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Islamic State (IS) is advancing on Israel, both physically and politically. It is not that Israel is likely to feature very prominently in the long-term strategic thinking of IS’s leader, the self-proclaimed caliph of all Muslims, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. His sights are set, in the first instance, on subjugating and then converting the Muslim world to his own extreme version of Islam. Israel’s existence is doubtless perceived as a side issue, to be dealt with in due course.
The feeling in Israel about IS was, until quite recently, mutual. IS, its wild ambitions and its bloodthirsty and brutal way of going about achieving them, was regarded as a peripheral regional problem. Israel was content to sit on the side-lines and watch extreme Islamists slog it out among themselves, far from Israel’s borders. But IS’s apparently inexorable growth in power and reach across the Middle East and beyond, is engendering a change in attitude. Whether deliberately or not, IS is developing into an existential threat to the Jewish state.
A video statement, issued only a few days ago from IS’s Aleppo stronghold in Syria and directed at the Hamas leadership, was unequivocally antagonistic not only towards Israel, but towards the two Palestinian camps, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). “We will uproot the state of the Jews and you (Hamas) and Fatah… The rule of sharia will be implemented in Gaza, in spite of you. We swear that what is happening in the Levant today… will happen in Gaza,” said one of the three masked and armed spokesmen.
The vehemence towards Hamas, referred to in the video as “tyrants”, reflects IS’s fury at the crackdown on ultra-extremist elements inside Gaza who fire unauthorized rockets into Israel, endangering the fragile truce agreement which it suits Hamas at the moment to observe. As far as IS is concerned, Hamas has its priorities all wrong. “The point of jihad is not to liberate land,” one AK47-armed spokesman says in the video, “But to fight for and implement the law of God,” In short, Hamas is not extreme enough for IS.
IS’s priorities were forged back in 2003, in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which became a major force in the insurgency, was formed by a Jordanian, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. But after his death in 2006 AQI created an umbrella organisation, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which failed to make much of an impact. Four years later Baghdadi, a former US detainee, became its leader, and set about re-energizing it. By early 2013, it was carrying out dozens of attacks a month in Iraq, and had also joined the rebellion against President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, as part of the Al-Nusra Front.
In April 2013, Baghdadi felt himself strong enough to stand alone. In a spectacularly bold move, and in the teeth of Al-Nusra’s and Al-Qaeda’s opposition, he merged his forces in Iraq and Syria to create the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
In a succession of stunning victories, Baghdadi took control of the central city of Falluja, overran the northern city of Mosul, and then advanced southwards towards Baghdad, massacring his opponents as he went. In June 2014 Baghdadi changed the name of his organization to Islamic State, declared the whole Muslim world a caliphate, anointed himself caliph of all Muslims, and called on all Muslim states to facilitate IS’s advance and expansion.
Although IS’s fortunes have subsequently fluctuated, especially in encounters with the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and the loss of perhaps 10,000 fighters from intensive air strikes provided by the US and other Western forces, the attraction of the IS message to young Muslims across the world has brought hundreds flocking to fight under its banner. It has also resulted in extremist groups across the Middle East and beyond declaring allegiance to it – Pakistan’s Taliban signed up as early as October 2014; Nigeria’s Boko Haram last March; while jihadist organizations pledging allegiance to IS are active in Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon and even Jordan.
Now IS has established a foothold on Israel’s very borders – in Gaza, in the Sinai peninsula, on the Golan Heights. The threat is real. Israel has to take steps to counter it. But IS represents just as much, if not more, of a threat to the established Muslim states it is dedicated to overthrowing and absorbing into its own caliphate. The result is that Israel finds itself remarkably close to those who have previously regarded it with suspicion, if not outright enmity – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even (tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon), Hamas.
On July 3 IS was reported to be approaching the Israeli border on the Golan Heights, advancing from the Druze Mountains along the Jordanian border. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have apparently promised Israeli Druze representatives that they would intervene if Druze on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights were attacked by IS.
Meanwhile IS in Gaza, which calls itself the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade, declared it would attack Israel with rockets if Hamas did not halt its crackdown on IS supporters. The group, which was responsible for assassinating a senior Hamas commander in June, is closely linked with the IS group in the Sinai peninsula, now dubbing itself the Sinai Province.
Yet so convoluted are Middle East politics that in Sinai, which has developed into a hotbed of lawlessness and violence, Hamas is in cahoots with IS in its efforts to overthrow the Egyptian government. On July 7 Israel accused Hamas of supporting assaults by IS on Egyptian forces in the Sinai. In simultaneous assaults against military checkpoints around the North Sinai towns of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, 17 Egyptian soldiers and more than 1200 insurgents were killed. Sinai Province took credit for the attacks.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyadh Al-Maliki recently referred to the collaboration of Hamas and IS in the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s war against the regime of Egyptian President Abdulfattah Al-Sisi. Which explains why military co-operation between Egypt and Israel in Sinai has recently reached unprecedented levels.
“We have an urgent interest in seeing the Egyptians win the war,” said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “They must win the war. It’s in the interest of Israel.”
He could well have expanded his advice to encompass the fight against Islamic State worldwide. That war must indeed be won. It’s in the interest of the entire world.