BBC’s Jon Donnison on Salafists and Hamas

On October 15th an article written by the BBC’s Gaza correspondent Jon Donnison and entitled “Israel seeks to contain Gaza’s Salafi-jihadist threat” appeared on the BBC News website’s Mid-East section. 

The article discusses the recent killing of Hisham Saedni (also spelt Saidani) – aka Abu Walid al Maqdisi – of al Tawhid wal Jihad, together with Ashraf Sabah of the organisation Ansar al Sunnah, by the IDF

Donnison does a reasonable job of explaining the Salafist component of the numerous militias active in the Gaza Strip, although he could have given more detail regarding the various different factions and their connections to and collaboration with other groups such as the Iranian-backed Popular Resistance Committees and Hamas itself. 

Gaza militants at press conference - AP - April 3, 2011
A press conference in Gaza, with representatives of various terrorist organisations including Hamas, April 2011

However, the article is let down by the fact that although Donnison is probably correct when he writes that “privately those in power in Gaza and Egypt are unlikely to loose much sleep over his [Saedni’s] demise either”, he also creates the impression that Hamas is to be regarded as something of a moderating influence by including the following paragraph.

“It is widely believed that Hamas has no interest in escalating tensions with Israel right now, preferring to consolidate its power and try to profit from its strong ties with the new Islamist leadership in Egypt.”

Donnison does not inform us by whom “it is widely believed”, but the facts certainly call that belief into question. Even when Hamas has not been officially engaged in terror attacks or the firing of rockets itself, it has turned a blind eye to such activities by other groups and largely made no attempt to prevent them. As de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip, it has also done nothing to prevent the flow of arms to various factions within the territory. 

In June 2012, some 80 rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip over a four-day period, with Hamas taking responsibility for the attacks. 

As recently as ten days ago, on October 7th, Israeli forces targeted two other Salafist terrorists – Tala’at Jarbi and Abdullah Maqawi.  On that occasion, Hamas again had no qualms whatsoever about “escalating tensions” and publicly claimed responsibility for joint operations with the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad which included the firing of some 55 rockets and mortars at Israeli civilian communities. 

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad said they targeted the rural district as a response to an Israeli air strike on Sunday night, which struck and seriously injured two members of an al- Qaida-inspired terror cell as they rode on a motorcycle.”

In fact, collaboration between Hamas and its traditional, though smaller, rival the PIJ seems to be blooming at the moment, with some sources reporting the establishment of a “joint operations room” and joint committees, and with shared statements being issued by Hamas’s ‘Izz al Din al Qassam’ and the PIJ’s ‘Al Quds Brigades’. Hamas and the PIJ even released a film clip together (note the logos on the screen) depicting their operations.


As noted recently by The Israel Project:

 “Recent analysis had suggested that Hamas was distancing itself from Shiite-aligned Gaza factions and aligning with the Sunni countries fighting a proxy war in Syria against Iran. That analysis was never completely sound: Hamas leaders including Mahmoud al-Zahar gathered in Iran in September to coordinate moves against Israel with other groups, while leaders such as Khaled Mashal, who opposed Iranian involvement in Syria have been marginalized. Regardless of whether the analysis was misguided or Hamas has recalibrated, the result is the same. “

Hamas leaders have also been seen recently attending a series of PIJ events and public rallies in the Gaza Strip. 

Rather than viewing Hamas crack-downs on Salafist groups operating in the Gaza Strip as part of a policy to avoid “escalating tensions” – which is clearly a problematic assumption in light of Hamas’s recent upgrading of its relations with the PIJ and its self-publicised participation in attacks on Israeli civilians – it is useful to examine them in the context of internal politics within the Gaza Strip. 

In September of this year, Abu Abdullah of the Mujahedeen Shura Council told AFP:

 “What hurts us is that people who call themselves Muslims in the internal security forces are pointing the dagger at the chest of the mujahedeen and won’t stop their campaign against them.” 

Following the killing of Abu Walid al Maqdasi (Hisham Saedni), the Salafist group known as Masada al Mujahideen issued a statement blaming Hamas for his death. 

“In the statement, Masada al Mujahideen said that Hamas was responsible for the death of al Maqdisi and that Hamas “has become the loyal agent and a quicker executor than its predecessors of the orders of the occupation.” The group threatened to make Hamas pay “dearly for these foolish, heinous crimes, but at the time we find suitable, whether it’s sooner or later, and we will do it.” “

In the addendum to his recent book “Getting to Know Hamas“, Israeli author and journalist Shlomi Eldar wrote the following:

“But the Hamas movement has not yet come to appreciate that the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and other rebellious organisations, which hold profuse amounts of weapons and rockets, act in exactly the same way in which Hamas succeeded in embarrassing, entangling and vanquishing – by means of its military arm – Yasser Arafat and his successor Abu Mazen; driving a wedge between them and the Israelis and demolishing the Oslo Accords, the existence of which they saw as a political death sentence for their movement.

Arafat did not act against members of Hamas with real determination, and was rightly accused of playing a double game, and Abu Mazen too did nothing when a honey trap was set for him which brought about the dismissal of his movement and his government from the Gaza Strip. Both Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen were always fearful of the things which would be said about them on the streets of Gaza and the West Bank if they fought against those who presented themselves as Jihadist fighters. Arafat ended his life in the Muqata, in squalor, as a paper General living on past memories; Abu Mazen and the heads of the Palestinian Security Services repented their failures, after they were driven from Gaza in disgrace. “

Eldar goes on to ask whether Hamas will be able to learn from the lessons of its own methods in order to hold on to power and whether it will engage in the necessary disarming of rival factions. His final conclusion is that perhaps that is one step too far for Hamas.

The latest collaboration between Hamas and such a prominent past rival as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, coupled with the recent renewal of overtures in the direction of Hizballah and Iran, as well as the selective crack-downs on Salafists, may well represent an attempt to take an alternative approach to the dilemma raised by Eldar.

Rather than wanting to avoid “escalating tensions”, as Jon Donnison claims, Hamas’s aim is to remain the master of decisions as to when and how tensions will escalate, according to its own agenda and interests. Those interests are not always directly connected to Israel and “tensions” may sometimes serve Hamas’s internal – as well as external – agenda. The fact that the Salafists which Hamas once welcomed as partners in the ‘resistance’ now pose a challenge to its hold on power does not turn Hamas into olive branch-waving peaceniks.  

The strange ability of some Westerners to easily identify Al Qaeda-related groups as terrorists, whilst at the same time being reluctant to see organisations of differing stripes  (such as Hamas and Hizballah) in the same light will continue to compromise coverage and analysis of the Middle East. 

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