The presence of Islamic groups affiliated to salafi jihadism (e.g., al-Qaeda, Islamic State/ISIS,… and others) has increased in a number of Arab states. In the past two years, these groups have become influential actors in the region. This assessment proposes two possible scenarios for the evolution and the potential for expansion of these groups:
The first scenario: These groups expand successfully and achieve major gains that would render them into key actors among Palestinians and in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This will have significant impact on the structure of Palestinian society, factions, priorities, societal co-existence, and religious minorities.
It would also invite a tougher siege on the Palestinian interior and suspend regional and international aid, and could give the occupation a new pretext to escalate its aggression under the pretext of fighting Palestinian “terrorism.”
The second scenario: These groups fail to expand, and the status quo in terms of their size, presence, and influence in the Palestinian political landscape is preserved.
The assessment overviews a number of factors to determine the likelihood of each scenario. These include: the strength and organizational cohesion of these groups; the status of Palestine and the conflict with Israel in their strategies; their ability to overcome geographical barriers and establish links with nearby countries; the security situation in Palestine and the extent of the vacuum that would allow it to infiltrate and proliferate; internal tension; the presence or absence of religious and sectarian conflicts; the ideological and cultural climate; and the state of coexistence in society.
While we must stress that no country is immune to infiltration by radical ideology in light of the situation in the region, the assessment argues that the likely scenario is the continuation of the status quo. In this scenario, these groups will not be able to achieve major gains and expand in the Palestinian arena.
The assessment makes proposals to deal with the current situation, led by the need to preserve coexistence and social openness, promote national unity, end the division, and rationalize resistance work.
The armed religious groups affiliated to salafi jihadism (al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) have proliferated to many Arab countries. In the past two years, they have become an influential actor in regional issues, which represents a significant shift and challenge for regional governments, societies, and political groups. This development also raises questions regarding whether the phenomenon could make its way into the Palestinian arena.
Despite their attempt to capitalize on the success achieved by groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria after its takeover of the province of Mosul in mid-2014, salafi jihadist groups continue to maintain limited presence and influence in the Palestinian arena.
In Gaza Strip (GS), tension reigns supreme between the Hamas-led government and radical militant groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Jund Ansar Allah, also known as Jaljalat, Tawhid Brigades, Jaysh al-Ummah and Ansar al-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah.
Tension first arose between the two sides in 2007, when clashes erupted between security forces in GS and Jaysh al-Islam, led by Mumtaz Dughmosh. Clashes escalated in 2008 after the group suffered heavy blows, culminating with the release of journalist Alan Johnston held hostage by the group and the death of several of its leaders. The group was significantly weakened as a result.
However, the most significant escalation in the relationship between Hamas and these armed groups took place in the following year, when Abdul-Latif Musa declared an Islamic emirate in GS during his Friday sermon on 14/8/2009. Musa was subsequently killed along with a number of his followers in the clashes with the security forces, which dealt these groups a severe blow, sharply denting their presence in subsequent years.
The rhetoric of the armed religious groups inside and outside Palestine after those clashes became more militant, their attitudes more negative against Hamas. Hamas was accused of secularism, apostasy, and persecution of the faithful mujahidin, and it was clear the already tense relationship between the two sides was going to get worse. The episode was significant because it highlighted these groups’ strategy, which revolve around obtaining footholds to declare Islamic states or emirates, which seems to be a priority for them above the liberation of the land and the fight against the occupation.
However, a shift took place in the position of these groups recently, evident in their activities on the ground and their discourse in the media. In mid-2015, the GS security forces detained members of radical groups, prompting them to launch volleys of rockets from GS to areas controlled by the Israeli occupation. Many saw this as an attempt to embarrass Hamas and pressure it to release the detainees affiliated to these groups, by threatening to drag GS into a new round of fighting with the occupation. This took place at a time that many Palestinian factions believe is inopportune and would not serve Palestinian interests.
It was accompanied by several nighttime bombings targeting internet cafes, beauty salons, and music records stores, in addition to targeting members of the GS security forces. Those incidents lasted for around two months. The GS security forces accused individuals and small groups of standing behind the bombings, and launched an extensive crackdown on a number of suspects, in the process restoring calm and putting an end to the bombings.
With the start of Jerusalem’s uprising, there was a marked shift in the discourse of the armed religious groups. These groups expressed interest in the confrontations between the Palestinians and the occupation forces, sending out public statements and audio messages that sharply criticized Fatah and Hamas. ISIS, for example, called from its media platforms in Iraq on Palestinians to abandon resistance forces led by Hamas, and rally around Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi self-proclaimed caliphate. In an audio message, the group said: “Know that there is no difference between Fatah and Hamas; each cares only about its own interests, and some are agents of the Safavids and the Crusaders as you know.” The message continued: “Hamas and Fatah are flip sides of the same coin. Their apostasy is clear and overt… .”
In the West Bank (WB), the armed religious groups have a weaker presence because of strict security measures and pressure by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) against Islamist factions and forces, and this has impacted the ability of these groups to be active and influential.
In February 2015, Israeli Radio quoted Palestinian security sources as saying WB security forces launched arrests and detained ten Palestinian youths, after receiving Israeli information indicating ISIS operatives were planning to attack Palestinian and Israeli targets. However, the Spokesperson of Palestinian security forces Adnan Damiri denied ISIS had any presence in WB, pointing out that the youths in question were writing pro-ISIS slogans on social media.
In another incident, unknown individuals wrote pro-ISIS slogans in Kasasbeh Square in the city of Bireh, effacing the words “Martyr Mu‘ath al-Kasasbeh’ with black paint and replacing them with the slogans of the Islamic State “lasting and expanding.”
The armed religious groups, until recently, were keen to assert their independence from any outside groups, claiming the links were limited to having similar ideology and orientations. However, it seems again that there has been a shift in this policy recently. In September 2015, Jaysh al-Islam issued a statement pledging allegiance to the leader of ISIS and its Egyptian branch Wilayat Sinai/Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Yet the authenticity of the statement was disputed by the group’s spokesman Mumtaz Dughmosh, as reports emerged of disputed within the group over pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other leaders in the group confirmed the authenticity of the statement.
Second: The Possible Scenarios for the Future of Salafi Jihadist Groups in Palestine and Expected Implications
There are two main potential scenarios for the future of the armed religious groups and their ability to strengthen, expand, and proliferate in the Palestinian arena in the near term:
These groups successfully expand in the Palestinian arena, achieving important gains that turns them into key actors in the Palestinian reality and the Arab-Islamic conflict with Israel.
In case this scenario pans out, many implications could follow, led by the following:
1. Major shifts occur in the structure of Palestinian society, away from political and ideological moderation and flexibility towards isolation and political and ideological militancy.
2. The decline of all other political forces of various political and ideological backgrounds, as the religious groups reject pluralism and inclusiveness, and have a negative view of all Palestinian factions including the Islamic Resistance against the occupation.
3. The priorities of Palestinian society change into “Islamization” in accordance with the vision of these groups. Islamization comes ahead of the priority of confronting the occupation and liberation.
4. Decline in co-existence in society, and the emergence of prosecution against religious minorities, as happened in Iraq, as a result of the extremist ideas of these groups vis-à-vis those of different faiths.
5. New pretexts emerge for the Israeli occupation to escalate its aggression against the Palestinian people on the grounds of fighting Palestinian “terrorism.” Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has sought—unsuccessfully—to link Hamas to ISIS after the US formed a coalition to fight terror in the region, claiming they are flip sides of the same coin.
6. The GS siege is further tightened, suffering increases, and regional and international aid is halted or scaled back.
7. Further confusion and obstruction on the track of Palestinian reconciliation and the reconfiguration of the PLO.
The armed religious groups fail to expand in the Palestinian arena. The status quo is sustained, in terms of their presence, strength, and influence in the Palestinian political landscape, with limited gains or setbacks that do not affect their status and the overall picture.
It follows that the current situation continues, and no substantial repercussions occur beyond some intermittent clashes in GS in particular. However, we would expect these groups to carry out some military attacks in Palestinian territories and fire rockets at Israeli-occupied territories for specific purposes.
Third: Determinants and Factors Affecting the Future of the Salafi Jihadist Groups in Palestine
Determining which scenario is more likely, requires discussing a set of factors that influence the future of these armed religious groups in Palestinian arena. These factors include:
1. The size of presence of salafi jihadist groups in the Palestinian territories, their organizational cohesion, their ability to develop their performance and achievements, and to invest the successes of ideologically similar groups in neighboring or close arenas.
Indeed, the presence and strength of these armed groups inside Palestinian territory is limited and marginal, whether in WB, GS, or the territories occupied in 1948.
Their activities are almost limited to some clashes with the security forces in GS. On certain occasions, individuals affiliated to these groups organize events that express their ideological and political positions vis-à-vis some developments, as happened when ISIS took control of the province of Mosul in Iraq.
The most prominent activity of the members and supporters seems to take place on social media.
By following the evolution of this phenomenon over the past several years, one may notice the weakness of the organizational structure of these groups, and their inability to expand their popular presence and score cumulative achievements.
They are also scattered and incapable of coordinating their efforts, and their ability to capitalize on the successes of similar groups in Iraq and Syria is extremely limited.
2. Palestine’s position in the strategy of these groups, and their stances vis-à-vis the struggle against the Israel. The famous pledge made by leader of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden in 2001, in which he threatened the United States would never have security as long as Palestine does not have security, was a milestone in the position of the armed religious groups vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue. At the time, this brought these groups sympathy in the Arab and Muslim countries, which still perceive Palestine as the main political cause of the nation. However, the situation changed in the years that followed Bin Laden’s pledge. These groups’ interest in Palestine declined, focusing instead on global jihad, and launching battles with the region’s regimes and rulers. Palestine is almost absent from their priorities, literature, and discourse.
Regarding the position on the Israeli occupation, the armed religious groups in Palestine do not have an impressive record in resisting and fighting against the occupation forces, compared to various other Palestinian factions over the past decades. These groups also have had no considerable role in resisting Israeli assaults on GS in 2008, 2012, and 2014.
Outside Palestine, these groups avoided entering in battles with Israeli forces, even though there is direct contact such as in the Golan. It seemed clear that fighting the occupation is not one of the priorities of these groups at present, perhaps for considerations related to these groups’ strategy, geopolitics, and the complicated circumstances surrounding the Palestinian situation and its regional and international ramifications.
These groups did not conceal the fact that the priority in their strategy is to hold vast swaths of territory as a prelude to declaring an emirate, a state, or a caliphate. This made the symbolic dimension of Palestine as the nation’s central cause absent in their concerns, literature, and discourse.
3. The ability to overcome the barriers of geography and link up with the Palestinian arena through nearby arenas. The Egyptian territory, particularly Sinai, which is adjacent to GS, appears to be the closest geographical arena that could be used to establish such links, in light of the unrest and the strong presence of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis there. However, there are great challenges standing in the way of this linkage: the strong control exerted by the GS government and strict Egyptian measures along the border with GS, not to mention the Israeli authorities which closely monitor the situation in the border area.
In WB, the geography is even more difficult and complex. There is little chance in the current situation to achieve linkage with other arenas, and the same applies to the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948.
4. The security situation in Palestine and the ability to exploit loopholes to expand and proliferate. The strategy of these groups is largely based on infiltrating and expanding in weakened states, taking advantage of security vacuum and the absence of a powerful central government in a given region. Their strategy is also opportunistic, seeking confrontation with the weakest parties and avoiding the strongest ones to avoid paying heavy costs.
It is noted that the ability of these groups to expand, exploit security holes, and capitalize on security victim is limited in GS, because the security forces are in control there. In WB, security coordination between the PA and Israel, and the PA’s crackdown on the manifestations of religious devotion, places these groups before immense challenges. The same more or less applies to the territories occupied in 1948, which are under direct Israeli control.
5. The extent of anger and tension in society, and discontent with political and economic conditions. Political tensions resulting from the absence of freedom, democracy, and the peaceful rotation of power, and the resulting corruption, repression, and inclusion of social actors in favor of monopolistic elites, create a fertile ground for radicalization and violence. Furthermore, the deterioration of economic conditions, rising poverty, unemployment, and inflation, and the absence of development, justice, and equal opportunity all contribute to developing a conducive climate to extremist ideas.
Perhaps this is the most important factor that militant groups can capitalize on to enhance their presence and recruit followers. However, all indications suggest these groups will not benefit greatly from this factor, for most Palestinians blame Israel and its crippling blockade for their tough living conditions. And in WB there is awareness of the complete Palestinian reliance on foreign aid and support, without underestimating the problem of corruption and its toll.
6. The presence or absence of religious and sectarian conflicts. Indeed, these groups benefit from polarization to recruit supporters for their ideology and orientations. However, this is nearly absent in Palestinian society, which did not witness in the past decades any religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians, who regionally enjoy good relations. Even concerning the religious dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict, all Palestinian factions including Hamas and Islamic Jihad believe that the conflict with the occupation is not based on the fact that they are Jewish or of a particular faith, but it is a conflict with aggression and occupation.
The sectarian dimension is also almost absent from the Palestinian arena, despite attempts by some to class Hamas and Islamic Jihad as pro-Iranian factions that subscribe to Iran’s political and ideological orientations. However, these attempts failed, and the positions of the two Islamic movements during the Syrian crisis discredit the claims. Perhaps the only exception here is al-Sabireen movement, a splinter faction that recently split from Islamic Jihad, and was accused of Shi‘ism and subservience to Iran. Some circles fear Salafi Jihadist could exploit this movement to instigate sectarian conflict.
7. The ideological and cultural climate and coexistence in society: The armed religious groups find opportunities to expand and promote their ideas in isolated societies, which are lacking in political and ideological moderation, social coexistence, and cultural attainment. This is while their task is more difficult in open, multicultural societies. Moreover, the prevalence of moderate ideas and moderate political and Islamist movements prevents extremist ideas from spreading.
Fourth: The Likely Scenario
By analyzing the determinants and factors influencing the future of the armed religious groups, and in light of existing data and the evolution of these groups over the past years in the Palestinian arena, it seems that the second scenario is more likely at present.
These groups remain weak, marginal, and non-influential, without considerable popularity in the Palestinian street. Their presence is almost limited to social media and some narrow geographical areas, and they have not succeeded in finding a supportive popular environment. This is despite the golden opportunity they had recently (2014–2015) when their affiliates in Iraq and Syria made huge gains. Their fragmentation also played an important role in limiting their influence and strength, and their voice in the media was perhaps several orders of magnitude higher than their actual weight.
In terms of these groups’ interest in the Palestinian issue, so far, there does not seem to be a shift in their concerns and priorities. Their modest record in resistance against the occupation prevents them from achieving distinctive popular presence, in an arena that is active in resisting the continuous crimes of the occupation.
In addition, there is a very unfavorable factor in the Palestinian arena, related to these groups’ lack of faith in the usefulness of popular resistance and resistance events as part of the confrontation with Israel. This option is not consistent with the ideology of these groups and their methodology, which is almost limited to armed force, and does not include popular events such as marches, demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins.
The geography and ability to link up with armed religious groups in neighboring countries have become a significant obstacle that the armed groups have failed to overcome. They also failed to find security holes or political vacuum, which could have helped them expand in WB, GS, or the territories occupied in 1948.
These groups did not succeed in exploiting feelings of anger and popular wrath in WB, and the climate caused by the crippling blockade of GS. Most popular reactions target the occupation, which the Palestinian people blame primarily for their suffering in at all levels.
Harmony, coexistence, and absence of sectarian conflict denied these groups the chance to exploit religious differences and polarization. The state of ideological and political awareness, the climate of moderation, openness, and coexistence, and the decent level of culture in the Palestinian arena has acted as a barrier preventing the proliferation of these groups.
Moderate Islamic groups, which are broadly influential in Palestine and has a rich record in fighting the occupation, are a convincing alternative for broad segments of the population. In truth, the resistance put on by these movements has become an exceptional model in the region, compared to the model of violence, killing, and extremism presented by Salafi Jihadist armed groups.
Fifth: Recommendations and Proposals
Despite the likelihood of the scenario where the status quo continues, it should be emphasized that no country is immune to infiltration by extremist ideology. This is in light of the presence of extremist groups in the region, the growth of violence, and the state of chaos in the region. Thus, actors and decision-makers in the Palestinian arena must be alert and must take appropriate action to spare the Palestinian arena a repetition of what has happened in other Arab arenas. Our recommendations include:
1. Preserving the spirit of coexistence between religious, social, and political component s in Palestinian society. It must be reaffirmed that the main contradiction is with the Israeli occupation, which continues to commit crimes against all Palestinians without discrimination, and the idea of using arms in internal Palestinian disputes must be criminalized.
2. Promoting openness and moderate ideas in Palestinian society, and containing ideological extremism, using dialogue before resorting to security approaches that remain necessary when all other means fail.
3. Being vigilant of attempts by some Palestinian and regional parties to infiltrate Palestine and establish radical cells in Palestinian society, especially in GS. The purpose would be to reshuffle the cards and create security chaos, to claim GS harbors and abets terrorism and extremism. Measures must be taken to fortify Palestinian society against such infiltrations.
4. Strengthening the unity of Palestinian society, and striving to end Palestinian division and agree on a joint program to manage the confrontation with the Israeli occupation.
5. Promoting the model of the mature and wise Palestinian resistance, in the face of extremism and rampant violence.
6. Giving the Arab and Islamic dimension of the Palestinian issue due attention and care, as part of a renaissance and liberation project that would put capabilities to positive use.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks ‘Atef Joulani for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.