ISIS in Gaza

A still from a video released by ISIS militants in June 2015 called ‘A Message to Our People in Jerusalem,’ in which they threaten to overthrow Hamas in Gaza because the group is not extreme enough
A still from a video released by ISIS militants in June 2015 called ‘A Message to Our People in Jerusalem,’ in which they threaten to overthrow Hamas in Gaza because the group is not extreme enough

In a house in Rafah, at the southern edge of Gaza, I met Sheikh Omar Hams, fifty-one years old, a slender figure dressed in a simple white robe and seated on a mattress on the floor. Hams is director of the Ibn Baz Islamic Institute, based in Rafah, where it also runs a bakery and charity outlets. His mission, he says, is to spread the word of the Prophet Muhammad and to give bread and other aid to the homeless and the poor.

Hams is a Salafist sheikh. “A Salaf means an original ancestor—one of those who lived close to the Prophet and observed his actions intimately, followed his ways and his words literally,” he explains. The sheikh teaches his students how to return to those ways, and they in turn spread the word. Unlike many Salafis, who abhor any rational argument about the literal meaning of the Koran, Hams is open to at least some debate. And though sometimes willing to support violent jihad, he accepts that violence is often not justified, preferring instead to secure a return to original Islam through the use of prayer, study, and preaching.

Pulling his legs underneath him, the sheikh prepares for questions on how the Prophet might have viewed the methods of Daesh (ISIS)—also Salafists—and on the battle to contain its influence across the world, most particularly here in Gaza.

Since 2007 Hamas has been the de facto government of Gaza, albeit under Israeli rule—a rule implemented nowadays by means of a military and naval blockade by air, land, and sea, which is described by the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, as “a collective penalty against the people of Gaza.” Hamas is itself an Islamist resistance movement, with a resistance “army” called al-Qassam, but Hamas members are seen as infidels by ISIS since they place the nationalist battle for a Palestinian state before the campaign for a caliphate. Hamas’s willingness to negotiate with Israel and to agree to a cease-fire last summer was seen by ISIS as the latest demonstration of its collaboration. ISIS supporters inside Gaza have shown their opposition and tried to break the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel, thereby angering Hamas and risking heavy Israeli retaliation.

In recent months, Hamas has tried to crush groups of Salafi jihadists in Gaza, some of whom declare open support for ISIS and are in touch with its networks in Syria. As well as rounding them up Hamas has “persuaded” moderate Salafi sheikhs to help convince jihadists that their interpretation of Muhammad’s wishes is wrong. One of these sheikhs is Omar Hams.

If the sheikh had made such an agreement with Hamas, was he not, I asked, aligning himself with the infidel Hamas in ISIS’s eyes, thereby risking his own life? He took a deep breath. “Jihad is allowed under Islamic rules,” he replied. “When Muslims see a danger to their own land or their own families or themselves, it is allowed for them to defend themselves.”

Anticipating the next question, he continued: “On the question of Daesh. In the beginning when Daesh began as an Islamic military group it was fighting the US occupation in Iraq. We agreed with it, as it was an occupation. But after that they behaved in a…”—he paused—“confusing way.”

What did he mean? “They were too easy with the blood. We did not agree with that at all,” he said, which was why he had decided to help Hamas resist ISIS’s presence in Gaza.

Daesh supporters had to be corrected, Sheikh Omar went on. Theirs was not a “pure” interpretation of jihadism. Daesh was a creation of the West and was not therefore “pure inside.” It was created, in his view,

by the thousands of bombs dropped on the heads of Muslims, and by the rejection of democratically elected Muslim governments, such as that in Egypt, and by the support for the state that is oppressing us here in Gaza, and that is Israel. All of this has created feelings of pressure among our youth, leading them to think like Daesh, alienating an entire generation. However, we don’t agree with this thinking and have condemned it. But we should understand the motivations. The Koran urges mercy and peace.

I first went to Gaza in 1993, when I reported for the London Independent newspaper while Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House Lawn to seal the Oslo Accords, which envisaged the creation of a Palestinian state. At that time Gaza, along with the West Bank, was occupied with Israeli troops permanently on the ground as well as at the borders. The initial Oslo accords called for immediate small-scale withdrawal from parts of the Israeli occupied territories, but envisaged agreement five years later on the “final status” of all Israeli occupied territories, which many believed would bring about the total withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the West bank, to be joined by some sort of safe passage, and the creation of a workable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. White doves with olive branches appeared on walls as soon as Arafat and Rabin shook hands.

The Oslo Accords foundered, sabotaged by extremists on both sides. More than a decade later, in 2005, Israel withdrew its occupying troops and its Jewish settlers from Gazan soil, but still controlled its borders and much else. As hopes of peace faded, Hamas won power in parliamentary elections in 2006 but Israel and the West refused to acknowledge the victory, calling Hamas a terrorist group. After internecine strife among the Palestinian leadership in 2007, Hamas seized power in Gaza, which Israel placed under a strict blockade, splitting it off from the PLO-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Today 1.8 million Palestinians—including 1.2 million refugees—are crammed into Gaza, just twenty-five miles long and eight miles at its widest. When I returned a year ago to report on the aftermath of the 2014 summer war, it was ringed by walls and fences. Gunboats lay offshore. Drones hovered in the sky.

I first heard the name “Daesh” hours after arriving as I sat under a dripping tarpaulin in Beit Hanoun, a border village. A boy padded through the mud in socks. His father, whose house was one of more than 19,000 homes that were severely damaged or destroyed in the war according to UN figures, told me that a man “in Pakistani garb” had been seen near the city’s bombed-out sewage plant. But he didn’t seem concerned, nor did other Gazans I spoke to—all had other things to worry about, such as moving the rubble with their bare hands.

Gazans showed a remarkable resilience in the aftermath of the war, a kind of defiance. Perhaps it was surprise at finding that they had survived when 2,205, had died, including 521 children and 283 women. Raji Sourani, a Gazan lawyer, told me that Israel was to be taken to the International Criminal Court, not only in the hope of securing justice but also “to send a message to the people that we want the rule of law in Gaza, not Daesh.” When I returned over the next twelve months, some Gazans told me they still had such hopes; but as they faded support for Daesh grew.

By last month the threat had become so serious that the Salafist sheikh Omar Hams had come out of the shadows to appeal to the West to change its approach to the Muslim world. An agricultural engineer, Hams, who has never been outside Gaza except to study engineering in Sudan, works on Rafah’s chicken farms, monitoring water purity. But he is happiest with his Salafist students. He is an admirer of Osama bin Laden and passes on crude theories alleging that the US bombing created Daesh.

His central point, however, is incontestable. ISIS is taking root in Gaza among its disillusioned youth; he might not be able to persuade his own students “to maintain peaceful methods,” Omar Hams said. “We are dealing with individual souls. Anyone oppressed can do anything. That is why I issue a warning: to end the suffering of Palestinians, so that…we can influence our people. Otherwise there is no 100 percent guarantee of anything.”

In fact, hardly anyone believes that the suffering in Palestine will end anytime soon. But analysts and politicians have always assumed nevertheless that ISIS would never have strong appeal to Palestinians, who demand a country, not a caliphate. Most Sunni Muslims—about 90 percent of the world’s Muslim population, including Palestinians—reject the activist Salafi approach as too literal and sometimes violent in its methods. Conventional wisdom has it that there are separate strands of Salafism—“peaceful” and “jihadist.” But on the ground in Gaza definitions blur, alliances shift.

The seeds of ISIS in Gaza were sown back in the 1970s when small numbers of Gazans adopted Salafism. Some of them centered their activities on a small charity in Rafah called the Ibn Baz Institute, named after Abdullah Ibn Baz, who, until his death in 1999, was the Saudi kingdom’s highest religious authority. Ibn Baz was so stubbornly literal in his readings of the Koranic texts that he is even said to have insisted they meant the sun revolved around the earth.

By 1999 the Rafah institute named after him was almost defunct. Then in the early 2000s Salafism had a revival across the Muslim world, including Gaza, and in 2002 Omar Hams took over the failing Ibn Baz charity and turned it into a going concern. Today during bad times—war, for example—the charity can secure up to $4 million a year in donations, mostly from Saudi Arabia.

Also around 2002 Osama bin Laden was winning numerous new recruits to Gaza’s Salafist jihadi cause, including a young man named Sheikh Ismael Humaid, now a prominent Salafist leader in Gaza. Humaid, a tall man with a limp, the youngest of ten children, was born in Gaza’s seaside Shati Camp in 1975 and from the beach near his home he could see the lights of Ashdod, the thriving Israeli port where his grandparents lived before fleeing to Gaza in the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel.

Imprisoned several times in the late 1980s and early 1990s for burning buses that were bringing Jewish settlers to Gaza, Humaid dropped out of school, taking odd jobs. In 2002, during the second intifada, he converted to Salafism. “I felt I could be killed any minute. I took this as a sign to turn to God, so I would die a good man,” he said, then turned to me and in his barely audible voice suggested that I convert too as I’d find paradise. There was no hint of irony.

Humaid became an al-Qaeda supporter and named a son after Osama bin Laden. In 2005 he formed the first Salafi jihadist group in Gaza—Jaysh al-Umma. Other groups formed, including one set up by a Gazan clan leader and gangster-turned-Salafist jihadist, Mumtas Dughmush. Dughmush and his gang kidnapped Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter in Gaza, in 2006; Johnston was released after some four months. Humaid also joined the Hamas operation in 2006 to kidnap Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was released five years later in a prisoner exchange involving more than a thousand Palestinians. Another group—Jund Ansar Allah—was led by a fanatical cleric, Abdul Latif Moussa, who in 2009, during prayers at Rafah’s Ibn Taymiyyah Mosque, declared an Islamic emirate there. The choice of this mosque for the declaration had resonance: Ibn Taymiyyah was a fourteenth-century cleric, often regarded as the progenitor of jihad or militant Islam. Hamas’s al-Qassam brigades opened fire on the mosque, killing twenty-two Salafists and losing seven of their own men.

With war escalating in Syria, Ismael Humaid made his way to Egypt, probably through a tunnel under the border, and on to Syria, “to see what I could do to help fellow Muslims.” He did not want to tell me when he went and for how long or whom he met. He denies any contact with Daesh while there and says that Jaysh al-Umma does not support it. Several other Gazans also left for Syria the same way—up to fifty, some say. Many have not returned but those who did, I was told, were inspired to restart jihad. Some of the returnees openly switched allegiance to the ISIS caliphate, calculating that viewed from the rubble of postwar Gaza, the prospect of a caliphate might seem more realistic than a Palestinian state.

Soon after the 2014 war, Egypt’s military rulers closed the Rafah crossing and began flooding with saltwater Hamas tunnels not destroyed by Israeli bombs, in order to stop what Egypt claimed was a Hamas-inspired plot to send Gazan jihadists into North Sinai, giving support to the anti-Egyptian insurgency there. Nevertheless, communication with the “Google sheiks” abroad was fast and simple over social media. Jaysh al-Umma’s Facebook page soon burgeoned with followers, while Ismael Humaid’s personal Twitter following reached about seven thousand, mostly from inside Gaza.

The first ISIS-inspired military action in Gaza happened in October 2014, when an explosive device started a fire at the French cultural center in Gaza City. The French cultural center was attacked again in December 2014 causing extensive damage, and in January 2015, ISIS supporters held a rally outside the center, burned the Tricolor, and defaced the center with graffiti. The rally came twelve days after the attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that had published cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.

Gazans told me that they looked on in astonishment, while Hamas took little action. “At first Hamas didn’t seem to think it was the real deal,” said the head of a Western aid group, who didn’t wish to be named. “We thought maybe Hamas was allowing these guys to do this in a way to show the world—if you don’t deal with us, you’ll get them.”

Not long after, arrests of Salafists began, and in response mortars were fired at an al-Qassam brigade headquarters in Khan Younis. The Salafists were gaining confidence, demanding that Hamas release its prisoners. Then a new group sprang up claiming allegiance to ISIS and fired off a rocket that landed, without causing injury, near the Israeli port of Ashdod.

In the House of Wisdom—a Hamas think tank—Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas moderate, was assigned to consider a response. A well-traveled and affable intellectual, Yousef advised the use of persuasion rather than brute force. Salafist prisoners were visited by a committee of approved theologians who tried to “correct” the Salafists’ misreading of the Prophet’s message on jihad and “reeducated” them. He seemed to be playing down the problem of Salafists, probably for fear of fanning the flame or giving the outside world the impression that Hamas had lost control. For one thing, some of those behind the attacks were former al-Qassam fighters, hence their military skills. Angry about Hamas’s insistence on maintaining the cease-fire and other signs of moderation, they had quit al-Qassam and signed up with the jihadist groups.

Nevertheless, as Yousef pointed out, many new recruits to Salafism were disaffected youth. Hamas had interviewed the families of those who had left for Syria or died there—he could not say how they traveled or how many they were. Yousef had been to funerals—“family events”—of those who’d died in Syria “to look at the faces of relatives and better understand,” he said. “These young people have nothing—no glamour, no hope. Nothing.”

There was certainly no glamour among the bombed out communities of Shujayiya, a suburb of Gaza City, where street after street was obliterated in the 2014 war, and where—a year later—not a single house had been rebuilt. In the summer heat, youths disentangled rods from piles of twisted rubble. It was not hard to believe that ISIS had been successfully recruiting in the community.

A twelve-year-old boy, Abdullah, described how he had lost his grandfather, father, and seven brothers and sisters when a bomb hit their house; their pictures were pasted on the wall above him. The sheikhs at the mosque were supporting him, his mother explained, and had waived school fees.

A twenty-year-old sat staring at his cell phone as his father, often in tears, recounted how he lost a son and daughter as well as his brother and his family—ten in all—when a single bomb hit their house. I asked the son what work he did. “Nothing,” he said. He used to play some baseball but not anymore.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNRWA) and other aid groups as well as local Palestinian NGOs are only too well aware of the urgency of rebuilding Gaza and Gazan lives. If Western donors didn’t find the means to patch up houses and patch up wounds, they said, the jihadist groups would.

Across a wasteland a boy moved through the dusk in a motorized wheelchair. He was paralyzed from the waist down, shot in the back by an Israeli sniper. His wheelchair had been bought by the Salafists at the Ibn Baz Institute, run by Sheikh Omar Hams.

Gaza was “boiling”—a term used widely to describe the rising pressure produced when crossings aren’t open for weeks on end. My fixer, Jehad Saftawi, was “boiling” as he stood high on the blasted masonry of what was briefly Gaza’s airport: “Look at our new airport and it’s already demolished, we’re already destroyed.” He should have been on a flight three weeks ago from Cairo to the US, having been offered an internship as a journalist, but the crossings were all closed and now, he felt, he would never be able to go. Every young Gazan suddenly seemed to be trying to get out somehow. There was talk of escapes—through the razor wire, and by boat.

Nor was it bodies and buildings alone that were being patched up. Hasan Zeyadeh, a child psychologist, told me that the trauma of war, occupation, and encirclement by Israeli forces had been passed from one generation of Gazan children to the next; but this generation, which had grown up after the collapse of the Oslo peace accords, during three Hamas–Israeli wars, was suffering far more than any other:

They have a feeling of helplessness. They can’t trust anyone to help—not the politicians, not their own parents who couldn’t even protect them in the wars or stop the destruction of their homes. And they see in the foreign media that everyone here in Gaza—themselves included—is lumped together as terrorists. We have no answer for them. This creates a sense of helplessness. In these circumstances the young may regress to more primitive levels.

The video posted online by the ISIS media wing in Aleppo on June 30, 2015, and directed at Hamas was certainly primitive. Posing with AK-47 rifles, three ISIS fighters denounced Hamas for dealing with secularist entities. “The point of jihad is not to liberate land, but to fight for and implement the law of God.” They went on: “We will uproot the state of the Jews and you [Hamas] and Fatah [the PLO faction]…and you will be overrun by our creeping multitudes.”

The video caused shock. The Hamas crackdown on ISIS became intense. Hamas sources said as many as a hundred—some say many more—were rounded up in the weeks that followed, and this time for more than “reeducation.” There were reports of torture in the Hamas jails. Tension was evident across Gaza as al-Qassam set up checkpoints, men with beards were stopped, and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts were closed, presumably by the Israelis, who monitor and control all communication traffic into and out of Gaza as part of the blockade.

In July came a response: bombs blew up three vehicles belonging to Hamas and to Islamic Jihad, a smaller Islamic faction. More arrests ensued. Gazans were unsure if Hamas could exert control. By this autumn the tension appeared to have eased again. At the al-Qassam police headquarters in Rafah on November 14, the morning after the Paris massacres linked to ISIS, commanders insisted that the jihadists were crushed. “They have no martyrs,” said an officer with a bullet face and full beard, his torso bulging under a gray hoodie. On a wall above him live pictures from Paris and reports of the hunt for attackers were flashing across the screen.

“They don’t have a real organization as such,” the officer said. “Groups come and go. But they send someone to do a specific job and he coordinates it fast with a number of people. Then he’ll be sacrificed as ‘fire paper’ and someone else will be hired.”

Al-Qassam, he said, had profiles of the culprits. “The typical jihadist recruits had disturbed childhoods and often sexual problems,” the commander theorized, adding that money was a major factor drawing Gazans to ISIS. “Those in Syria often send pictures back home showing large banknotes to lure others out.”

Yet the more he talked, the more worrying the situation appeared. His explanation that the extremists had suffered from disturbed childhoods was particularly unconvincing, for it would apply to practically every young person in Gaza today. But he also made it clear that al-Qassam could not possibly keep track of all these small, fast-moving groups. Rocket firings, he said, were provoked by events outside. “If the Israelis burn some kid in the West Bank and some Salafi guys here get angry and want to fire a rocket, we can’t stop it,” he admitted, referring to the murder of a Palestinian baby named Ali Dawabsheh in an arson attack by settlers near Nablus. Most important, perhaps, was a question he did not talk about: How could he contain support for ISIS among extremists in Hamas’s own ranks? At one point the commander seemed to yearn for a more brutal approach. If al-Qassam had not killed off most of the Jund Ansar Allah group in 2007 at the Taymiyyah Mosque, “we’d be like Syria here today.”

At the end of 2015 the future for Gaza is dark, though how much darker it may yet become will depend on whether ISIS continues to win support there. Nobody knows if the present crackdown by Hamas will succeed. A year ago no one I talked to was predicting that followers of ISIS would emerge at all. When they did, Hamas itself was surprised. So were the people of Gaza. If ISIS were to gain strength, the desperate line for visas and exit permits could turn into a mass stampede toward closed gates. The nightmare of being locked inside Gaza with the ISIS monster is worse than all other nightmares the Gazans have faced—even the last war.

Moreover, if Hamas fails to crush the Gaza jihadists, ISIS would have a foothold in the Holy Land, posing new and unpredictable dangers, not only for Gazans themselves, but for Israel, the region, and for the West’s wider war on the Islamic State. In such a sequence, Israel will be expected to find the “solution” and will almost certainly bombard Gaza yet again and with perhaps greater ferocity.

Still, the mood in Gaza could quickly change. The long-negotiated Oslo peace accords seemed to blow up out of nowhere. On the morning of the handshake back in 1993 there was no certainty that Gaza would cheer. Hamas opposed the deal and as the day dawned the air was thick with the smoke of burning tires. But in the few seconds it took for Arafat and Rabin to shake hands the green flags of Hamas receded into a hopeful sea of red, black, white, and green—flags of the PLO and of Palestine. There is a risk today that the green flags of Hamas—the new “moderates”—could yet be engulfed in the black flags of ISIS.

If the stifling Israeli controls were lifted now the atmosphere could change fast. If there was tangible hope of a serious new attempt at peace, Gazans might find ways to win over discouraged extremists. At a conference in New York sponsored by the Israeli journal Haaretz, Robert Malley, the White House official assigned to organize opposition to ISIS, said that a resolution to the Israel–Palestine conflict “would be a major contribution to stemming the rise of extremism” in Gaza and elsewhere. The Western nations, paralyzed by the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, could do worse than open talks with Omar Hams, the radical Salafist sheikh who opposes the violence of ISIS; he is clearly willing to debate and modernize to some degree, and has risked his life to come out of the shadows to explain how things look from a Muslim perspective and warn of what might come next.

Before we talked, the sheikh told me that the only Westerner he had met is a Brazilian Catholic priest based in Gaza who came to see him recently, worried that the Salafists were banning Christmas. “I assured him we had simply advised Muslims not to celebrate Christmas. The priest and I got along very well. We had a good lunch.”

Omar Hams is certainly a courageous man. According to the al-Qassam police, ISIS in Syria has recently condemned both the Ibn Baz Institute and Hams himself as collaborators for dealing with Hamas. When I asked him if he feared speaking out against ISIS, he said that he didn’t believe anyone in the world was “completely safe” and added that there were certainly dangers to speaking publicly. If Daesh “finds Sheikh Omar is putting obstacles in their way,” he said, “they can find ways to get rid of him.”

—December 16, 2015