The Hamas-run government in the Gaza Strip announced on Saturday that its deadly Friday battle with local Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic militants in the southern Gaza town of Rafah was over, ending the biggest internal challenge to Hamas rule since the group seized control of the territory in 2007.
Twenty-two people, including six Hamas policemen, six civilians and the radical militants’ alleged spiritual leader and local imam in Rafah, Abdel-Latif Moussa, were killed, and at least 120 wounded, according to local medical officials.
It is still unclear how many of the militants were killed or wounded by Hamas. Government forces prevented journalists from accessing the hospital in Rafah where they are reportedly being treated.
The battle began after prayers at a Rafah mosque on Friday when imam Moussa, guarded by armed members of the new, Gaza-based Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of God) movement, declared an “Islamic emirate” in the Gaza Strip.
The new extremist organization, which grabbed headlines for the first time in June when some of its members attempted to attack an Israeli military base on horseback, has recently criticized the more moderate Hamas for failing to implement Sharia, or Islamic, law in the Gaza Strip.
An hours-long gun battle ensued after Hamas forces then surrounded the mosque, where they said Jund Ansar Allah fighters had stored a massive cache of weapons.
The Hamas-run interior ministry finally declared the operation over on Saturday morning, after Rafah residents reported hearing a number of explosions.
Moussa was confirmed dead by Gaza government officials after an explosion rocked his home late Friday night. Moussa’s top aide, Abu Abdullah Al-Suri, reportedly blew himself up at the door of the mosque that was the scene of the battle, say local Hamas fighters who participated in the clashes.
This incident comes on the heels of a number of media reports that foreign fighters from places like Iraq have recently entered the Gaza Strip in order to aid Palestinian militants and increase the influence of their brand of global, militant Islam.
Hamas officials have adamantly denied that any foreign fighters are operating in Gaza, saying the reports are an attempt to destabilize and undermine their government.
Some analysts say the clashes could be indicative of troubling trends in the Gaza Strip, including a weakened Hamas position in the wake of Israel’s assault on the movement last winter, as well as the rising appeal of radical Islam to disenchanted Palestinian youth in the face of increasing poverty across Gaza.
Local Hamas commanders in Rafah say, however, that they are taking the new Islamist group, and the threat it poses very seriously.