I have previously written about the group 'Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis' ('The Group of Supporters/Partisans of the Islamic State in Bayt al-Maqdis') here and here. Based on the data at the time (which was before Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis' pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State [IS] to become 'Sinai Province'), my conclusion was that the group appeared to function as IS' network in Gaza, acting as a supplier of fighters- most notably claimed 'specialists'- to IS in Syria/Iraq, while apparently doing propaganda work for IS under the guise of 'Ansar al-Shari'a- Gaza.'
However, it is now clear that there is considerable controversy even within pro-IS circles about the nature of this claimed group, whose statements are solely released via the IS-aligned jihadi forum al-Platform Media. Most notably, critics assert Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis does not have meaningful visual evidence to substantiate its existence, a line made on the assumption that there is no overlap with the group calling itself 'Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Gaza' under whose name a video was released of claimed operations against Israel during the summer 2014 war. Emblematic of these criticisms is a series of tweets put out by pro-IS Twitter user "Khilad al-Qurashi" (@saeb_f4), who wrote on 21 December 2014:
1. It is from the failing of God- Almighty and Exalted is He- for the Salafi groups in Gaza that they are in a state and condition that does not endure for them. For you see how from the one group, dozens arise in defection.
2. The Gaza arena is filled with Salafi jihadi groups. Each one brags in its own way but does not live up to its words.
3. The greatest calamity is that the manhaj [program] of all the groups is one, and their aqeeda [creed] is one! And the majority of them (thanks to God), practise the religion of God Almighty in following/adherence to the Islamic State, may God make it mighty.
4. The witness from the talk: the motives and reasons for them to come together are more than the motives for separation. Despite that, they are separated, and God is the one from whom help should be sought.
5. To illustrate the truth of my words: indeed you will find groups in the little strip of Gaza from one end to another calling themselves Ansar al-Shari'a.
6. For example: you will find an Ansar al-Shari'a in Rafah different from the Ansar al-Shari'a in Gaza [city], which is different from the Ansar al-Shari'a present in the al-Wasta area.
7. As for Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis, which we are now discussing, I say:
8. There is no group that has appeared in Gaza whose personalities or at the very least whose soldiers we have not known. As for you, not one of you has appeared!
9. And it is from our right that we do not deal with unknown persons and we warn against you. And there are things you do that show that he who publishes your statements is lavishing praise on what he does not know. And God is the one from whom help should be sought.
10. How can you claim the blowing up of the Yabous Christian association in Rafah, and say in your statement that it is a Rafidite [Shi'a] association, despite the fact that all know it is an association affiliated with the Christians?
11. If it were not done by you or there is a mix-up in the matters, you must retract your statement. For all know that the fingers of accusation for the blowing up of the association are pointing at the followers of Dahlan [key one-time Fatah figure in Gaza].
Al-Qurashi adds a brief note about the prominent pro-IS Palestinian account 'al-Nusra al-Maqdisia' that is playing a role in the organized unofficial IS support network on Twitter, affirming:
15. As for al-Nusra al-Maqdisia (with the existence of some reservations about them), they do not understand that we [IS-aligned people] are against support [nusra] for the Islamic State [...]
16. For all Salafi jihadis in Gaza consider themselves among the soldiers of the Islamic State.
Al-Qurashi's point, to be sure, is a sound one making the crucial distinction between 'nusra' ('support') and 'bay'ah' ('pledge of allegiance') in Arabic. For IS, it is not enough merely to show 'nusra', one has to declare bay'ah. Al-Qurashi concludes with an address to Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis:
17. We ask you, oh Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis, to demonstrate some sense of reason and declare yourselves to Gaza's groups.
18. For the field is filled with conspirators and traitors who want to embroil the Salafi jihadi movement in greater difficulties. Is this the issue you are concealing?
Conversely around the same time, al-Platform Media user "Abu al-Layth al-Hashimi al-Baghdadi" wrote a lengthy post "in defence of Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis":
Since the rise of Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis and its descent to the field of jihad with all force and weight, it has dealt with the present situation in word and deed. And unlike others, we have only gotten to the point of hearing of its existence on social media sites and forums.
And subhanu Allah, the mujahideen of the group do not hesitate to undertake any work whether in Gaza or the West Bank without both many of the people and even brothers in manhaj hastening and competing to attack them! And they characterize the group with unfitting qualities that should also not come from a monotheist Muslim. So what is the matter with you!! [And what]'s gotten into you! Oh brothers of manhaj...
By God, it is as though I see the hatred and malice emanating from your eyes out of resentment and hatred of them.
Is this an imposition on whoever bears the banner after your retreat and delay? Is this an imposition on whoever stretches forth his hand to you and calls on you to show solidarity, unity and agreement on united work? For they have only seen from you harshness, denunciation and belittling of the extent of their work. But also the matter has come to the point that you attribute their jihadi work and their killing of the three settlers in the West Bank to the Hamas movement even as it did not claim the deed...Is it to this degree resentment has blinded you?! Is it to this degree arrogance has blinded you?!...Oh you who have attacked the brothers in Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya, who made you authorities over the Salafi jihadi movement in Palestine?! And who are you to speak in the name of the Salafi jihadi movement in general to accept those you accept and condemn those you condemn?!
Why do you rush to attack them, pursuing the matter with an unrighteous face, and accuse the group falsely of publishing releases stolen from you? For by God, you must show me only one release it announced on al-Minbar al-'Ilami al-Jihadi [al-Platform Media] or Twitter that shows their stealing your releases! Who are you not only to speak in the name of the Salafi jihadi movement but also to distance yourselves from what they did to a Rafidite association?
Oh sons of the Sunna and Jamaat [Sunnis], why do you not rejoice in the striking of a Rafidite association?...You have said that the damages to the association were simple but if you yourselves had bothered to read the group's statement where they said that the explosive was small in size and it is but a warning that if things continued and the Shi'a were not prevented and their associations were not closed, the next one would be greater! [...]
It should be noted that the latter post does not address the criticisms or points raised by al-Qurashi in a substantive way. Based on the competing lines of argument, it seems a better assessment of Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis is that at best it is not *the* IS network in Gaza-Sinai but rather just a tiny underground group among a number of pro-IS entities in what is a very fragmented Salafi jihadi movement, which is not at the present time wholly aligned with IS as al-Qurashi claims.* Note though in particular al-Qurashi's instructive comments on the existence of multiple 'Ansar al-Shari'a' brands, for example. An obvious question for observers is that if Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis were *the* IS network in the area, why does it not simply merge with Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to become part of Sinai province? The group may well have funnelled some specialists via Sinai to the Syria-Iraq arena to have representation in IS' ranks, but the group's real significance on the ground is somewhat in doubt. Its membership may well comprise no more than a handful to a couple dozen individuals, with a token presence in the West Bank.
The issue of multiple divisions and lack of unity within the Salafi jihadi movement in Gaza also points to its shortcomings in potential to undermine the Hamas government. Faced with weak and fragmented rivals, Hamas may not feel the need to launch a comprehensive crackdown at the risk of hurting its image as a 'resistance' movement to Israel, tolerating the departure of these ideological types to the Syria-Iraq battlefield where they are unlikely to be able to return to Gaza. In short, things are still very much in Hamas' favour in Gaza, and while the IS brand may prove more and more appealing to its Salafi rivals, that does not necessarily lead to a united organized movement to pose a serious challenge to Hamas' rule now or for the forseeable future. At the minimum, a timescale of 5-10 years should be expected for a meaningful shift in dynamics, if any.
*NB (Update 2 January): In this context, one should note that not all jihadis from Gaza have ended up joining IS even as the trend has generally gone that way. The Twitter account '@gazainsham' (now suspended) posted photos of Gazans operating in Latakia countryside in June 2014, which is after what was then ISIS withdrew from Latakia province.