The Islamic State and Hamas Compete for Gaza

Last summer, Gaza survived a conflict that left much of its infrastructure destroyed. Now the strip of territory of is facing competition between Hamas and the Islamic State.

A displaced Palestinian family returns home amid the destruction in part of the northern Beit Hanun district of Gaza Strip after a 72-hour truce accepted by Israel and Hamas came into effect on August 5, 2014. Israel and Hamas said they have agreed a new 72-hour truce, after increasingly vocal international demands for a ceasefire in the bloody 29-day-old Gaza conflict. AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, Islamic militants have portrayed Israel as the greatest threat to Palestinians on the Gaza Strip. But a weekend mosque attack signals that Palestinians living on the strip may be caught in the crossfire of competing militant factions — both of which call themselves the protectors of Gaza residents.

Palestinian forces operating under Hamas on Sunday reportedly destroyed a mosque allied with the Islamic State. Hamas took seven Salafists hostage in a move the Islamic State said “is going too far.”

If the Islamic State has much of a presence in the Palestinian territories, it has remained relatively quiet over the last year, even as it has bolstered its reach across Syria, Iraq, and more recently, Libya. The extremist group beheaded several Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria last month, spurring a vow of revenge from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Responding to the mosque attack, militants that claim to be supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem said they would give Hamas 72 hours to release the Salafist hostages or face unspecified violent consequences, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online jihadist messaging.

The Islamic State also sought to tar Hamas’ treatment of Gaza residents. A statement on Twitter said Palestinians in Gaza faced “arrest, torture, murder, and displacement at the hands of Hamas.”

A separate video released by the Islamic State on Monday features a fighter standing over spoils from Yarmouk, saying: “They [Hamas] claim that they protect those people, but by Allah, they have nothing to do with our Muslim people in Palestine.”

By contrast, the Islamic State said its militants have protected Gaza residents from “seas of blood,” according to a SITE translation.

But Hamas, who even founded a six-member singing group called “Protectors of the Homeland” in 2007, consider the Islamic State to be the threat to Gaza’s safety. Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

Some Salafist factions in the Palestinian territories and Gaza have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In February, a Palestinian journalist was reportedly kidnapped and tortured by a group of militants identifying themselves as members of the Islamic State.

But Palestinian authorities remain wary of how legitimate these allegiances are — despite sightings of Islamic State flags and reports of a limited number of Palestinians traveling to Syria to join the jihadists there.

Sunday’s threat even addressed Palestine’s reluctance to believe in the presence of the Islamic State in Palestine.

“They are wrong and disappointed,” the statement said.