Suhaib Salem / Reuters Palestinian Salafists wave flags during a protest in Gaza city, January 19, 2015.

What ISIS Talks About When It Talks About Palestine

And Why We Should Worry

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.”

A Palestinian protester tries to hammer a hole through the Israeli barrier that separates the West Bank town of Abu Dis from Jerusalem, during clashes with Israeli troops, October 28, 2015.

A Palestinian protester tries to hammer a hole through the Israeli barrier that separates the West Bank town of Abu Dis from Jerusalem, during clashes with Israeli troops, October 28, 2015.

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 polls suggested that 24 percent of Palestinians had favorable views of ISIS.

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