The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which Palestinians hope will one day become part of a future Palestinian state, is quickly sliding toward anarchy and chaos.
Since its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007, Hamas has maintained a tight grip on the area, home to some 1.7 million Palestinians. But now Hamas's totalitarian rule over the Gaza Strip seems to be nearing its end, as the Islamist movement faces increased challenges from various militias and groups in the area.
Some of Hamas's rivals belong to more radical terror groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda-affiliated militias created by salafi-jihadis inside the Gaza Strip. Others belong to the secular Fatah faction, whose members continue to dream of the day when they will be able to topple the Hamas regime and regain control over the Gaza Strip.
The radical Islamist terror groups are seeking to overthrow Hamas because they believe that the movement is too "soft" when it comes to implementing sharia laws and fighting against Israel. The goal of these groups is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Gaza Strip and wipe Israel off the face of the earth.
In a recent video posted on the Internet, the Islamic State announced that its men would soon reach the Gaza Strip and remove the Hamas "tyrants" from power. "By Allah's will, we will uproot the state of the Jews and you [Hamas] and others will vanish as the Gaza Strip will be ruled by sharia whether you like it or not," warned a masked spokesman for the Islamic State.
Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip say that the Islamic State has managed over the past few months to recruit hundreds of young men to its ranks. According to the sources, most of the men who joined the Islamic State are former members of the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in addition to a number of disgruntled Fatah militiamen who are unhappy with the policies of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the leader of its Fatah movement, Mahmoud Abbas -- especially his declared opposition to terror attacks against Israel.
Palestinians waving Islamic State flags attempt to storm the French Cultural Center in Gaza City, in January 2015. (Image source: ehna tv YouTube screenshot)
Late last year, a salafi-jihadi militia in the Gaza Strip pledged allegiance to Islamic State, posing yet another major challenge to Hamas.
Until recently, Hamas leaders used to boast about their movement's success in restoring law and order after years of anarchy and lawlessness under the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. But the "utopia" that Hamas claims to have created is facing an existential threat, as the Gaza Strip witnesses a sharp increase in internal violence. Some Palestinians are even beginning to wonder whether Hamas has already lost control over the entire Gaza Strip.
The violence reached its peak last week when a series of simultaneous explosions rocked the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City. The explosions targeted the cars of six senior commanders of the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. No casualties were reported.
The latest bombings are considered a severe blow to Hamas, particularly in light of the fact that they occurred in an area heavily guarded by its security forces.
Some reports suggested that the Islamic State was behind the attacks, which came as a shock to Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in the Gaza Strip.
A number of Hamas officials said they did not rule out the possibility that Fatah members were behind the explosions. The officials claim that Fatah has an interest in showing the world that Hamas is not in control of the situation in the Gaza Strip. In the past, Hamas accused Fatah of being behind another wave of bombings that also targeted its men in the Gaza Strip.
In public, however, Hamas leaders do not like to admit that their movement is also being challenged by supporters of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda inside the Gaza Strip. For these leaders, it is more convenient to blame "Israeli occupation" for the violence, on the pretext that Israel is the only party interested in removing Hamas from power.
This claim, however, has proven to be untrue in wake of public threats by various Palestinian groups against Hamas. The attempt to lay the blame at Israel's door reflects the growing anxiety of the Hamas leadership, which has stubbornly and consistently denied the existence of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda terrorists inside the Gaza Strip.
Here is what Ismail al-Ashqar, a top Hamas official, had to say about the latest bombings: "Gaza shall remain secure and calm and stable, and there will be no return to the previous state of anarchy as the occupation and its collaborators wish. The Israeli occupation is fully responsible for the explosions."
Ashqar acknowledged that relations between his movement and Fatah were "very bad and tense," especially in the aftermath of the Palestinian Authority's recent crackdown on Hamas men in the West Bank. In recent weeks, according to Palestinian sources, PA security forces in the West Bank have arrested more than 250 Hamas men, on suspicion that they were plotting to undermine President Mahmoud Abbas's regime.
The confrontation between Hamas and its rivals inside the Gaza Strip is likely to escalate in the coming weeks and months. Hamas now has so many enemies inside the Gaza Strip that to combat them, it would have to step up its repressive measures. These measures, however, will only lead to more retaliatory attacks by anti-Hamas forces, and plunge the Gaza Strip into a state of increased anarchy and chaos. Many Palestinians are worried that the Gaza Strip will sooner or later fall into the hands of Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, such a threat does not exist, largely thanks to Israeli security measures against terror infrastructure and cells. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, is also waging a massive campaign against Hamas and other Islamist groups in the West Bank. The PA is not doing this out of concern for the "peace process" with Israel; Mahmoud Abbas and his lieutenants know that these Islamists will kill them first on their way to killing Jews.
The growing state of anarchy in the Gaza Strip, as well as the continued power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, do not bode well for those who still believe that the creation of a Palestinian state will bring about peace and stability in the region. The way things are going these days, particularly in the Gaza Strip, it seems that a future Palestinian state will be added to the list of Arab countries that are currently witnessing civil wars and bloodbaths.
It is time for the international community to wake up and realize that the Palestinian dream of establishing an independent state is being destroyed by none other than the Palestinians themselves.