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Salafis' rise in Gaza robs Hamas of resistance banner

Salafi militants have been firing rockets into Israel, prompting Israeli retaliation as Hamas seeks calm so that it can focus on the economy.

By Correspondent / October 15, 2012

A boy looks at a destroyed house after a long-range Grad rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip hit in the southern Israeli town of Netivot, Sept. 9, 2012.

Ariel Schalit/AP

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Tel Aviv

Israel and Hamas are seeking to restore the relative calm that has prevailed for months after a weekend flare-up in fighting between Israel and Gaza that left at least five Palestinians dead. 

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Israel’s assassination two days ago of the leader of Gaza's growing salafi underground highlights how the rising activity of Al Qaeda-inspired militants in Gaza and the adjacent Sinai peninsula in Egypt is threatening years of relative calm with Israel. The small militant network which, according to Hamas, is acting independently, has been launching rocket attacks from Gaza with increasing frequency and linking up with militants in Egypt’s Sinai desert to plot ambushes across the formerly quiet border with Israel.

With both the Hamas government in Gaza and the new Islamist leaders in Egypt focused on building up their respective economies, neither wants to be dragged into a conflict with Israel.

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"[Hamas] wants to focus on solving the daily life problems of Gaza…. The new rulers of Egypt are not interested in escalation with Israel, either. They are more interested in finding a solution," says Mkahimer Abusada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza.

"Any Israeli escalation against the Salafis and any counter-response puts Hamas under pressure in Gaza."

Resistance or development?

As Hamas tries to balance its reputation as leader of the Palestinian "resistance" and its duties to promote development in Gaza – which requires a degree of moderation – the salafis, an ultraconservative Islamist movement, have been able to attract disillusioned Hamas followers with their mix of religious fundamentalism, extreme militancy, and a growing record of attacks.

"Although Hamas was quite ambivalent about the spread of jihadist ideas, now they face the consequences of not dealing with this head on … [Salafis] want to drag the sides into all-out confrontation, which will serve their political goals, but it stands in contrast to Hamas’s goals of stabilizing Gaza and not getting into a conflict," says Anat Kurtz, an expert on Palestinian politics and society at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University.

Two days ago, Israeli forces killed Hisham Saidani, one of the leaders of Gaza's underground salafi movement. The Israel Defense Forces said he was responsible killing for two IDF soldiers in 2009 and was planning a new Sinai attack. 

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