For me, Matthew Levitt is hit or miss. Sometimes he makes a lot of sense while other times it seems as though he has no idea. His recent article for the Washington Institute for the Near East completely exemplifies Levitt’s academic schizophrenia. In his article, “When Yemen Meets Gaza,” Levitt is coherent about 80% of the time and frustratingly ignorant for the last 20%. The first part of the article speaks about the Al Qaeda influenced militant groups in Gaza – such as Jaish al-Islam or Jund Ansar Allah – and mentions that AQ has not accepted the Palestinian factions into the AQ family for various reasons. Levitt emphasizes that these groups are in the minority and that Hamas is cracking down on the jihadist groups and that the more globally focused groups do not pose a threat to Hamas’ rule in Gaza. Levitt even stresses that Al Qaeda and Hamas differ in many ways and are not related in any way. A sample:
Since al Qaeda-inspired groups threaten Hamas’s authority, it is no surprise that Hamas has cracked down on them. What is surprising is that such groups have failed so far to connect more formally with al Qaeda, given al Qaeda’s recent antipathy to Hamas and its history of incorporating local conflicts into its global jihadist campaign.
Al Qaeda likely remains unconvinced of the ideological commitment of groups like Jaish al-Islam, whose leader, Mumtaz Dughmush, is better known for his criminal past than his religious zealotry. Al Qaeda may also have concerns about the survivability of such groups, and it may be waiting patiently for groups to establish themselves before accepting them into the fold of its global jihadist movement.
Unfortunately, Levitt ends his piece with this nugget:
Some have argued that the existence of al Qaeda-inspired groups in Gaza means that Hamas is no longer the worst option and that Israel should engage with Hamas without preconditions, lest al Qaeda take over. In fact, the global jihadist groups in Gaza lack grassroots support and are in no position to challenge Hamas’s authority as the governing entity, let alone take over the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Hamas remains at the heart of the problem. Despite Hamas’s ideological differences with al Qaeda leaders and its violent crackdown on global jihadists in Gaza, its own radicalization has ironically created an ideal springboard for still more extreme radicalization. When one ideologically motivated suicide bomber becomes a role model, all ideologically motivated suicide bombers become role models.
[tweetmeme] The jihadist groups in Gaza are gaining strength (members still only number in the tens to hundreds, though) because Hamas has become less radical since taking control of the government. Levitt even implies the moderating evolution of Hamas by saying that Hamas has been “engaging in secular politics, failing to institute sharia law, and cracking down on fellow Palestinians who attack Israel or threaten its rule” and that such policies have “created a vacuum that global jihadist groups, often populated by disgruntled Hamas operatives, have been keen to fill.” Somehow Levitt manages to give evidence that a more moderate Hamas is increasing the popularity of jihadist activity and say that the increasing radicalization of the group is inspiring jihadist activity in Gaza.
Furthermore, Hamas more-or-less gave up suicide bombing as a means of resistance when it took control of Gaza in 2006. The only reason for Levitt’s insinuation that Hamas still produces suicide bombers is to motivate his readers against the Islamic group. Particularly after America’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan – and most recently in Afghanistan when seven CIA agents were killed by a Jordanian-Palestinian suicide bomber – Americans and westerners in general tend to most closely associate terrorism with suicide bombers. Thus, by implying that suicide bombing is a favorite tactic of Hamas – and again, it isn’t – Levitt is reiterating westerners views of Hamas as a terrorist group. While Hamas still targets Israeli citizens, making it a terrorist organization, the way in which Levitt associates Hamas with terrorism is not only deceptive and misleading, but also false.
It is important to watch the growth of jihadist movements in Gaza and, perhaps more important, to monitor the continued evolution of Hamas. Eventually it will be necessary to engage with Hamas; the group is simply not going to just go away. The sooner governments understand this, the sooner they will start to nurture the more moderate factions of the organization. By implying that Hamas is continually radicalizing, Levitt is trying to justify the very policies that are undermining the very evolution that the west – particularly the US and Israel – must try to encourage. The most radical members of Hamas have split into jihadist factions because Hamas has not seen any reward – namely, an easing of the Israeli blockade – for its movement away from a more radical political philosophy. By engaging Hamas and demonstrating that the west sees and understands the more moderate gestures Hamas has made, the US and Israel can incentivize the group to continue its course. Levitt’s article is an attempt to convince its readers to ignore any evolution of the Islamic organization, to follow the more hardline policy towards Gaza and to justify the continued suffocation of the strip. Such policies will create more support for jihadist groups that Hamas is, thankfully, suppressing while undermining the factions of Hamas that may be open to a peaceful settlement for the region.
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