Hamas-Islamic State cooperation adds new layer to Middle East threats
In a region full of challenges and short on solutions, reported cooperation between Hamas and the Islamic State branch in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula-considered by many experts to be the terror group's most potent offshoot-adds a new layer of threats to Middle East stability and especially to Israel.
According to reports, the Gaza-ruling Palestinian terrorist organization and the Islamic State branch are collaborating on funding, smuggling, training, and even medical support.
"It's a worrying development in the sense that this aids both Hamas's military buildup after the 2014 war [with Israel], as well as assists Islamic State in the Sinai in its insurgency against the Egyptian government and even Israel," Neri Zilber-a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank who focuses on the Middle East peace process, with an emphasis on Palestinian economics and state-building-told JNS.org.
"The Islamic State is believed to cherry-pick from weapons shipments destined for Hamas in Gaza, it receives some direct training, and injured Islamic State fighters also might receive medical treatment in Gaza," said Zilber.
Hamas's reported cooperation with Islamic State comes after news that the commander of Islamic State terrorist forces in the Sinai Peninsula, Shadi al-Menei, was secretly meeting with Gaza-based Hamas leaders in early December in order to grow their cooperation to launch more attacks against Egypt and Israel.
Al-Menei and leaders of Hamas's "military wing" were reportedly discussing the ongoing supply of weapons sought by Hamas, which in turn has also supplied Islamic State with weapons-including Kornet anti-tank missiles that have been used against the Egyptian military (such as in the sinking of an Egyptian patrol boat off the coast of al-Arish) as well as several tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Hamas and Islamic State have a common enemy with Egypt, which has cracked down on smuggling into Gaza, targeted Hamas's parent group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and waged a massive military campaign to defeat Islamic State in the Sinai.
Part of Egypt's plan has been to seal off the border between Gaza and the Sinai. In September, Egypt's military said that it had started flooding with Mediterranean Sea water the tunnels used by Hamas and other Palestinians to smuggle weapons and goods into Gaza.
Overall, in the past year, the Egyptian military has demolished more than 1,110 homes on Egypt's side of the Gaza border to create a buffer zone, while also destroying hundreds of smuggling tunnels.
For Hamas, its connection with the Sinai is vital to the terror group's survival because Israel maintains a maritime blockade of the territory and allows only limited access through its land border crossings.
"Hamas, and in particular the military wing, views the Sinai as an important strategic hinterland. Hamas has built up ties with Sinai Bedouin tribes going back at least a few years, predating the Islamic State-they need their help not only smuggling weapons into Gaza, but also for economic relations, moving goods/people/money in and out of Gaza," Zilber said.
The common threat posed by Hamas and Islamic State has also led to unprecedented deepening of ties between Egypt and Israel, especially on intelligence and military cooperation. Israel has permitted Egypt to ramp up its military presence in the Sinai, despite the fact that the region is supposed to remain demilitarized under the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.
Most recently, it was reported that Israel permitted Egyptian warplanes to use its closely guarded airspace to carry out bombing missions on Islamic State targets near the Israeli border.
Nevertheless, cooperation between Hamas and Islamic State may be more pragmatic than ideological. Earlier this year, Hamas clashed with Salafi extremist sympathizers of Islamic State, who have sought to overthrow Hamas rule in Gaza.
In May, Hamas forces closed down a mosque belonging to the Salafis and arrested several of their members. The Salafi jihadists struck back by launching mortar attacks on a Hamas base, which led Hamas to a more widespread crackdown on the Salafi groups.
Like Islamic State terrorists operating in Syria and Iraq, the Salafi jihadists in Gaza do not recognize national boundaries and instead call for a global Caliphate. While they do share Hamas's goal of the destruction of Israel, they view Hamas's ideology as too nationalist and narrowly focused on the Palestinian cause.
But more recently, Hamas has loosened its crackdown on Salafi groups in Gaza, and reports indicate greater cooperation between the groups. In July, Sheikh Issam Saleh, a Salafi leader in Gaza, outlined a number of steps toward reconciliation between the two terror groups, including the release of Salafi prisoners.
"It's a balancing act between upholding ties with the Sinai Province (the Sinai's Islamic State branch) while at the same time cracking down on internal dissent and threats to Hamas rule," Zilber said, adding, "Overall, Islamic State inside Gaza proper is more a theoretical threat at present. Hamas's Qassam Brigades are by far the most powerful actor in the territory."