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In Gaza, The Specter Of ISIS Proves Useful To Both Sides

The Islamist group Hamas, shown here in a rally in the Gaza Strip on Dec. 12, is the strongest faction in the Gaza Strip. The Islamic State, or ISIS, is not believed to be in the territory, though fliers purporting to be from the group have circulated in Gaza. They are widely believed to be fake, but both Israel and Hamas have tried to use them to their advantage.

Earlier this month, more than a dozen writers, poets and activists in Gaza got threatening fliers signed with the name ISIS, the Sunni extremists fighting with brutal violence in Iraq and Syria.

But a few days later, a new flier, also signed ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, denied responsibility and apologized.

The incident is raising the question of whether ISIS is taking root in Gaza — or if someone is just playing around.

Poet and women's rights activist Donia al-Amal Ismael received the first flier via Facebook. It accused her and other writers of speaking ill of God and Islam and threatened to slit their throats.

She was scared, and debated with her family what to do. Her kids told her to stay inside, she says.

"Don't move. Don't go outside the home," they advised her.

She didn't think ISIS wrote the flier, though. She thought it was Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction that no longer formally governs Gaza but remains in control of security. The group had criticized her work on women's rights before.

Ismael says she is religious, but not like Hamas.

"I am Muslim," she says, adding that she has "another vision" for Islam than Hamas' conservative interpretation.

Hamas, 'The Devil You Know'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called Hamas and ISIS "brother organizations" and "branches of the same poisonous tree."

Washington takes a different view. The U.S. State Department labels both terrorist organizations, but says the two groups have different goals and tactics.

ISIS "uses rape as a tool of war, sells women and girls into sex slavery, offers those in its path a choice of conversion or death, and avowedly pursues genocide," a State Department spokesperson told NPR. "We have not seen Hamas take these actions."

Gazan analyst Mkhaimar Abusada says whoever put together the threatening flier wanted to stir things up.

"To basically frighten the Palestinians or create a situation where the Palestinians would basically say that living under Hamas is definitely better than living under ISIS or other extremist organizations," he says.

Fawzi Barhoum, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, claims that Israeli intelligence sent out the fliers.

Israeli analyst Harel Chorev laughs at this. But he says given the choices, Israel actually wants Hamas to stay in power in Gaza.

"On the one hand, you have Israel [justifiably] denouncing Hamas for being a terror organization," he says. "On the other hand, Israel knows that there is no better alternative."

Hamas, he says, is "the devil you know."

There has been much talk about trying to reinstate Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and leader of Hamas' rival political faction Fatah, as the government head in Gaza.

But so far, that hasn't happened. Chorev says it's not a realistic option to revive Fatah in Gaza.

"[It is] too small, too depressed. Any group in Gaza is stronger today than Fatah," he says.

Who Sent The Fliers?

Like most observers of Gaza, Chorev says there are Islamist groups more extreme than Hamas there. But he doesn't believe there is any significant ISIS presence in Gaza.

If there were, Hamas "would crush them with no limits," he says, despite the group's financial and political difficulties.

Hamas has killed off rivals in the past — both secular and Islamist. It remains the power in Gaza, but is also vulnerable — unable to pay police or speed up reconstruction following a war with Israel this past summer.

Chorev says if a Gaza power vacuum gave room to more extreme groups, they might try to become famous on the back of ISIS, now known around the world. He says ISIS has become a brand name that anyone can use for self-promotion.

As far as who sent the fliers?

"I could imagine two students sitting in their underwear, writing on their laptops at home," the Israeli analyst says.

Conjuring up an image of ISIS in Gaza is useful for both Israeli politicians and Hamas leaders. After the recent threat-followed-by-apology, poet and women's rights activist Ismael decided to consider the whole thing a joke.

"I think that I must deal with this as a joke," she says, "to be strong."

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