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One month ago, the Islamic State (also called ISIS) released a video message to the people of Palestine. The video, in which ISIS members urged Palestinians to remain patient as they actively fight for the caliphate, included a rare public reference to clashes in Gaza between suspected ISIS affiliates and Hamas earlier this year. The clashes were triggered by a mixture of factors, including the ongoing siege of Gaza, the area’s increased isolation from Egypt, and Hamas’ poor record of governing. With violence apparently increasing in the Palestinian territories—to the extent that some observers have even speculated about the possibility of a third intifada and potential power vacuum—the question of ISIS’ real intentions in the region has never been more pressing.
PALESTINE IN HISTORY
Palestine has long been at the center of one of the most heated and polarizing global debates. Historically, many groups have claimed to speak in the name of—and to defend the rights of—Palestinians. Before the 1967 Arab defeat at Israel’s hands, Palestine was mainly a Pan-Arab cause. Groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist group, even had ties to the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Because the issue of Palestine seems so pervasive, it is often assumed to be important for Salafi jihadists such as ISIS. Two scholars of Salafi jihadism, Thomas Hegghammer and Joas Wagemakers, reported that “in the years after 9/11 […] the issue of ‘al-Qaida and Palestine’ regularly came up at dinner conversations or in question-and-answer sessions after public talks about jihadism.”
In fact, Salafi jihadism has had a complex yet limited relationship to Palestine. Salafi jihadists have never been key players in the Palestinian conflict, which is historically secular and has only recently seen a surge in Islamism. Support for Salafi jihadist groups seems to be very low among Palestinians, but some opinion polls do indicate surges after significant historical events, such as 9/11, which happened to occur at the height of the second intifada in Palestine, and more recently, in the aftermath of the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, when polls suggested that 24 percent of Palestinians had favorable views of ISIS.
For its part, al Qaeda has never had a straightforward relationship with Palestine. To be sure, the terrorist group has long included Palestine in its rhetoric. For one, Palestine was listed as the third most important justification for jihad against the United States in a 1998 declaration. The issue featured in the first ever al Qaeda recruitment video in 2001, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind 9/11, mentioned American support for Israel as his motivation for the attack. Likewise, high-level ideologues such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri dedicated time and attention to the issue, the latter referring to Palestine as “our concern and the concern of every Muslim.”
At the same time as al Qaeda was claiming to speak for Palestinians, however, it was also engaging in a standoff against Hamas, an indigenous Palestinian group. Indeed, its relationship with Hamas was always one of competition. Essentially, al Qaeda viewed Hamas as a false representation of an Islamic group, one that did not adhere to a Salafi jihadist doctrine and methodology, and which had sold out its last vestiges of Islamist character when it participated in democratic elections.
Whether opportunistic or genuine, ISIS has found in the suffering of the people of Gaza a golden opportunity for moral outrage and claims to superiority.
So what explains al Qaeda’s mixed record on Palestine? One answer could be political opportunism; after all, it makes sense for any movement attempting to gain legitimacy in the Middle East to address one of the region’s most heated debates, which conveniently features two of the usual suspects: Jews and America.
And, in fact, previous research on bin Laden’s statements shows that he cites Palestinian political grievances more often than religious arguments in his rhetoric, with political grievances featuring relatively more often when addressing Westerners. All in all, then, al Qaeda likely saw Palestine as an opportunity to mobilize resources and support more than as a religious or ideological priority. It is difficult to measure whether this rhetoric worked, though, since it is virtually impossible to separate such variables from the broader scheme of what motivates and inspires support for al Qaeda.
Hegghammer and Wagemakers refer to this as the “Palestine motivation effect,” which can be seen among a broader range of Salafi jihadists, particularly during Israeli operations in Gaza, for example during Operation Cast Lead in 2008–2009 and Operation Strong Cliff in 2014. And now, whether opportunistic or genuine, ISIS has likewise found in the suffering of the people of Gaza a golden opportunity for moral outrage and claims to superiority.
Salafi jihadism, because of its transnational character and general lack of interest in national borders, speaks only of Palestinian land when addressing either Palestinian grievances or concern for the holy places currently held by non-Muslims. The land of Palestine is not precious to Salafi jihadists in the same way that it is to the Palestinians. Instead, Salafi jihadist symbolism mainly focuses on important sites, such as the al Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount. This is not to say that Palestinians themselves do not value these sites, but that their importance is part of a broader claim on territory. Salafi jihadists reframe what is essentially a nationalist struggle as a religious one, conveniently ignoring the non-Muslim population that equally suffers in Palestine.
The differences in some Salafists’ and Palestinians’ estimations of the land’s importance are perhaps most tellingly illustrated by a fatwa issued by a prominent Salafist sheikh, Mohammas Nasiruddin al-Albani, in 1993, in which he ordered Palestinians to leave their land if they were unable to practice their religion under non-Islamic rule, citing historical examples of Muslims migrating to Muslim-held land.
The fatwawas controversial even within the Salafist community, but it does demonstrate the tension between certain elements of the transnational Salafist doctrine and Palestinian identity. That tension perhaps explains why, among conservative Muslims in Palestine, nationalist Islamist organizations such as Hamas have thrived whereas transnational Salafist ones have faltered.
Even so, transnational groups have pressed on—and that could be a problem for everyone. The most resonant symbol for these groups is the holy places, and the need for their liberation. The “infidel” Palestinian governments of Fatah and Hamas are blamed for the stalled liberation of these holy places, the lack of popular uprising, and un-Islamic rule. In a recent ISIS video, a fighter explains that ISIS does not differentiate between the rule of Israel and the rule of the murtadin (apostates; rejecters, namely Fatah and Hamas). The fighter explicitly states that ISIS’ cause is not about land but about Islamic rule in Palestine. The first step in achieving this, he says, is reclaiming the Palestinian narrative, which failed under the banners of Pan-Arabism and secular nationalism. ISIS doesn’t merely talk about Palestine, rather, it talks about radically and actively changing what it means to be Palestinian.
This puts ISIS in a relatively easy position: as a critic of both Arab governance and Israel (and not to mention the international involvement in Palestine), it is essentially exploiting a deep outrage over an issue that is all but irresolvable in the short term. It has an endless capacity to challenge all parties on the ground politically and ideologically, without getting its hands dirty by engaging in anything practical, let alone constructive, beyond occasional symbolic outreach. As a relentless contrarian, ISIS will prove to be an additional hurdle to addressing Palestinian grievances. Yet unless the world starts pursuing real change rather than the non-peace of the past decades in Israel and Palestine, the Palestinians will remain a compelling chess piece in the Salafi jihadist game.