Palestinian group sounds like Al Qaeda but forgoes violence
Hizb ut-Tahrir moves to fill void left by Hamas in the West Bank
HEBRON, WEST BANK
A new fundamentalist player is emerging in Palestinian politics. The group sounds like Hamas – or even Al Qaeda – but doesn't support suicide bombings or secret militias. In recent months, it has shown it can put tens of thousands of supporters into the streets.Skip to next paragraph
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Founded in Jerusalem by a Palestinian-Jordanian judge more than 50 years ago – and once considered a quiet if quirky religious group with a utopian vision of returning to a time when the Muslim world was united – Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation) is now filling a hole left by Hamas in the West Bank.
"They've taken a decision to come out of the closet. The fact that they are out there competing for control of the political vacuum is a new phenomenon," says Ehud Ya'ari, one of the foremost Israeli commentators on Palestinian and Middle Eastern affairs. "There have been a series of rallies in West Bank cities, in which all of sudden they have flexed muscles to show how many people they can get on the street to a demonstration. They've been spending a lot on publishing literature on the caliphate."
He notes that since the group officially eschews violence, preferring instead to wait for some "coup de grace" in the form of a divinely ordained moment of international jihad, Israeli and Palestinian security services have not viewed them as a major threat. But, he quips, "they are not a vegetarian movement."
Active in 45 countries
Indeed, in many of the places where Hizb u-Tahrir is popular – the party says they're active in 45 countries – governments often see them as a feeder organization to more extreme groups.
In interviews here in the West Bank, its leaders and followers say they're winning the hearts and minds of millions with a purer idea: the reestablishment of one united Islamic rule under a caliphate, roughly translated as a successor to the prophet Mohammad.
Though its numbers are hard to measure – and the worldwide movement shuns polls and other Western democratic means – Hizb ut-Tahrir is emerging as a movement with formidable levels of popularity and an alluring ideology that is challenging the very bastions of Palestinian politics.
Hizb ut-Tahrir's influence has grown since Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, took control of Gaza six months ago in a violent coup and split with the West Bank, run by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA). During that time, say analysts, Hamas has become less involved in West Bank life, with many of its leaders under arrest by Israel or PA forces.
And, from November's peace conference in Annapolis, Md., to President George Bush's visit here earlier this month, Hizb ut-Tahrir is growing more visible. It has rallied demonstrators to denounce the peace talks with the US and Israel. "There is no place for the illegal discussion of an Israeli-Palestinian process controlled by the United States," says Maher al-Jabari, a Hizb ut-Tahrir member authorized to speak to the press – itself a shift after years of a low-profile approach. "[Fatah leader] Mahmoud Abbas is a friend of Bush and his position is illegitimate. Abbas does not represent Palestine or the Palestinians," he says.