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Gaza blasts may point to increased IS group activity: analyst

Bomb attacks in Gaza Reuters/Suhaib Salem

A series of near-simultaneous explosions in the Gaza Strip on Sunday targeted members of the armed branches of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, amid growing tensions between the Palestinian territory's rulers and extremist opponents. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

A series of such attacks in recent months is suspected to have been carried out by extremists, some of whom claim links with Islamic State group jihadists, though experts have expressed doubts over whether there are any true ties between them. RFI spoke to Omar Shaban, director of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a thinktank based in Gaza City.

RFI: Is this attack a symptom of growing tensions within the socio-religious fabric of Gaza?

OS: This is not the first attack against Hamas or other Islamist groups like Islamist Jihad in Gaza. There were some attacks before. There is no solid indication that the Islamic State group in Gaza is responsible for them, or some people who are inspired by their ideas. Or, people who are angry with Hamas and as a reaction want to join the Islamic State group.

However, the relationship between Hamas and the Islamic State group goes from bad to worse. Some weeks ago, Hamas arrested suspected members of the Islamic State group and other Salafist groups in Gaza and put them in prison. Family members claim that the prisoners were tortured severely by Hamas security forces. This makes the relationship between the two [groups] very tense. Hamas does not make compromises with members of the Islamic State group. They had requested Hamas to grant them freedom to move and promote their ideology. Of course Hamas cannot compromise the security of its citizens in Gaza.

RFI: How do we have to understand in this light the visit over the weekend of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal to Saudi Arabia?

OS: This was a very important step in the relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood with other Arab regimes. The relationship between the Saudis and Hamas has never been good. The regime in Riyadh considers Hamas as part of the Muslim Brotherhood which is not on good terms with the Saudi regime. However, due to recent developments in the region, notably the intervention of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the Saudis have more need for the support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. And the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen made a deal that the head of Hamas, Mashal, can intervene between the two. Hamas can talk to the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen so that they support the Saudi campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.

The Hamas people in Gaza were very happy about the meeting; the political bureau said that the visit of Mashal was very successful. We do expect that the Saudis will give some financial and political support to Hamas, and they maybe will put some pressure on the Egyptian regime to open [the] Raffa [border crossing]. So there is a sense of optimism as a result of the developments in the region after years of blockade, and after years of obstruction by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi [Arabia] it seems that the relationship between Hamas and Arab regimes has improved compared to previous years.

RFI: There is concern in Saudi Arabia that there is a growing influence by Iran on Hamas. Is that concern justified?

OS: Yes, because Hamas has a good relationship with Iran, and Saudi Arabia wants Hamas to come closer to them, to stay far away from Iran. Hamas knows its weaknesses, and it understands it cannot play two games at the same time. Hamas and the Saudis are Sunni, and Hamas and Iran are not of the same ideology. So Hamas prefers to have a good relationship with the Saudis, and I do believe that Hamas is ready to compromise its relationship with Tehran for the sake of getting a better one with Riyadh.

RFI: How do you think Israel will react if they sense that there is increased activity by the Islamic State group in Gaza?

OS: I do think Israel is worried about the activity of the Islamic State group in Gaza, because Gaza is too close to Israel, and there are many Salafist groups in Gaza who are ready to break the truce between Israel and Hamas. There were some rockets launched from Gaza towards villages in Israel. Hamas is working very hard to prevent these rockets from being launched from Gaza, and I believe that Israel is not interested in getting more rockets by the Salafists and other groups. A strong Hamas is better for Israel so I think Israel is not encouraged to support Islamic State group activities in Gaza.