Benjamin T. Decker, a Tel Aviv-based geopolitical security analyst, writes for EA:
Last Wednesday, 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of explosives destroyed the French Cultural Center on Victor Hugo Street in downtown Gaza City.
The Interior Ministry of Hamas claimed that the explosions were caused by gas leaks from nearby fuel tanks, but several hours later a mysterious document asserted that the attack was carried out by Islamic State (IS) militants. The statement claimed that the French Cultural Center was targeted because it served as a base for immorality and heresy.
The attack would be the first IS operation in the Gaza Strip, confirming fears of Israeli and Palestinian security officials of a radicalization of local Islamic militants.
However, there were questions about the authenticity of the statement, given that it was dated October 10, two days after it was released. Then a second document claimed that the attack was not carried out by the Islamic State, as their primary mission is “implementing Sharia law in Islamic lands and murdering the children of Zion”. The bombing may have had a local motivation, sending a strong message to the Palestinian unity government which met for the first time on Thursday in Gaza City.
A Build-Up of the Islamic State in Gaza?
Reports of the Islamic State’s presence in the Gaza Strip first emerged in February, when the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem issued a statement and video pledging allegiance to the jihadists. The Council called on IS and the Syrian Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra, linked to Al Qa’eda, to resolve their internal issues so an Islamic Caliphate could be established.
Even before this, scores of Gaza residents were reportedly involved in IS operations in Iraq and Syria, including a suicide bombing by Wissam al-Atal, a doctor. Later, Gazan members of IS formed their own contingent, the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Brigade.
Since the appearance of the February video, Hamas officials have consistently rejected the notion of an IS presence in the Gaza Strip. However, in late June, Egyptian special forces arrested 15 men in the Sinai Peninsula, saying they had entered through an underground tunnel from Gaza. Both Egyptian security officials and Hamas officials quickly dismissed the possibility that the militants were aligned with IS, but reports claimed that the militants admitted in interrogations that their goal was to establish communication with potential recruits to attack the Egyptian Government. Almost two weeks later on July 8, alleged members of the Beit al-Maqdis unit, linked to IS, uploaded a YouTube claiming responsibility for several homemade rockets fired into Israeli territory during the 50-day war between Gaza and Israel.
Ultimately, it is not definite whether or not there is an established IS presence in the Gaza Strip. However, the renewed Palestinian effort for Gazan reconstruction offers a unique opportunity for hardline Islamist factions to create divisions between those seeking peace and those seeking to renew hostilities with Israel.
The Islamic State could destabilize the current political environment in Gaza through operations intent on preventing foreign entities — notably Western cultural centers and commercial interests — from safely conducting business in the Gaza Strip, as well as through pattacks on Israeli communities bordering the territory. Given the shared interest of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to portray a safe and stable Gaza Strip, local security forces will likely maintain public silence about any IS presence, while at the same time discreetly cracking down on anyone connected to the October 8 attack.
But that local effort may only fuel the determination of the Islamic State or other jihadists for a public attack to unsettle the political negotiations. On Sunday, the Palestinian government is likely to ask an international donors’ conference for $4 billion for reconstruction of Gaza. Any additional attacks — whether or not they can be tied to the Islamic State — will jeopardize that effort.
(Featured Photo: Aftermath of Wednesday’s bombing of the French Cultural Center in Gaza)