Growing threat to Hamas: Gazans who think it has sold out
A gun battle between Hamas and an Al Qaeda-inspired group that left about 30 dead last week is a sign of a growing movement inside the impoverished territory.
Rafah, Gaza Strip
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Last Friday, Hamas forces and the Jund Ansar Allah (Soldier of God) movement fought a day-long gun and artillery battle that killed about 30 in the southern Gaza town of Rafah after the group's spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdel Latif Moussa, declared an Islamic emirate in Gaza and denounced Hamas. Mr. Moussa was killed in the fighting, centered on the mosque where he and his followers had gathered.
It was the first time an Al Qaeda-inspired group had directly challenged Hamas' rule in the Gaza Strip but it may not be the last. Fueled by the failure of Hamas to address the area's growing poverty and isolation, and Hamas' relative recent restraint in its confrontation with Israel, analysts say such organizations are growing in the territory.
"New groups of young people, they are fed up with what they see as Hamas' betrayal of the cause – of Islamic ideology and of jihad," says Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer in Arabic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University and senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "They view Hamas as having become too bureaucratic, too moderate, and they want action."
Hamas is a militant Islamist organization but also a nationalist group largely focused on the creation of a Palestinian state and opposition to Israel. The US calls it a terrorist organization and its rival, the secular Fatah party, says it wants to impose Islamic rule on the Palestinians. The group has been willing to compromise with secular Palestinians on some social issues and has shown little interest over the years in Al Qaeda's desire for a global jihad to spread Islamic law.
In recent months, it has also withheld rocket attacks against Israeli towns.
But it has not been shy about consolidating its position inside Gaza. The businesses allied with the movement have benefited from its time in power and its security services have taken an active interest in possible threats to its power – Islamist and otherwise.
Moussa's followers are vowing to carry on the fight.
"In the name of God, we will take revenge for every bullet fired at our sheikh," a young Palestinian woman yelled on the streets of Rafah just hours after Friday's bloody clashes. "Do not turn your guns on the house of God."
Some analysts say Gaza's young, frustrated with years of desperation and a failed peace process with Israel, are increasingly turning away from organizations with narrow nationalist aspirations like Hamas and towards the apocalyptic, pan-Islamic vision of groups like Al Qaeda.
"Since the Hamas takeover, you're talking about two years of devastated economy in Gaza, a population that has no way of getting in or out, and almost a decade of humanitarian problems," says Nathan Brown, a senior associate and expert on Palestinian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "I can't believe that this type of abnormal situation wouldn't have effects that would send young Palestinians to these types of movements," he says.