Hamas in the Gaza Strip is under significant stress. As a government it has failed to provide for the needs of its purported constituents, and remains an international pariah under economic siege. At the same time, its credentials as a “resistance” movement lose currency by the day as the movement continues to refrain from attacking Israel for fear of reprisal attacks in the wake of Israel’s Caste Lead operation in December 2008 and January 2009.
Al Qaeda itself, which highlights the Palestinian cause in its rhetoric but gives the issue short shrift in its operational planning, has taken advantage of the opportunity to try to lure Hamas operatives away from the movement’s nationalist focus to the cause of global jihad. In February 2008, the elusive Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, denounced Hamas’ leadership for betraying Islam and called on Hamas’ military wing to break off from the group and join the global jihadist movement.
Recognizing the damage such challenges pose to Hamas’s own jihadist credentials, the movement’s Izz al Din al Qassam terrorist wing posted a paper on its website last month entitled “The Concept of Jihad as the Islamic World Understand” [sic] highlighting the work of Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, famous for his religious edicts (fatwa) justifying suicide bombings targeting civilians in Israel and Iraq. Qaradawi, the paper stresses, “is extremely careful to distinguish between extremist groups that declare war on the whole world, killing indiscriminately, tainting the image of Islam and providing its enemies with fatal weapons to use against it, on the one hand, and on the other groups resisting occupation.” The effort to cloak itself in the mantle of a noted Islamist theoretician like Qaradawi, who is known for his vocal support for violent jihad, is a telling sign of the pressure Hamas feels it is under in the wake of its poor performance fighting Israel last winter and in light of its relative quiet since. Israeli officials have described the current Hamas policy as “industrial quiet,” which includes a pause in violence for the practical purpose of rearming and the strategic aim of consolidating its control in Gaza.
Hamas failed to inflict significant Israeli casualties over the course of the Caste Lead battles, and instead of protecting its civilian population Hamas hid its leaders and armaments behind civilian structures such as mosques and hospitals. According to a new Washington Institute study, Hamas in Combat: The Military Performance of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, despite the violent threat Hamas poses to regional stability, the movement’s fundamental military strength should not be overestimated.
Engaged in secular politics, failing to institute shariah law, and cracking down on fellow Palestinians who attack Israel or threaten Hamas’s rule, Hamas in Gaza has created a vacuum which salafi-jihadi groups – often populated by disgruntled Hamas operatives – have been keen to fill. To date, however, al Qaeda inspired groups in Gaza have enjoyed very limited success.