In a major blow to Palestinian militant groups operating in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli air force launched a precision strike against two senior terrorist leaders in the area last weekend. The men were reportedly traveling on a motorcycle along a road in the north of Gaza when an Israeli drone locked in on their location and launched a missile in their direction.
The strike is a significant one for Israel. The men were not only involved in terrorist activities but were former leaders of two Salafi jihadist organizations that were dedicated to expanding the extremist ideology of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
There is nothing uncommon about the Israel Defense Force directly engaging terrorist sanctuaries in Gaza. The seaside enclave is known to host a number of militant groups, apart from Hamas, that frequently plan and execute rocket attacks on Israeli communities close to the area. The rockets usually fall in open areas so casualties and physical damage are limited, if not nonexistent.
The Israeli government, however, sees these attacks as a serious threat to its citizens. Targeting rocket launching sites aimed at Israel and neutralizing small groups of suspected terrorists through the air has been its usual response to mortar strikes that hit Israeli communities.
This recent strike is unique for a number of reasons. First, the groups that were engaged are thought to operate largely independently of Hamas, the Palestinian group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007.
One of the targeted leaders was the former emir of a small organization called the Tawhid and Jihad Group in Jerusalem. The group’s numbers are small in comparison to Hamas but it espouses an even more hardline interpretation of Islam.
Tawhid and Jihad has claimed responsibility for numerous rocket attacks against Israel, in addition to an operation that killed an Israeli construction worker along the Egyptian border. The group is reportedly part of a larger umbrella group that calls itself the Mujahedeen Shura Council, an indication that Salafi groups in Gaza are increasing their numbers and trying to coordinate their activities.
Like Israel, Hamas is actually concerned about the presence of such jihadist organizations on its soil. Over the five years that Hamas has ruled Gaza, it has been challenged at times by these smaller, and more violent, networks. Some disgruntled members of the Hamas movement have enlisted in the ranks of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, citing the movement’s slow enforcement of Islamic law as a major factor in their decision to defect.
What concerns Hamas, of course, is not that these small organizations have a disdain for Israel but that its own authority is challenged.
It is inconceivable that Hamas and Israel would team up to fight Gaza’s Salafist networks but certainly both are intent on eliminating its leaders, putting pressure on their foot soldiers and imprisoning their members if they continue to cause trouble.