In January, a group of Palestinians in Gaza took to the streets protesting against the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. Strangely, photos of the three perpetrators who committed the horrendous crime in Paris as well as slogans by Osama Bin Laden were seen. Many of them stated, “If your freedom of speech has no limit, then you must accept our actions.” The most surprising were the flags and slogans of Da’esh (also known as the Islamic State).
A week after the gathering of Jihadist Salafists, the car of an Imam in central Gaza was blown up, as he had powerfully criticized the Salafi protest, calling Hamas’s government to take actions and stop them. A few days later, similar groups abducted Mohammed Al Mugayer, a journalist who works for an international agency, for eight hours of torture and mistreatment. A group affiliated with Da’esh claimed responsibility for Al Mugayer’s kidnapping.
"The most surprising were the flags and slogans of Da’esh"
In the beginning of February, news arrived from Libya that Abdelelah Kishta, a Da’esh fighter from Rafah city, had been killed in Libya. This was not the first and will not be the last time we hear about such incidents; a Palestinian newspaper reported that dozens from the Gaza Strip are fighting with Da’esh in Syria.
These were not arbitrary or exceptional incidents. The last seven years in the Gaza Strip provided fertile ground for radicalism and extremism to grow. In 2006, Hamas and “Islam’s army” kidnapped the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. They operated together until 2008 as Hamas cut all connections when they assumed the responsibility as the governing body of the Gaza Strip.
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, a Jordanian jihadist among them, kidnapped the humanitarian and peace activist, Vittorio Arrigoni, and killed him.
Many argue that Da’esh is not present in the Gaza Strip. However, the reality is different. Da’esh mentality and individuals who adopt it exist, but they do not have enough military power to carry out operations in large or effective scale. Few are former members of Hamas, and the majority is from rival groups, such as Salafist jihadist factions. When Hamas discovered their presence, they discharged them from their Hamas installed jobs and confiscated the weapons they have. Hamas would allow any group to work in the Gaza Strip, but under their conditions and monitors.
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After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, a former commander of Hamas’s military wing together with many of Hamas’s militants created what they called "Jaljalat," literally meaning thunder. Their leader expressed his sympathy with Al-Qaeda and willingness to be part of it. His group was created as a response to Hamas’s delay in enforcing God’s rules and, according to the group, Hamas’s engagement in political life. Later, Hamas arrested him.
We know now that there are hundreds of them in the Gaza Strip, and dozens of them are fighting with Al-Nusra and Da’esh in Syria and Libya. Da’esh, as an organized and well-trained group, does not exist in Gaza. Rather, we see factions and individuals who express sympathy and tolerance with Da’esh’s fearsome actions. If Hamas and the Palestinian Authority were not able to control the Gaza Strip, and the borders between Gaza and Egypt are opened through tunnels, the reality would be different and Da’esh would be acting with power in the Strip.
But the question is, what made these individuals become so radical? Why would they leave Gaza to fight in another country while the Israeli occupation is at their doorstep?
There is a strong relation between radicalism and economic and social opportunities. As the economy shrinks, the more certain individuals turn to extremism. With the intolerable siege, the economic capacity of Palestinians became so extreme that families could no longer feed their children. The siege policies created a fertile ground for extremism and radical ideologies. The radicalization of individuals in such an environment becomes easy. The people in the Gaza Strip have no common expectations for a better future.
"There is a strong relation between radicalism and economic and social opportunities"
Radicalism in the Gaza Strip is a result of a combination of factors, but primarily the economic deprivation that led to lack of hope and trust in the future. The social fabric was affected: divorce rates increased steadily; female student enrollment at universities declined heavily; new social classes emerged where few people enjoy more privileges than others – mainly NGO workers or employees of the Palestinian Authority loyal to Abbas who receive salaries while sitting at home. Although many Palestinians in Gaza are able to travel and study abroad, they couldn’t because of the unpredictable financial situation and the tight closure 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 where more than 1,800,000 residents live, half of whom are under the age of 40 with no economic opportunities or prospects for a better future.
We must be careful. Hamas is politically immature and their childlike behavior may lead to catastrophic situations, which may place Gaza as a base for an offshoot of Da’esh or other radical groups. This does not mean that a military base will be located there, but possibly a recruitment base. With the growing number of immigrants from Gaza to Europe, especially Sweden and Norway, a direct contact between those immigrants and Gaza will be easy and legitimate due to interpersonal and family relations. The brainwashing of young immigrants or second generation would be easier than for a first generation immigrant who knows the blessings of living in a democratic European country.
Gaza could be an important hub for peace in the region and a strong front in fighting against radicalism in the whole area. Europe and Israel, of course, must exit the siege and try to hinder Hamas peacefully by giving more opportunities to the Palestinians in Gaza – not through the policy of “radicalization by isolation”.