By KHALED ABU TOAMEH, GATESTONE—
Hamas and other Palestinian groups are continuing to deny the obvious, namely that the Islamic State terror group has managed to set up bases of power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians do not feel comfortable talking about the fact that Islamic State is working hard to recruit Palestinians to its ranks.
The presence of Islamic State in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is an embarrassing development for both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
For Hamas, the fact that Islamic State has long been operating in the Gaza Strip is something that it does not want the world to know about.
Hamas cannot afford a situation where another Islamist terror group poses a challenge to its exclusive control over the Gaza Strip. Since it seized control over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas has successfully suppressed the emergence of rival forces, first and foremost the secular Fatah faction headed by Mahmoud Abbas.
But if until recently it was Fatah that posed a challenge and threat to Hamas’s rule, now it is the Islamic State and its supporters in the Gaza Strip are openly defying the Islamist movement’s regime.
When the first reports about Islamic State’s presence in the Gaza Strip emerged last year, Hamas and other Palestinians were quick to dismiss them as “false.”
Salah Bardaweel, a senior Hamas official, said in February 2014 that the Islamic State “does not exist” in the Gaza Strip.
This week, however, it became evident that Hamas was lying when it denied the presence of Islamic State in the Gaza Strip.
Some 200 supporters of the Islamic State, who held up Islamic State flags, took to the streets of Gaza City to protest the latest cartoons published by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
The protesters tried to storm the offices of the French Cultural Center in Gaza City. They also chanted slogans that called for slaughtering French nationals, and burned the French flag.
Palestinians waving Islamic State flags attempt to storm the French Cultural Center in Gaza City. Some in the crowd carried posters glorifying the terrorists who carried out this month’s attacks in Paris.
The protest apparently caught Hamas by surprise. Hamas security forces that were rushed to the scene dispersed the protesters and arrested seven Islamic State supporters.
Attempts by Hamas to impose a news blackout on the Islamic State protest failed, as photos and videos of the demonstration found their way to social media. Needless to say, Hamas-affiliated media outlets ignored the protest. They were hoping that the world would also not see the Islamic State demonstrators on the streets of Gaza City.
Hamas’s biggest fear is that scenes of Islamic State supporters marching in the heart of Gaza City will scare international donors and dissuade them from providing badly needed funds for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. Hamas is also afraid that Western officials working with the United Nations and relief agencies will stop visiting the Gaza Strip after watching the footage of Islamic State supporters.
In recent weeks, it has also become evident that Islamic State has some kind of a presence in the West Bank — a fact that poses a serious threat to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority .
Just last week, Israel announced arrests of members of an Islamic State terror cell in the West Bank city of Hebron. The three Palestinian members of the cell confessed during interrogation that had planned to launch a series of terror attacks against Israel. The three suspects were identified as Waddah Shehadeh, 22, Fayyad al-Zaru, 21 and Qusai Maswaddeh, 23.
Until recently, Hamas was considered the number one threat to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Now, however, it has become evident that Islamic State is also trying to set up bases of power in the West Bank. According to Israeli security sources, dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members in the West Bank have defected to Islamic State in recent months. Their main goal, the sources, said, is to topple the PA and launch terror attacks on Israel.
Abbas is lucky that the Israeli security forces are still operating in the West Bank, including inside cities and towns controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Were it not for the IDF and various branches of the Israeli security establishment, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Islamic State would have toppled the Palestinian Authority and beheaded Abbas and his officials a long time ago.
Still, Abbas does not feel comfortable acknowledging the fact that a growing number of Palestinians in the West Bank are joining Islamic State. Abbas fears is that if he admits that Islamic State is already operating in the West Bank, this could dissuade many Western countries from supporting his effort to persuade the world to support the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Like Hamas, Abbas also fears that Westerners would stop visiting Ramallah and other West Bank Palestinian cities once they learn about Islamic State’s presence in these areas.
Although Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are continuing to bury their heads in the sand and deny what is there, they cannot avoid responsibility for the emergence of Islamic State in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The glorification of terrorists and jihadists by the PA and the ongoing anti-Israel incitement by both the PA and Hamas, are driving many Palestinians into the open arms of the Islamic State.
This is something that the UN Security Council members will have to consider the next time they are asked to vote in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state. Otherwise, they will be voting for the creation of an Islamic, and not a Palestinian, state.