The Best of Frenemies

CEP Research Analyst


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"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," goes an ancient proverb. New common enemies in today’s Middle East might not turn old foes into friends, but they may at least create a détente, allowing adversaries to join together against larger threats.

One example: The United States and Iran have not been working together in Iraq per se, but they have both been fighting ISIS. (I previously explored the U.S.-Iran vs. ISIS dynamic here and here.) Also noteworthy: Israel and Saudi Arabia have been holding quiet meetings and making small overtures to one another while rumors of a rapprochement have recently surfaced—all because of the common threat they face from Iran.

ISIS’s tentacles are spreading from Syria and Iraq into Gaza and Egypt. For that reason, ISIS may succeed in bringing closer two other seemingly intractable enemies: Israel and Hamas.

ISIS and Israel are natural enemies though they are not presently engaged in conflict. ISIS and Hamas have a more complex relationship. Hamas’s prime benefactor, Iran, is fighting ISIS in Iraq while Iranian proxy Hezbollah is fighting against ISIS in Syria. Iran also reportedly pledged tens of millions of dollars to Hamas earlier this year for the terror group to rebuild its network of underground tunnels. Given the seesaw relationship between Iran and Hamas in recent years, it is entirely plausible that Iran’s renewed largess toward Hamas stems from a pragmatic desire to counter ISIS’s growing influence in that region.  

The Sinai-based terror group formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014 and subsequently renamed itself Wilayat al-Sina, “Province of Sinai.” On June 30, ISIS issued a video statement threatening to “uproot the state of the Jews,” Israel, and “the secularists” of Fatah. But the video statement also included the “tyrants of Hamas” in its warning that all three would be “over-run by [ISIS’s] creeping multitudes.”

That same day, the New York Times reported that another ISIS-related group in Gaza had claimed responsibility for a dozen bombings since January in the coastal strip—four in May alone—targeting Hamas. “We will stay like a thorn in the throat of Hamas, and a thorn in the throat of Israel,” said Abu al-Ayna al-Ansari, spokesman for a new Salafist group, Supporters of the Islamic State. This group also has claimed responsibility for recent rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza.

To maintain its present fragile truce with Israel, Hamas has cracked down on the wannabe-ISIS group. In May, Supporters of the Islamic State renewed its oath to ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and called for him “to strengthen his influence and to launch a campaign in Palestine.” A series of bombings targeted Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad on July 19. There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but an ISIS flag and the words “Shariah will win” were found scrawled near one of the bombed sites.

Hamas’s raison d’etre is to replace Israel with an Islamist state of Palestine. Hamas’s ascendance in Palestinian politics and subsequent takeover of Gaza gave it political power in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas has been loath to relinquish that power, as evidenced by the failure of last year’s reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority. However, Hamas and Israel have reportedly been quietly discussing plans for a long-term ceasefire. Hamas’s pragmatism may be smoothing the rough edges of its ideology, but it’s too soon to tell. A ceasefire with Israel theoretically allows Hamas to maintain a position of power in exchange for enforcing quiet along Israel’s southern border. Israel also would likely rather have Hamas in control of Gaza than see the coastal strip fall to one or more ISIS-allied extremist groups.

Yet, Hamas is reportedly also cultivating ties with ISIS’s affiliate Wilayat al-Sina in the Sinai. In this case, they share a common enemy in Egypt. Since the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Egypt has cracked down on Hamas and Sinai-ISIS. In response, Hamas has reportedly provided drones, military training and medical care to ISIS’s Sinai fighters. 

Hamas and Israel remain formal enemies. On the other hand, Egypt and Hamas are allies-turned-enemies, and for that reason, Hamas is cooperating with ISIS’s Wilayat al-Sina against Egypt.

But, ISIS’s animosity toward Hamas and its growing influence in Gaza and the Sinai may be turning Hamas and Israel into the best of frenemies.