Threats to artists raise fears of Isis coming to Gaza

SHAFAQNA – A campaign of threats to kill artists and writers for “insulting Islam” has heightened fears that affiliates of Islamic State have arrived in the Gaza strip.“Wilayat Gaza”, allegedly an ally of the jihadist organisation in Iraq and Syria, warned women to show “chastity” and respect Islamic dress codes. In another communiqué, it threatened to kill 18 writers and artists for denigrating the religion, calling some of them apostates and others promiscuous.

The fears of jihadist infiltration have been underlined by two bomb attacks in three months in the courtyard of the French cultural centre. Both took place when the building was empty. A group calling itself Islamic State in Gaza claimed to have carried out the first attack; no one has claimed responsibility for the second.

Dunya Ismail, a feminist activist, was the first intellectual threatened with death, in a statement on December 3.

“In the beginning it was scary because it’s the first time I’ve been threatened by an Islamist movement that was unknown [here],” she said. “We do have this sort of ideology in Gaza.”

She asked Hamas, the territory’s rulers, for security but they refused. Hamas then tried to disperse a protest she organised with other intellectuals listed in the statement.

Israel has repeatedly attempted to link Hamas, which promotes a radical Islamist ideology, with Isis, although no concrete links between the movements have been found. Hamas says that the claims are part of an Israeli plot to discredit the Palestinian organisation, against which it fought a war in Gaza during the summer.

Asked about the apparent Islamic State threats and its lack of response, Hamas officials said that the perpetrators were likely to be lone-wolf troublemakers.

“The people who wrote this letter are troublemakers. They’re trying to put rumours into Palestinian society,” said Eyad al-Bazm, a spokesman for the interior ministry in Gaza. “There is no Islamic State in Gaza.”

Ms Ismail claims that members of Hamas might be making the threats, using the language rhetoric of Isis, to scare people. “I wondered, could it be Hamas using the name of Isis?” she asked. “It’s a way for them to put pressure on the world.”

Tensions between Hamas and Israel surfaced again on Christmas Eve when Israeli forces struck targets in Gaza after its troops came under attack by Palestinian snipers on the border.

Tayseir Smeiri, the head of Hamas’s border reconnaissance unit, was killed in the Israeli strike, and one Israeli soldier, of the minority Bedouin Arab unit, was seriously injured in the sniper attack.

The radicalisation of Islamist operatives in the lawless Sinai desert, next to Gaza, has also led to fears of a jihadist presence in the territory, which has been left even more impoverished since the summer war. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a militant group based on the neighbouring Sinai peninsula, pledged allegiance to Islamic State in the autumn.

The past 18 months have driven Hamas almost to the point of insolvency. Egypt destroyed hundreds of the smuggling tunnels on which Hamas relied for tax revenue.

Government employees in Gaza have not been paid since the spring and the slow pace of postwar reconstruction is turning a growing number of Palestinians against Hamas.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the organisation, said that it would be difficult to keep Gaza calm while security forces were going unpaid.

Ms Ismail said: “This [series of threats against intellectuals] is to threaten the people of Gaza, and the world, to remind them that there is something called Isis.

“Hamas wants to say ‘Isis will replace us, so don’t put pressure on us’ [and warn that] Gaza could become like Syria or Iraq.”

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