A number of writers have noted the possibility of Hamas being politically strengthened by Israel’s bombing of Gaza, just as Hezbollah were strengthened by Israel’s 2006 bombing of Lebanon. This would obviously be a bad outcome, but it’s important to understand that it would not be the worst. A much worse outcome would be that the bombings weaken Hamas while strengthening Salafist elements in Gaza, who consider Hamas a bunch of timid, half-stepping sellouts.
Salafism is a strict, puritanical interpretation of Islam, of which Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are extreme exponents. One of the many tragic consequences of the Iraq war is that, not only did it contribute to the rising popularity of this radical doctrine in the Middle East, it provided an environment for radicalized Muslims to come and train alongside their radical brethren in the latest guerrilla tactics against the world’s best military. They took very seriously President Bush’s invitation to “bring it on,” managing to turn Iraq into a killing field for several years before their Iraqi allies turned against them.
Many of these fighters are now filtering back into the region, bringing their hardened ideology and training with them. Michael Scheuer, the CIA’s former point man on bin Laden, has been examining the penetration of the Levant by extremist factions facilitated by the war in Iraq. Scheuer recently reported that “the bleed-through from Iraq also is having some impact in the Palestinian territories — especially Gaza — and in Israel.”
In these theaters, of course, access to Israeli targets already is assured, and so the emphasis of the newly arrived mujahideen and a number of in-place Israeli Arabs seems to be to build a foothold from which Salafism can be preached and have a chance to grow among the populace.
There have been anti-Israeli operations conducted by Salafi groups in Gaza – such as the Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) – but the attacks have not been major, and the Salafis appear to spend just as much time fighting with their erstwhile Islamist colleagues in Hamas.
Scheuer quoted Jordanian writer Urayb al-Rintawi’s warning that “those who blockaded Gaza to take revenge on Hamas and champion Fatah could one not-too-distant day see that their reprehensible deed has only led to bring [in] al-Qaeda and draw [in] fundamentalist organizations that are more extreme than both the hawks of Hamas and the militants of Islamic jihad.”
In April, the Jamestown Foundation reported on Al Qaeda’s growing interest in Palestine. After experiencing a series of defeats in Iraq as a result of the Anbar Awakening and Iraqis’ broader rejection of Al Qaedism, Osama bin Laden indicated his intention to reboot the brand by focusing on an issue dear to Arabs and Muslims — the plight of the Palestinians.
In July, Der Speigel ran a story on the competition between Hamas and Salafist elements in Gaza:
Abu Mustafa says, he and his comrades in arms realize they need to be patient. There’s a long way to go before they can begin their struggle for global influence. First, they have to take care of an enemy closer to home: Hamas.
So far, Hamas has done what it can to keep the Salafis under control. They know the ultra-radicals are just waiting to take over Hamas’ position of leadership. “They are traitors,” Abu Mustafa says of Hamas. “Compared to us, they are Islamism lite.” […]
The group’s greatest sin, says Abu Mustafa… is its effort to bring Islam and democracy together. “Hamas represents an American style of Islam. They have tried to curry favor.” Which is not such a bad thing for Abu Mustafa and his Salafis. “Hamas is like a block of ice in the sun,” he says. “Every minute they get smaller — and we get larger.”
Note that the competition between Salafists and Hamas eviscerates (once again) the neoconservative conceit of a united Islamofascist front against the West. These are different groups with different ideologies and goals. Treating them merely as different heads on a Islamic terrorist hydra is just bad policy. In addition to addressing underlying causes when possible, a better policy would involve exploring whether these differences can be aggravated and exploited, as they have been in Iraq.
Since 9/11, neoconservatives and other supporters of a “war on terror” have tried to conflate Israel’s war with the Palestinians with America’s war with Al Qaeda, playing upon Americans’ fear and trauma to obscure the very different issues that in fact motivate the Israel-Palestine conflict. But just as an Iraq invasion premised in part on the myth of an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection resulted in a foothold for Al Qaeda in Iraq, so a U.S.-Israel policy that admits essentially no difference between Hamas and Al Qaeda — and that continues to blindly support attempts to crush extremism without addressing the conditions that drive extremism — could very likely do the same for Al Qaeda in Palestine.