The Gaza effect: How the Israel-Hamas war is shaping armed group behaviour and the prospects of engagement

About the author(s):

Dr Ashley Jackson is Co-director of the Centre on Armed Groups and an Associate Researcher with the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group at King's College London. Her research focuses on engagement with armed groups, and she has written on these and related issues for Foreign Policy, NY Times, Washington Post, and others. She holds a PhD from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

Note: this contribution was originally posted as a rapid analysis on the Centre on Armed Groups, and is being reshared with permission.

Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes of the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, October 10, 2023 (Credit: Shutterstock/Anas-Mohammed)

Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes of Rafah in southern Gaza, October 10, 2023 (Credit: Shutterstock/Anas-Mohammed)

In the wake of the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, there has been a palpable shift in the rhetoric and actions of various armed groups across the Middle East and beyond. This rapid analysis seeks to dissect the responses that have emerged. Concerns of spillover and solidarity attacks have prompted a series of international threat warnings. On October 17, for instance, the US State Department issued a “worldwide caution” alert for US citizens overseas (one of just 15 such advisories in the past decade). Governments usually issue these kinds of blanket warnings in response to events that threaten to create blowback of an unpredictable nature, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden. 

The real question is, what effect will the Israel-Hamas war really have on different armed conflicts, armed group behavior, and conflict resolution processes around the world? While the dynamics of the conflict and its stakeholders — including Israel, Hamas, the United States, Iran, Hezbollah, and various regional actors — remain in a state of flux,  this piece attempts to break down the dynamics we see developing and the questions we need to ask as events evolve. In particular, it explores three main concerns and dynamics:

  • the threat of conflict spreading throughout the Middle East,
  • the expression of solidarity and support for Hamas by various armed groups, and
  • the broader implications of the increased polarization we observe in geopolitical alignments and discourses. 

The threat of spillover

One set of dynamics relates to armed groups across the Middle East as the conflict threatens to spillover to neighboring countries. Broadly speaking, the ideological and historical dimensions of the conflict, primarily between Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms and between Sunni and Shia Islam, can resonate across borders, potentially inflaming tensions in and with neighboring countries (written about at length here). The violence has already started to spread; some 19,000 people have fled their homes in southern Lebanon, amid Israeli bombardments and cross-border strikes.

Of particular concern are Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and, of course, Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This network comprises mainly Shia actors, making Sunni Hamas an outlier in this coalition (often referred to as the Axis of Resistance). Iran praised the Hamas attack on Israel but publicly insisted that it did not want the conflict to spread. Iran could face deleterious consequences if seen to be directly involved in escalating tensions. Thus, Iran may not seek to engage in a full-scale conflict but rather maintain pressure on Israel’s military through its proxies, which could potentially restrict its capacity to conduct a military campaign against Hamas.

In a public speech, Hassan Nasrullah, the leader of Hezbollah, expressed strong support for Hamas but stopped short of threatening Israel directly. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and the Israeli army have been exchanging fire on the Israel-Lebanon border since the day of the Hamas attack. Ansar Allah in Yemen, commonly known as the Houthis, has “declared war” on Israel and launched cruise missiles and drones toward Israel on several occasions. While tactical limitations mean that they do not have much chance of hitting anything inside Israel, they could cause more damage to maritime targets in the Red Sea. Some analysis suggests that their behavior is more performative and political than anything else, aimed at complicating Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical ambitions, while other perspectives points to the Houthi’s expansionist agenda, with historical reference to the ‘liberation’ of Jerusalem.

These actions and statements by various groups and their leaders suggest a period of strategic tension where direct all-out war may not be the immediate goal. Still, the risk of miscalculation or an unintended escalation could potentially lead to a wider regional conflict. Iran and its proxies are outwardly positioning themselves for war with Israel but, at the same time, hedging their bets. The situation remains fluid, and the international community’s response, the internal dynamics within these groups, and the actions of their state sponsors will all significantly influence what happens next.

The fear of spillover extends well beyond the Middle East. The war has divided the countries across Southeast Asia. At one end of the spectrum lie countries with Muslim-majority populations, such as Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, that do not recognize Israel and have voiced support for the Palestinian cause. Malaysia hosted a visit from the leader of Hamas in 2020, and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim leveraged this relationship to advocate for a ceasefire directly with Hamas leadership. Yet these governments are walking a fine line, under increasing pressure from Western powers to take a harder line against Hamas. This may put them at odds with the majority of their populations (which have expressed strong solidarity with Palestinians) and could inadvertently provide ammunition for Islamist armed groups. At the other end of the spectrum are those that have voiced strong support for Israel. Singapore, for instance, has taken a hard line against Hamas, in part to discourage any potential internal unrest. 

What is of interest is how their experiences with Islamist armed groups have informed their responses and outlook. Despite the Indonesian government voicing support for the Palestinian cause, there are fears that the conflict could stoke a resurgence of violent Islamist groups and potentially disrupt the 2024 elections. Meanwhile, the Philippines’ vocal support of Israel and condemnation of Hamas has been, in part, driven by their own experiences combating Islamist armed groups and fears that they may exploit the conflict for their own ends. This raises the question of why various Islamist armed groups align themselves with Hamas, and what this actually means in practice.

Pro-Palestinian protest in Bandung, Indonesia, October 21, 2023 (Credit: Shutterstock/Algi Febri Sugita)

Solidarity and opportunistic alignment

While numerous Islamist armed groups have expressed support for the war, one must be careful to contextualize this rhetoric. Al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked groups have vocalized support of the war against Israel, but not explicitly for Hamas. Al-Qaeda published an official statement which instead mentioned mujahideen. Nevertheless, all of their key affiliates have also made supportive statements in the days following the attacks on Israel (see here). Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) praised Hamas and went even further, calling upon all Muslims to provide financial support to their struggle. 

The Islamic State Group was slower to respond, but nevertheless supportive of violence against Israel (a fuller description of various statements can be found here). They, however, stated that violence should go beyond Israel, targeting all Jews and their allies, including Arab states. Many of these and other narratives blur the lines between the state of Israel and Jewish people, parroting antisemitic conspiracies. In essence, they used the attacks on Israel as an opportunity to reiterate their core messaging. There are significant ideological and political differences, which put Al Qaeda and the Islamic State Group in an awkward position. While they support violence against Israel, they do not necessarily support Hamas.

Hamas is not aligned with either Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Hamas is a different type of organization, with objectives distinct from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Hamas is an Islamic nationalist actor focused on Palestinian concerns. It wants international legitimacy, and has never voiced support for attacks on Western targets. While often referred to in media and by Western countries as a terrorist or militant group, it is technically a political party with an armed military wing. It rose to power after winning the 2006 elections, the last elections called by the Palestinian Authority.

By contrast, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State Group are transnational organizations bent on the establishment of a caliphate uniting Muslims worldwide. As others have pointed out, Islamic State supporters tend to view Hamas as “kafir” and “apostates,” and online Islamic State supporters have criticized the groups for being aligned with Iran. In 2015, an Islamic State video even threatened to take Gaza from Hamas, and accused Hamas of failing to enforce sharia. 

These differences are often intentionally obscured by politicians and ignored by mainstream media. To further their own narratives, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others have compared Hamas’s war crimes with those of the Islamic State. #HamasisISIS is trending across social platforms, and the Israeli government dropped leaflets over Gaza emblazoned with “Hamas=ISIS.” This politically calculated conflation intentionally obscures key ideological, tactical, and political differences to further support and justify Israeli military action. The comparison with the Islamic State also indirectly suggests that no political negotiations with Hamas to end the violence will be permissible or desirable. This, in turn, justifies military escalation, by reinforcing Israel’s comparison of its campaign to the US-led coalition’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. 

Some armed groups have explicitly capitalized on the conflict to further their own objectives and propaganda. Al-Shabab in Somalia, for instance, has drawn parallels between their own actions and those of the Palestinian fighters, framing both as struggles against colonial oppression. In disseminating pro-Hamas content, portraying Hamas as their brothers in a shared struggle, and organizing pro-Palestinian protests, Al-Shabab is using the conflict to incite its base and aid recruitment. This is nothing new, as Al-Shabab excels at manipulating global events to serve its own objectives. 

However, such opportunism can be easily overblown or misinterpreted. The Kenyan government (which has made strong statements in support of Israel) has warned of Al-Shabab orchestrating solidarity attacks. Al-Shabab’s history of violence suggests opportunism more than solidarity. Put differently, it has strategically latched onto events elsewhere to draw greater attention to its attacks. Al-Shabab spokesmen referenced a “Jerusalem will never be Judaized” campaign (in reference to the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital) in claims of responsibility for a January 2019 Nairobi hotel attack and a January 2020 US military base attack in northern Kenya. In reality, the motives for these attacks lay much closer to home. Currently focused on a counter-offensive in Somalia, it is difficult to imagine them expending valuable energy and resources on high-profile attacks disconnected from their core objectives. Yet the Kenyan government warning  which put diplomats and Kenyans on high alert  is precisely the kind of publicity that Al-Shabab wants. It reinforces the belief that Al-Shabab has the capacity and intelligence to strike anywhere and anytime.   

For other actors, the conflict puts them in an awkward position. This is particularly true of those who are seeking international legitimacy and acceptance. The interim Taliban government in Afghanistan (which is no longer necessarily an armed group but is unrecognized by the international community) has been relatively quiet. Its sole statement was a terse mirroring of statements from Muslim-majority countries in the region. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement indicated that the government “is closely monitoring the recent events in the Gaza Strip, and the reason for such events is the violation of the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people.” The only high-level official to comment, interim Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, said that the government does “not interfere in others’ internal affairs, but we have faith-based sympathy with Muslims.” The Taliban has no interest in being seen to support foreign terrorist acts, especially those committed by actors they have little or no direct relationship with.

This hasn’t stopped tweets from satirical or fake Taliban accounts spreading through social media, suggesting the Taliban has issued various positions on the matter. This points to another danger: fake news and otherwise inaccurate reporting about the behavior and positions of armed groups. Incidents like this one underscore the need to take special care to interrogate social media sources and for media to seek direct comment (as much as possible) from these groups. 

The flags of Iran and various actors allied with Iran sewn together, at a protest in Tehran on January 7, 2020 (Credit: Shutterstock/saeediex)

Geopolitical polarization

We’ve seen a worrying resurgence of War on Terror narratives. Netanyahu has compared Israel’s war to a battle between the “axis of evil” and “the free world.” A hallmark of this narrative is that acts of extreme violence are treated as the same, and the perpetrators are lumped together. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, speaking at the UN, condemned the Hamas-orchestrated attacks as terrorism, drawing parallels to completely unrelated acts of violence not committed by Hamas in Nairobi, Bali, Istanbul, Mumbai, and New York. As the legacy of these forever wars demonstrates, these responses have tended to stoke  rather than reduce   violence and instability. French President Emmanuel Macron initially proposed widening the international coalition against Islamic State to fight Hamas, although he later nuanced these comments and supported calls for a humanitarian ceasefire. 

The concern is that this rhetoric could lead to more of the same kinds of ineffectual or inappropriate responses we’ve seen since 2001. Although many Western states had previously listed Hamas as a terrorist organization, some countries (such as Switzerland) that had resisted listing them have now done so. New sanctions on the group have also been introduced. While there are valid reasons for wanting to take such actions, the problem is that sanctions and terrorist listing processing are blunt and sticky instruments. They make it more difficult to provide humanitarian aid to civilians living in areas where Hamas may be present. They also complicate efforts to negotiate hostage release, create humanitarian corridors, or initiate talks to end the violence. And they tend not to provide much leverage because they are extraordinarily difficult to remove. As others have argued, post-9/11 listing and sanctions regimes are no longer fit for purpose and need reform. 

Moreover, social media further deepens divisions and is increasingly weaponized by all parties to the conflict. While Hamas is technically banned from most social media platforms, this  has done little to stop their influence. This underscores the more general ineffectuality and problematic nature of content moderation with regard to armed actors Beyond propaganda, social media users are spreading and amplifying misinformation. In numerous instances, mainstream media, commentators, and politicians have picked up and repeated inaccuracies. This magnifies the risks of misperception, and thus miscalculation, among political and military decision-makers, which is a recipe for disaster in such a fraught environment. 

All of this is indicative of a level of polarization that is, in itself, extremely dangerous. When the extremes of the political spectrum gain legitimacy at the expense of more nuanced perspectives, it is difficult to identify any middle ground for the compromise and trust-building that will ultimately be required to stop the bloodshed. Moreover, such absolutist rhetoric leaves little room to acknowledge the grievances that might lie behind the violence. It polarizes political discourse by casting any attempt to understand the root causes as ‘sympathizing’ or taking sides. This includes engagement with armed actors and populations living under their control (as we have already seen with regard to criticism of calls for a humanitarian ceasefire). 

These polarized postures can also contribute to a greater disregard for international norms and a lack of restraint. States and non-state actors alike have flagrantly disregarded international humanitarian law. These actions set a precedent and will likely be used to justify ever more extreme forms of retaliation by state and non-state armed groups alike. From Russia’s war in Ukraine to Gaza, state and non-state armed actors are taking more significant risks and more flagrantly disregarding international norms. This is all occurring in an environment of increasing polarization and distrust of international institutions, compounding the breakdown of global norms meant to protect civilians and reduce armed conflict.

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