

While Hamas undoubtedly has the capacity to strike Salafists, it worries that such action could be counter-productive. First of all, the assessment is that Gaza cannot endure any kind of confrontation at the moment, especially an internal one, between Hamas and Salafists. Secondly, Hamas recognizes the military situation in the region is deteriorating in Syria, Sinai, Iraq, and Lebanon, and also recognizes the part Salafist Jihadists have taken in the past in the conflicts in those areas. Hamas does not wish to burn its bridges with the Salafist movements, but at the same time is not yet interested in being linked to any of them. In the midst of the current situation, Hamas has employed a strategy of reconciliation with these groups instead of fighting them.

Salafi Jihadism is a threat not only to Israel but also to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and to Hamas in Gaza. It can be easily noticed that the preliminary recruits to such groups are those coming from more pragmatic Islamic ideologies within Hamas and other Islamic movements, therefore the growth of the Militant Salafists groups will come at the expense of Hamas and PIJ.

ISIS in Palestinian and Israeli controlled areas

An article published in the Israeli Newspaper, Haaretz, stated: “Very few Israeli Arabs or Palestinians have joined the Islamic State, which poses no immediate threat to Israel despite the fighting on the other side of the Golan.” Israel has no fear of interior ISIS attacks because there are no apparent signs that a significant number of Palestinians have joined ISIS. However, Israel is surrounded by ISIS militants on the Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian borders. This means that an attack on Israel could come from any one of these regions.
In May 2016, ISIS published 10 concurrent videos where ISIS forces appear to threaten Israel with imminent attacks. The videos indicated that the priority as targets of these attacks would be: Palestine and Jerusalem, and the date of the attacks was intimated. It is important to note that this is not the first time ISIS has threatened Israel with the impending attack, but this is the first time that the threats have been played simultaneously in every city under the control of ISIS forces.

ISIS does not only threaten Israel but is also targeting Hamas. It accuses Hamas of not properly enforcing Islamic Law and, therefore, the Gaza Strip has been identified as their next destination. Reuter’s reported that a masked member of Islamic State said "We will uproot the state of the Jews (Israel) and you and Fatah, and all of the secularists are nothing and you will be overrun by our creeping multitudes," and went on to claim that "The rule of Sharia (Islamic law) will be implemented in Gaza, in spite of you. We swear that what is happening in the Levant today, and in particular, the Yarmouk camp will happen in Gaza."

Despite the fact that both Hamas and ISIS share a common hostility towards Israel, Hamas does not aim to establish an Islamic Caliphate but, instead, has as its core objective the liberation of Palestine. Claims of cooperation between Hamas and ISIS are frequently made by Israelis and others in the International Community but Hamas refutes those claims and has continued to be highly critical of ISIS and its policies.

Concerns about the possibility of an expansion of ISIS into Gaza and the West Bank are increasing. The last wave of violence in which Israeli insisted on continuing the siege on Gaza provided a fertile environment for the expansion of both Militant Salafists in Gaza and the West Bank, and ISIS influence in the area. However, Palestinian support for ISIS is illogical, given the incontrovertible evidence of the treatment of Palestinians in the Al-Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria. There, ISIS is violently killing, beheading, raping and displacing thousands of Palestinians from the camp. The Red Cross has been witnessing the same brutal practices at Al Yarmouk as it has found in every other area under ISIS control.

According to opinion polls held by 2 different institutions, the majority of Palestinians hold a negative view of ISIS, not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza.

 

Do you think ISIS serves the Palestinian Cause? Does it harm it? Or does it have no impact on the cause?

Lately, there has been news in the media about ISIS forces advancing in Iraq and Syria. What response do you have towards this: very positive, moderately positive, moderately negative, or very negative?

Conclusion

It's not only the Palestinian public and political movements who sense a threat from the expansion of ISIS in the country, but other Salafists groups as well has contradictory opinions towards this subject: While there are many similarities between both groups, Salafists movements, in General, consider ISIS an Islamic group which has exaggerated and widened, unacceptably, the definition of what an “infidel” is, and redefined the ways of fighting them, which is considered a dangerous discourse by different schools and sects within the International Islamic community.

The instability of the political and military situation in Iraq, and the deteriorating conditions of living are two among many other reasons that provoked and induced the creation of ISIS. It is reasonable to argue that given the existence of such circumstances, there is a distinct possibility of more extremist acts. Still the fact that there is an absence of a public incubator for such a radical movement in both Israeli and Palestinian-controlled areas, and the that the geopolitical reality disables any logistical pipelines to be established with ISIS counterparts in neighbouring countries, therefore the only way for its affiliates to be active is through a “Cell-based system” where they might create underground small groups that conduct armed attacks.

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