A 28-year old Palestinian from an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem drove a truck into a group of Israeli soldiers on 8 January, in a scene hauntingly similar to that which took place on the French Riviera last summer, where another truck was used to mow civilians in Nice on Bastille Day, killing 86 people. That attack was claimed by ISIS, while Sunday’s attack has been blamed on ISIS by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Steadily, ISIS has been gaining popularity within the Palestinian territories. In 2014, two Palestinian men, reportedly inspired by ISIS, walked into a Jerusalem synagogue, axing and stabbing Israeli worshippers with knives. Four were killed immediately and one officer later died from his wounds. Last October, Israeli authorities arrested six Palestinians from the Shuafat Camp in north-eastern Jerusalem, accused of being members of ISIS. Palestine is not immune to the indoctrination and brainwashing being carried out by ISIS throughout the Islamic World.
Within Syria itself, hundreds of Palestinians are found on both sides of the frontlines, fighting either with the armed opposition in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp near Damascus, or with pro-regime Palestinian militias. Members of ISIS firmly believe in the utmost need to set up an Islamic state ruled by a caliph. This is mentioned in the prophet’s hadith and is a consistent theme in jihadi literature — always popular with poor and underdeveloped communities, especially in places like Gaza City.
Held for the past decade by Hamas, itself a jihadi militia, Gaza is a perfect incubator for radical Islam. Years of sieges, wars and bad government are among the many reasons why ISIS always finds recruits in Gaza. Youth unemployment stands at 60% and 40% of the region’s population lives below the poverty line, suffering from a lack of basic services such as electricity, water, and sewerage. In such conditions, fanaticism only increases, eating away at people’s minds and pushing them toward groups like ISIS.
In 2015, a militia emerged in Gaza called the Omar Hadid Brigade. Having started out as a group of 50, according to sources in West Bank intelligence, it now boasts no fewer than 3,000 men. It was named after a young al-Qaeda-affiliated Iraqi militant who had fought the US occupation of his country, setting up a resistance cell in his native Falluja, 69 kilometers west of Baghdad. He was killed in 2004 but his story inspired Palestinian teens to set up a militia carrying his name, 10 years later. Hadid had hailed from the powerful Dulaim tribe of Iraq, making him a relative of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s third wife, Sajida al-Dulaimi. The choice of name is no accident – “Omar Hadid” will ring a bell with al-Baghdadi and many Iraqis who lived the Falluja uprising and are now members of ISIS.
Most of the Palestinian young who joined the Omar Hadid Brigade were ex-Hamas fighters who knew Gaza City inside out, and had access to its arms, weapons storehouses, and secret coffers. They also knew the homes of Hamas commanders and started to come after them, one by one, accusing them of being too soft when it came to Israel, especially after Hamas leaders toyed with the idea of a ten-year truce with the Jewish State. In May 2015 they killed Hamas commander Saber Siam in a car bomb in Gaza, and senior figures have received death threats. They claim Hamas has fallen back on its original mission, the destruction of Israel, and gotten too worked up with the trappings of government. ISIS promises to deliver in Gaza where Hamas has failed since 2007.
Most Palestinian members of ISIS were lured into terrorism by the Israeli occupation itself, as well as by poverty and indoctrination from another ISIS-affiliate, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has been active in the nearby Sinai Peninsula since 2012: the founders of the Egyptian branch of ISIS helped their Palestinian comrades set up the Gazan ISIS-affiliate. Using fake Yemeni, Sudanese, and Libyan passports, these Palestinian militants went to Sinai disguised as drivers and cooks, to procure arms. They were given NATO weapons, stolen from the Libyan battlefield, which had been smuggled into Gaza then seemingly found their way into Israel itself and into the West Bank.
In their online videos, these Palestinians play ISIS anthems, carry its black flag, and have pledged the oath, or bay’a, to its “caliph”, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They are also toying with the idea of giving themselves a more Palestinian name that resonates better with locals in Gaza. One option is “Ahfad al-Sahaba” (Grandchildren of the Prophet’s Companion). They have not received any direct assistance from the caliph, however, since Baghdadi never stretches his resources and doesn’t bite off more than he can chew. Other affiliate groups have mushroomed in recent years — in Nigeria, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt — but Baghdadi has refused to send them money, arms, and fighters. The most he has given is his blessing and a franchise — plenty, from a jihadi perspective, since it comes from the “caliph” himself.
The more Gaza slips into poverty and chaos, the higher the defection rate from Hamas will become. If Hamas’ leaders were wise and pragmatic — and they seemingly are not — they would quickly reposition themselves as partners in the global war on terror, rather than outlaws, and extend a helping hand to whoever is willing to help them fight ISIS — even if it’s Israel itself. Instead, they released an official statement on Twitter last Sunday, showering the Jerusalem attacker with praise, and hailing him as a martyr. With friends like these for the Palestinians, and ISIS mushrooming by the day, who really needs enemies anymore?
Asia Times, 11 January 2017