Tensions are rising in Gaza between the Palestinian group Hamas and Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya Fi Bayt al-Maqdis (The Supporters Of Islamic State In Jerusalem), a Salafist faction that considers itself loyal to the Islamic State (IS) group.
The flare-up was sparked on May 3 when Hamas destroyed a mosque belonging to the Supporters Of Islamic State In Jerusalem (SISJ) in the coastal enclave's Deir al-Balah city.
SISJ responded to the demolition of the mosque by issuing a statement threatening to carry out actions against Hamas targets if the Palestinian group did not release several SISJ militants who were detained in Gaza last month.
A Twitter account linked to the SISJ tweeted on May 3 that they would give Hamas 72 hours to release the Salafist prisoners or face the consequences.
One of the individuals whose release SISJ is demanding is Sheikh Adnan Khader Mayyat, a radical Salafist whom Hamas says has ties to IS. After Mayyat's arrest, sources close to the Salafist group in Gaza accused Hamas of fighting "mujahedin [jihadist fighters] who belong to the Salafist movement."
According to Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm, the Supporters Of Islamic State In Jerusalem statement said that three bulldozers had demolished the mosque, "in a manner that even the Jewish and American Occupation has not done."
The SISJ said the mosque had been teaching "ordinary Muslims" about Islam in a way that was "far from the politicized mosques that are occupied by Hamas and other Palestinian factions."
The SISJ added that, "in the light of Hamas' new behavior, we renew our loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and call on him to strengthen his influence and to launch a campaign in Palestine and to unite in the fight against the Jews and their accomplices."
It is unclear whether SISJ has carried out any actions against Hamas. The group does not appear to have claimed responsibility for a bomb blast near a Hamas facility north of Gaza City early on May 4, though the attack was attributed to "Salafist groups" by activists on social media, according to Al-Masry al-Youm.
IS In Gaza?
Hamas has also insisted that IS does not have a presence in the coastal enclave. Iyad al-Bozom, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Gaza, told Al-Monitor on April 15 that "IS is not present in Gaza," while Youssef Rizqa, a former Hamas information minister and a political adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, said that "news about the arrests of IS supporters is exaggerated since there are no extremist groups in Gaza."
As Al-Monitor's Adnan Abu Amer pointed out, Hamas's insistence that IS has any kind of network or presence in Gaza is apparently aimed at countering Israeli and Egyptian allegations that pro-IS militants fled from Sinai to Gaza.
But while IS does not have an official branch in Gaza, the extremist Sunni group has attracted supporters, says Dr. Matthew Levitt, an expert on Hamas at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
"ISIS does not exist in Gaza as such, but it's popularity has certainly affected radicalized individuals," Levitt tells RFE/RL, using an alternative acronym for IS. "The bombings of Hamas institutions appears to underscore that, but the existence of radical and violent Salafi-jihadi groups goes back several years."
The extent to which IS has gained traction among Salafist individuals in Gaza is unclear, and there has been some debate over whether SISJ constitutes an IS network in the coastal enclave.
In January, Gaza journalist Asmaa al-Ghoul quoted a leading IS sympathizer in Gaza, 63-year-old Abu al-Walid, as saying that while IS leader Baghdadi "has not accepted the allegiance of any Salafist individuals or groups in the Gaza Strip."
The reason, according to Walid, was that pro-IS groups in Gaza are "dispersed and divided." However, Walid insisted that "there is an IS-affiliated group in the Gaza Strip and it is not a bunch of divided individuals."
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who researches jihadist groups at Israel's Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs, has also noted the debates over whether SISJ represents an IS network in Gaza. He wrote in January that there was "considerable controversy even within pro-IS circles about the nature of this claimed group," a phenomenon that is symptomatic of the divided nature of the Salafi jihadist movement in Gaza.
Yet amid the debate and confusion over IS's role in Gaza, the fissures between Hamas and pro-IS Salafist groups have bubbled to the surface.
Even before this week's mosque demolition, there were bloody clashes between Hamas and pro-IS Palestinians -- albeit not in Gaza but in Syria, where IS militants battled with the pro-Hamas group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus.
The clashes in Yarmouk caused expressions of support for IS by individuals and groups in Gaza, a Gaza security official told Al-Monitor, saying that Salafists in the coastal enclave had "issued statements in support of what is going on there, including the massacres against the Palestinians, while some preached in mosques, praising IS's roles and actions."
Previously, in February, IS supporters in Gaza exchanged words with Islam Shahwan, a former Hamas official, in a social-media debate in the wake of IS's execution-style killing of a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.
What is notable about the debate is that pro-IS supporters focused on criticizing Hamas's behavior toward Gaza residents: while Shahwan argued that IS militants must be in league with the United States because they had been able to film its massacre of the Copts without fear that of attack by U.S.-led forces, IS supporters countered by saying that Hamas had shot Israeli "informants" in Gaza in August 2014 without fear of Israel bombing them.
Regardless of the extent to which SISJ represents a real and substantive pro-IS network in Gaza, recent events in the strip have allowed the group to further highlight its opposition to Hamas rule.
According to Foreign Policy, individuals associated with SISJ have issued statements on Twitter condemning Hamas's treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, who faced "arrest, torture, murder, and displacement at the hands of Hamas."
SISJ, meanwhile, took pains to point out that Hamas was "wrong and disappointed" in its hesitance to believe that IS had a presence in Palestine.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk