Armed faction protest in Gaza Strip,February, 2015. Nidal Alwaheidi/Demotix. All rights reserved.A group of Palestinians in Gaza recently took to the streets in Gaza City in protest against the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. They felt, as practically every single Muslim would, whether moderate, radical or even non-religious, frustrated.
The odd thing was that photos of the three perpetrators who committed this horrendous crime in Paris as well as slogans by Osama Bin Laden were raised in this demonstration. They stated, “If your freedom of speech has no limit, then you must accept our actions”. However, the most surprising were the flags and slogans of the Islamic State.
An outsider may think it normal that the Islamic State is present in the Gaza Strip: however reality is rather different. There is no Islamic State or any group with military power in the Gaza Strip. There is only one group that exports, maintains and restricts the activities of radicals and radicalism, which is Hamas.
Without Hamas’ approval, there wouldn’t be any protests or demonstrations. There are very few individuals who adopt the principles and ideologies of the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.Thus, this demonstration seems to have been orchestrated by Hamas to send a message to Israel, Egypt and the west; it’s either Hamas or the alternative: the Islamic State. Period.
However, Gaza is home to some radicals or “Jihadist-Salafis” who were affiliated to Al-Qaeda and now to the Islamic State. Many Palestinians from the Gaza Strip were killed in Syria, fighting along the Islamic State and Al-Nusra group and some are affiliated with the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.
In 2006, Hamas and “Islam’s army” kidnapped the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. They worked together until 2008 when Hamas broke all ties on assuming responsibility as the governing body of the Gaza Strip after the coup d’état in 2007.
In 2009, Hamas attacked a mosque of the “Soldiers of the Supporters' of Allah” in Rafah city, who had declared Rafah an Islamic state during Friday prayers. Hamas’ police killed eight of the militants, their spiritual leader and a Syrian Jihadist.
In 2011, three terrorists, among them a Jordanian jihadist, kidnapped a humanitarian and peace activist, Vittorio Arrigoni, killing him hours later.
In the last war in the Gaza Strip, there were unidentified bodies, which indicated that they could have been foreign fighters.
The question is, what made these individuals become radical? Why would they leave Gaza to fight in another country with the Israeli occupation at their doorstep? And why have the others who protested in recent weeks not left to join them in Syria, for example?
Prior to 2005, Gaza had not witnessed such radical groups nor extremist ideologies. In the wake of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, groups of Salifis founded associations across the Gaza Strip, which were officially registered. These groups were mainly non-violent at the beginning and they worked hard to recruit youth. Their funding as well as their religious guidance mainly comes from Saudi Arabia.
By the end of 2005, their ideology started to shift towards violent extremism as a result of the siege on the Gaza Strip by both Israel and Egypt. Egypt banned thousands of Palestinians from using the Rafah crossing, even though it was open. The security black list was full of Islamists, mainly from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel closed the Gaza Strip, allowing few political elites and traders to move in and out through Erez before the full closure began in 2006.
With such a siege, the economic capacity of Palestinians who lived in Gaza fell to an unbearable level where families could no longer feed their children. This created a breeding ground for extremism and radical ideologies. The mobilization of people in such dire circumstance was an easy job for Hamas, Islamic jihad movements and radical groups. A simple approach was to support these families in need with food vouchers for example, when no one else cared.
Vulnerable Gazans were victims to the economic situation. Even their social fabric was affected: divorce rates increased steadily, female student enrollment at universities declined heavily; new social classes emerged, where a few people enjoyed more privileges than others - mainly NGO workers or employees of the Palestinian Authority loyal to Abbas who receive salaries while cooped up in their homes.
Although many Palestinians in Gaza are able to travel and study abroad, they couldn’t because of the unpredictable financial situation and the tight grip on the Gaza Strip.
Radicalism comes as no surprise with all of these factors playing a significant role in a territory smaller than 360 square kilometers with more than 1,800,000 inhabitants, half of whom are under the age of 40, with no economic opportunities or hopes for a better future. The temptation to shift to more radical stances in anticipation of an improved livelihood comes as no surprise.
Gaza has been under siege since 2005. People are hopeless and frustrated, struggling to survive. They will seek an economic haven from anyone who is willing to help. As such, it comes as no surprise to see Islamic State flags in Gaza.
The world must pay attention. Hamas are politically immature and their childlike behavior may lead to catastrophic situations, which may result in Gaza becoming a base for an offshoot of ISIS.
The west should start negotiating with Hamas and engaging them in a political process with President Abbas to avoid paying an even higher price in the future.