This article explores the apparent emergence of Islamic State-affiliated Salafi-jihadi groups in the Gaza Strip, which in the spring and summer of 2015 clashed with Hamas and claimed a number of rocket attacks on Israel.[1] While Salafi-jihadi groups[2] already had a fragmented presence in Gaza before the onset of the Arab Spring, this article draws on primary source material to outline how the emergence of the Islamic State seems to have catalyzed an increase in the activity of these factions.[3]

Salafi-jihadi factions in Gaza have gained international attention in the past months amid reports of clashes between them and Hamas, which has held power in Gaza since 2007. These clashes came to international attention in May 2015 when Hamas was targeted by Salafi-jihadis challenging its authority in the territory.[4] The clashes continued into the summer. In mid-July a number of explosives were detonated near vehicles belonging to the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.[5] Rumors placed the responsibility for this attack with Islamic State-linked militants, though official responsibility has yet to be claimed. The episode illustrated the growing degree to which the Hamas-dominated political establishment in Gaza had become contested by forces at the more radical fringe of the Islamist spectrum that are dissatisfied with its politics and ideology.

Frustration with Hamas, along with exasperation over the political deadlock in Gaza, also contributed to Salafi-jihadi groups launching rocket attacks into Israel. There were at least six rocket launches between June and the beginning of August, all targeting the southern city of Ashkelon, though there were no casualties.[6] Though the rocket attacks rarely claim lives, they are used to convey a message of resistance and endurance by the groups responsible for them—both against Israel and Hamas, because Palestinians in Gaza increasingly blame the political deadlock on Hamas’s incompetent rule.

What We Know About Salafi-jihadism in Gaza
Salafism and jihadism in Gaza is difficult to map because of a large degree of overlap between the semi-clandestine groups that claim that label. The task is made more difficult by the evolution of groups, which sometimes merge or dismantle to be replaced by allegedly new groups that are essentially merely a continuation of the old ones. There is no single Salafi-jihadi group that monopolizes the Gaza arena. Neither is there any significant reliable quantitative data regarding the number of active members or supporters of different groups.[7] Reports by various factions are difficult to rely on, as Hamas seems to have a vested interest in downplaying the magnitude of this opposition.[8] Salafi-jihadis in turn seem to inflate the numbers to several thousands for obvious reasons.[9] In June 2015 an International Crisis Group analyst estimated that the ranks of Salafi-jihadis had grown from several hundreds to a few thousand in a few years—but this should be seen as a best guess based on an apparent increase in activity.[10]

It is also unclear to what degree Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza have become more militarized. And they are far from united in their approach. For example, the Salafi-jihadi group Jaysh al-Umma released a statement shortly after the mid-July bombings in which it condemned intra-Palestinian violence and emphasized the need to unify jihadi factions for the sake of combating their “true enemy,” suggesting that even among Salafi-jihadis there is ambiguity as to how problems in Gaza should be approached.[11] What can be stated with more certainty, is that the rise of the Islamic State and the political turmoil caused by the Arab Spring has significantly boosted the confidence and appeal of the transnational Salafi-jihadi movement, which will undoubtedly have also affected the Gaza Strip.

This growing appeal builds on an already complex historical relationship between Salafism and Palestinian grievances, as well as a considerable presence of Palestinian refugees and factions in Syria before the onset of the Syrian crisis.[12] Today there is a strong Palestinian contingent among Islamic State fighters  in Syria and Iraq. An estimated 120 foreign fighters have travelled there from Israel and Palestine.[13] This has created a salient connection between the Islamic State and their homelands, making the community they left behind more aware of the activities of the Islamic State and its promise of assistance to the Palestinian cause, and also enhancing the empathy for Palestinian grievances among the Islamic State and its affiliates.[14]

In June the Islamic State released a video featuring Palestinian fighters calling for the support of Palestinians, blaming their suffering on the enemies of Islam and urging them to wage jihad. They urged Palestinians back home to be patient, promising the Islamic State and Sharia law would be coming to Gaza shortly. The message specifically criticized the government of Hamas. It also included a reference to the Yarmouk refugee camp, which has become the main symbol for Palestinian suffering in Syria.[15]

In addition to such video messages, there appears to be more direct communication. One recruit to the Islamic State from Gaza has reportedly acted as a bridge between the Islamic State leadership and sympathizers in Gaza. The Islamic State has also reportedly sent money to sympathizers in Gaza to fund their travel to Syria.[16]

Recent social media releases attest to a growing Islamic State influence among Salafi-jihadis in Gaza. These include a video released by an Islamic State-linked group in Gaza-Sinai, a statement by the Islamic State about appropriate attire for women in Gaza[17], and pictures of supporters handing out copies of the Islamic State nasheed Salil al-Sawarim (Clashing of the Swords) in Gaza.[18]

Other indicators of Islamic State influence in Gaza include a pro-Islamic State rally in Gaza,[19] reported threats to Gaza-based journalists and academics by the Islamic State,[20] and a protest by Islamic State supporters near the French Cultural Center in Gaza after the Charlie Hedbo attacks.[21] However, these indicators tend to be linked to the movement in general rather than a specific Salafi-jihadi group, underlining the fragmented nature of the movement in Gaza.

Growing Tensions
In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, attacks by Salafi-jihadi groups were largely aimed at manifestations of Western culture in Gaza, such as internet cafes and hair salons. But recent attacks inside Gaza have been aimed more directly at undermining Hamas.

The charge of hypocrisy has damaged Hamas legitimacy in Gaza, and provided an opening to Salafi-jihadis. Hamas rose up against Fatah claiming it would represent the Palestinian people and fight against occupation, but now stands accused of the same corruption and restraint Hamas once decried in Fatah. Mounting frustration among Palestinians in Gaza with Israeli policies and military campaigns is perhaps where Salafi-jihadis have silently profited the most, as it has given them the opportunity to criticize, and to accuse anyone who stands in the way of their armed struggle of “protecting Israel.”[22] Salafi-jihadis have scored further points against Hamas through online campaigns showing solidarity with Salafi prisoners held in confinement in Hamas jails.[23]

A key driver of the tension is fundamental ideological difference between Salafi-jihadis and the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Hamas. As one observer recently put it, the Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood focus is:

daawa [calling people to Islam]. They spring from the center of society, which they wish to occupy. In order to achieve this, they must necessarily be moderate. Al-Qa`ida [and today’s Islamic State] is the opposite. It wishes to distance itself from society—to create a counter-society—in order to attack it.[24]

For Hamas, participation in democratic elections can be a pathway, but for the Salafi-jihadis such votes are inherently blasphemous. Another distinction is that whereas Hamas is an Islamist group that fights for a Palestinian state within certain national boundaries, Salafi-jihadis reject these boundaries. Therefore even though Salafi-jihadis may empathize and identify with Palestinian grievances, they are uninterested in establishing a Palestinian national entity. With the apparent regional marginalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, the disillusionment of many of its previous members and supporters, and the growing current of Salafi-jihadism after 2011, the rising tensions between Hamas and Salafi-jihadis were inevitable.

Salafi-jihadis are aware of Hamas’s precarious position as it finds itself caught between Israel, its competition with Fatah, and the recent isolation from Egypt. The importance of this last point cannot be overstated, as Hamas has not only lost political support from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but it now also faces the economic repercussions[25] of the Egyptian government’s new policy of isolation.[26]

Hamas has long been wary of Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza and there are good grounds for its current anxiety. It has failed on various levels to carry out its promises. It is accused of becoming what it once so vehemently opposed in Fatah: an elitist and corrupt group that has largely abandoned an effective and active struggle against Israel. A significant source of its current troubles is that it alienated several Islamist factions and especially Salafi-jihadis when it participated in the elections in 2006.

The challenge of Salafi-jihadis comes not from the military threat they pose to Hamas, but their challenge to Hamas on the ideological and political level. Salafi-jihadis have offered both a diagnosis of the problem and a religious solution for it, creating substantial pressure for “more militancy and Islamisation.”[27] All this means that tackling current Salafi-jihadi threats solely on a military level is a symptom-based and unsustainable approach to the problems Hamas faces in Gaza. What Salafi-jihadis are achieving is far more pertinent than most military campaigns would be.

Hamas is acutely aware of the challenge posed by Salafi-jihadis and this has resulted in a schizophrenic approach to other Islamist groups, tolerating the existence of Hizb ut Tahrir (allowing it, for example, to organize an event commemorating the 94th anniversary of the fall of the Islamic Caliphate earlier this year[28]) while actively fighting the presence of more militant groups such as the Salafi-jihadi Jund Ansar Allah[29] (Soldiers of God’s Supporters) after its leader declared Gaza an Islamic Emirate during a sermon in the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque in 2009.[30] This led to the eventual destruction of the mosque by Hamas, an event Salafi-jihadis still brood about and which was included in the Islamic State message to Palestinians in June as one of their main criticisms of Hamas’ rule.[31]

Hamas has reserved its greatest ire for Salafi-jihadi groups that have openly criticized it for its participation in elections and its alleged restraint in taking the battle to Israel. But rather than a full authoritarian-style oppression of any form of expression of opposition, Hamas has silently allowed a certain degree of semi-clandestine mobilization against Israel by a number of groups, several of which are Salafi-jihadi. Hamas’s rationale is that this shields it from multiple forms of criticism.  Hamas’s decision allows it to shift international blame for rocket attacks on Israel to these small groups. Hamas is also able to counter domestic critics who accuse it of entrenching itself as the dominant force in Gaza at the expense of the struggle against Israel.[32]

Jama’at Ansar
One group Hamas has shown little tolerance for is the Gaza-based Salafi-jihadi group Jama’at Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi Bayt al-Maqdis (Partisans of the Islamic State in Jerusalem). In April, following a number of unclaimed attacks blamed on Salafi-jihadis,[33] Hamas launched a major security crackdown against Jama’at Ansar. In May Hamas destroyed the al-Mutahibin Mosque[34], where the group allegedly held sermons, arresting Sheikh Yasser Abu Houly. Earlier in April, Hamas arrested prominent Salafi-jihadi activist Sheikh Adnan Mayt.[35]

In late 2014 Jama’at Ansar had allegedly declared allegiance to the Islamic State, an allegiance that remains unclear in nature.[36] There is currently no substantive independent reporting that allows an assessment of the group’s operational activity, its practical capabilities, and its ideological discourse, which means that much of what is known about the group is speculative at best.

Much of what is known about Jama’at Ansar stems from its own statements. The group has released several ultimatums directed at Hamas, including one delivered in May after Hamas cracked down on the group, in which it gave Hamas 72 hours to release Salafi detainees.[37] In May, the group also claimed responsibility for the assassination of a member of the Hamas security forces,[38] for an attack against a shop owner in Khan Younis for his support of Hamas,[39] and for targeting the Egyptian military “with 107 missiles.”[40] In the same month, it also claimed to have targeted a military site of the al-Qassam Brigades in Khan Younis “with 82mm mortar shells.”[41]

Jama’at Ansar is not the only Salafi- jihadi group that has been linked to violence. Other  groups that have operated in Gaza include  Jaysh al-Islam, Takfir wa al-Hijra, and the Mujahideen Shura Council. A group called Jaljalat is sometimes mentioned as a Salafi-jihadi group in Gaza. However, it refers to a popular song among militants and is a term used by Hamas to describe all Salafi-jihadis in Gaza. Salafi-jihadis have also denied the existence of a distinct group carrying that name. In June 2015, a new Salafi-jihadi group called the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade announced its establishment,[42] and claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks on southern Israel, although it has shown no signs of activity since.[43] These events make clear that overall there is a lot of energy in the Salafi-jihadi system in Gaza, even if it is not linked to one clear group.

Even if Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza do not have a formal organizational affiliation with the Islamic State, it is unsurprising that they feel a connection to it simply because the Islamic State is a cause that has thus far persisted against all odds—and many Palestinians in Gaza feel they need a win. As long as there is no alternative to Hamas in Gaza and to the current political establishment in the Palestinian context more generally, the ideological influence of the Islamic State will likely linger.

Whether the appeal will grow significantly in Gaza will depend on regional developments as well, with the growing number of attacks by the Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula being acutely worrying due to its proximity to Gaza. Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for three rockets that hit the Israeli town of Eshkol in July of this year. Although formal connections have not (yet) developed between Islamic State affiliates in Gaza and the Sinai, they both share both a broad ideology as well as an immediate, proximate target.[44]

Hamas has a vested interest in preventing this potential alliance or any other escalation from taking place. However, it is unlikely that this will lead to any form of security coordination with Israel, as doing so would unquestionably predicate Hamas’s loss of the ideological battle for the representation of both Islam and Palestine. Hamas’s relative silence on the matter in the past weeks seems indicative of its precarious position, as it received a lot of criticism from different Palestinian groups, including Fatah, for its crackdown on Salafi-jihadis earlier this spring and summer. It seems that Hamas does not want to be lured into responding to these groups with force again unless absolutely necessary, fearing it will damage its position among Palestinians.

Samar Batrawi is a Dutch-Palestinian PhD candidate at King’s College London. She has worked for the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in Ramallah, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London, and the Clingendael Institute for International Relations in The Hague. Her work has appeared in Foreign Affairs Magazine and the CTC Sentinel. Follow her at @SamarBatrawi.

[1] This article does not discuss Salafi-jihadism in the West Bank, as it is important to distinguish between Gaza and the West Bank. Salafism has thrived on and promoted socio-religious conservatism in Gaza, something that is more difficult to achieve under the internationally backed, Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, whose policy of strict control of not only the political and military arena but also social spaces of intellectual and religious expression make it more difficult for Salafi-jihadis to organize and mobilize

[2] The Combating Terrorism Center generally uses the term “jihadi” rather than “Salafi-jihadi” to describe such groups. But the term “Salafi-jihadi” is used in this article by the author to help distinguish these groups from Hamas.

[3] This article builds upon previous analysis of Salafi-jihadi activism in Gaza in the CTC Sentinel, including an article profiling groups active in 2010. See Benedetta Berti, “Salafi-Jihadi Activism in Gaza,” CTC Sentinel, 3: 5 (2010): pp. 5-9. For the selection of sources used in this article, the author wishes to acknowledge the courageous investigative journalism by Palestinians living in Gaza and reporting on Salafism such as Asmaa al-Ghoul, and the indispensable collection of primary data on Salafi-jhadism by researchers such as Aaron Y. Zelin and Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi.

[4] Diaa Hadid and Majd al Waheidi, “ISIS Allies Target Hamas and Energize Gaza Extremists,” New York Times, July 1, 2015.

[5] Jack Khoury, “ISIS Suspected in Car Bombing of Hamas, Islamic Jihad Men in Gaza,” Ha’aretz, July 19, 2015.

[6] For a full list of rocket attacks, see the Israel Security Agency’s monthly reports of attacks, which include all rocket attacks from Gaza. “Monthly Summary – June 2015,” Israel Security Agency, June, 2015;  “Israel Strikes Gaza Targets after Rocket Fired at Ashkelon Area,” Ha’aretz, 16 July, 2015; “Two Rockets Fired from Gaza towards Israel,” Ha’aretz, August 2, 2015.

[7] Analysts have emphasized that Islamic State–affiliated groups make up a very small proportion of the total population of Gaza, see Benedetta Berti, “Hamas’ Islamic State Woes,” Sada Journal, May 28, 2015; John Reed, “Hamas Seeks to Stamp out ISIS in Gaza,” Financial Times, June 1, 2015.

[8] “Hamas Says Islamic State has no Foothold in Gaza Strip,” Reuters, May 14, 2015.

[9] “Al Qaida-Inspired Jihadi Movement Growing in Gaza, Says Group Leader,” Ha’aretz, March 10, 2014.

[10] Hadid and al Waheidi.

[11] Jaysh Al-Ummah, “About the Car Bombings that Targeted the Resistance Factions in Gaza,” Jihadology, June 20, 2015.

[12] For an excellent background see Thomas Hegghammer and Joas Wagemakers, “The Palestine Effect: The Role of Palestinians in the Transnational Jihad Movement,” Die Welt Des Islams, 53 (2013): pp. 281-314.

[13] This number is from a report in January 2015 by Peter Neumann, “Foreign Fighter Total in Syria/Iraq not Exceeds 20,000; Surpasses Afghanistan Conflict in the 1980s,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, January 26, 2015.

[14] See this collection of pictures on the pro-Islamic State contingent in Gaza from 2014: Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “Muhajireen Battalions in Syria (Part Three),” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi’s Blog, June 23, 2014.

[15] Islamic State, “Message to Our People in Jerusalem,” Jihadology, June 30, 2015.

[16] Hadid and al Waheidi.

[17] “Ghazza: Da’ish Yad’u al-Nisa’ Lil-Iltizam Bil-Hijab al-Shar’i,” Al-Masdar, November 30, 2014.

[18] See

[19] See

[20] Adnan Abu Amer, “Tensions Renew Between Hamas, IS in Gaza,” Al-Monitor, April 15, 2015

[21] See

[22] “Al-Salafiyya Al-Jihadiyya Fi Ghazza Tatahim Hamas Bi-Tasfiyat A’da’iha Jasadiya Li-Himayat Isra’il,” El Watan, May 8, 2013.

[23] See

[24] Senior adviser to the head of the Israeli Security Agency quoted in “Radical Islam in Gaza,” International Crisis Group, March 29, 2011, p. 6.

[25] “Hamas Civil Servants go on Strike in Gaza,” Ma’an News Agency, May 12, 2015.

[26] Most recently, Egypt announced its decision to evacuate 10,000 homes in the expansion of its Gaza buffer zone, see “Egypt to Evacuate 10,000 Homes in Gaza Buffer Zone Expansion,” Ma’an News Agency June 6, 2015.

[27] “Radical Islam in Gaza,” International Crisis Group, March 29, 2011, p. 5.

[28] “Hizb al-Tahrir fi Ghazza Yuhya al-Thikra 94 li-Ilgha’ al-Khilafa,” Al-Bawaba, May 17, 2015.

[29] Jund Ansar Allah was allegedly responsible for the very first Salafi-jihadi attack in Gaza in 2001 and was led by ex-Hamas militants (mostly low-level Qassam Brigades members) disillusioned by the group’s policies. It practically ceased to exist after the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque clashes. Jaysh al-Islam is another Salafi-jihadi group that similarly consists of former Hamas affiliates, and is perhaps most notorious for its involvement in the abduction of Gilad Shalit. For more background on Jaysh al-Islam see “Radical Islam in Gaza,” International Crisis Group, March 29, 2011, pp. 8-11.

[30] For more on Jund Ansar Allah see “Jund Ansar Allah Profile,” BBC, August 15, 2009.

[31] Islamic State, “Message to Our People in Jerusalem,” Jihadology, June 30, 2015.

[32] For an excellent background study on the Fatah-Hamas rivalry and how it has affected the security sectors in the West Bank and Gaza, see Yezid Sayigh, “Policing the People, Building the State: Authoritarian Transformation in the West Bank and Gaza,” Carnegie Endowment, February 2011.

[33] Asmaa Al-Ghoul, “Hamas Cracks Down on Salafists in Gaza Strip,” Al-Monitor, May 10, 2015

[34] “Qiyadi Salafi Yattahim Hamas Bi Hadm Masjid Wasat al-Qita’,” Quds Net News Agency, May 3, 2015.

[35] Al-Ghoul, “Hamas Cracks Down on Salafists in Gaza Strip,” Al-Monitor, May 10, 2015.

[36] For a substantive discussion of the pledge of allegiance and possible links to the Islamic State, see Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “Jihadi Debate over Jamaat Ansar a;-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis,” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi’s Blog, January 2, 2015.

[37] “Jama’at Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiyya Fi Bayt al-Maqdis al-Salafiyya Tuhaddid Hamas Bi-Istikhdam al-Quwwa Min Ajl al-Ifraj ‘An ‘Unsarha,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, May 4, 2015, and Asmaa Al-Ghoul, “Hamas Cracks Down on Salafists in Gaza Strip,” Al-Monitor, May 10, 2015.

[38] A copy of the statement (in Arabic) can be found here

[39] Jama’at Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi Bayt al-Maqdis, “Targeting an Officer from the Apostate Government in Gaza Inside his Shop,” Jihadology, May 30, 2015.

[40] Jama’at Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi Bayt al-Maqdis, “Targeting the Apostate Egyptian Military with 107 Missiles,” Jihadology, May 17, 2015.

[41] Jama’at Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi Bayt al-Maqdis, “Targeting the Military Site of al-Qassam Brigades West of Khan Younis,” Jihadology, May 7, 2015.

[42] Sarayyah Sheikh Umar al-Haddid Bayt al-Maqdis, “Ashdod First, and Next Worse Orders,” Jihadology, June, 2015.

[43] “Salafists Claim Responsibility for Rocket, Israel Launches Strikes,” Ma’an News Agency, June 7, 2015.

[44] “IS Affiliate in Egypt Claims Rocket Attack on Israel,” BBC News, July 4, 2015.


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