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.
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.
"We accept only Islam in politics and in vision. And we have a powerful secret: to keep out Western ideas and keep to a pure Islamic system," Professor Jabari, who teaches chemical engineering at a college here, explains in an interview in his sprawling, freshly furnished home here in Hebron, a conservative city where Hizb ut-Tahrir's support appears to be among the strongest in the West Bank.
The group is gaining supporters in other cities, too. In August, a major rally in Ramallah drew 20,000 people, according to official estimates. In the same week, demonstrations were held in other Muslim countries where the group is popular, with some 80,000-100,000 people attending a massive gathering in Jakarta, Indonesia. The rallies were called to coincide with the anniversary of the official 1924 dissolution of the caliphate – carried out by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey – following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
Many analysts see the demonstration against the Annapolis peace conference in November, during which Palestinian police killed Hisham al-Baradi, one of Hizb ut-Tahrir's activists, as a major turning point. Mr. Baradi has since been deemed a shahid, or martyr, allowing the group to ratchet up its rhetoric as a group persecuted not just by Israel, but by Palestinian authorities as well.
"We were attacked by the oppressive Palestinian police forces, and one our members was killed," says Mr. Jabari, adding that several hundred of their activists were also arrested in recent months, most of them later released. "They must be afraid of us," he concludes.
No peace talks with Israel
Additional evidence of this, he says, is the arrest of about 30 Hizb ut-Tahrir activists while President Bush was speaking alongside Mr. Abbas in Ramallah on Jan. 10. The activists handed out fliers decrying Bush, Abbas, and any Palestinian working towards a two-state solution alongside Israel. Instead, the group argues that the entire umma, or Islamic nation, should unite to overthrow the Middle East's many Western-backed states, emirates, and kingdoms – none of which, they say, are in line with Muslim ideals.
One of those who was arrested was Abdul-Nasser al-Baradi, the older brother of Hisham, who was killed in November. While Hisham was alive, he convinced Abdul-Nasser of Hizb ut-Tahrir's ideas, the elder Baradi says in an interview at his late brother's home, which he visits daily to help his brother's two surviving widows and seven children. One of them is Izz ed-Din, 14, who says that Hizb ut-Tahrir has the key to succeeding where democracy – which the group openly rejects – has failed.
"I'll give you an example," the high school freshman says. "Islam says if you steal, the punishment is to have your hand cut off. A democratic regime might not come to such a conclusion."
Hizb ut-Tahrir's leaders here say that other Islamic strictures would apply: they would ban the sell of alcohol in public, for example, but non-Muslims would be free to drink it in private and maintain their own religious practices at home.
The boy's uncle, Abdul-Nasser, puts the issue of why Palestinians are turning to Hizb ut-Tahrir into a broader perspective. "It's only natural that people feel threatened by the PA and look at it as a collaborator. People feel the Palestinian Authority is not with the people," he says.
"Hamas started with a similar ideology, but time has proven that the liberation of Palestine is not going to go according to Hamas' route, through resistance." At the same time, he says, Palestinians don't think that the answer lies in Fatah's approach – a negotiated settlement with foreign intervention and aid.
"The only route is with the march of armies under the rule of the caliph," he says. Anything else, including tit-for-tat violence and especially peace talks, is a waste of time. "Talks are not only useless and futile, but they're very destructive. These negotiations are only geared to protect the security of Israel. The majority of people support this view and support Hizb ut-Tahrir, Thank God, even though the media is hiding that."
While it is difficult to determine the depth of Palestinian support for Hizb ut-Tahrir, it's probably not accurate to say the media is trying to obfuscate the movement's rising star.
"Hamas is clearly weakening in the West Bank. The West Bank leadership has been distancing itself dramatically from the Gaza leadership, and we are seeing the reemergence of Hizb ut-Tahrir as a political player," says Mr. Ya'ari.
James Brandon, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Social Cohesion in London and an expert on Hizb ut-Tahrir, says that party officials worldwide don't advocate or organize violent attacks. "But ... they act as a conveyor belt organization, in which they attract people and radicalize them, and then those people eventually move on, reject the Hizb ut-Tahrir method, and start looking to Al Qaeda."
Growing in the US and Pakistan
He says that the group is growing in Indonesia and Pakistan, but appears to be losing supporters in Britain, where it is headquartered, and where politicians have talked of banning the group because some of its members graduated to organizations involved in acts of terrorism in Britain and elsewhere. Mr. Brandon says that the group, which has been banned in some Central Asian countries, is growing in popularity in the US and in Holland.
"They're quite good at getting followers initially, but it is based on such incremental change that after a while, people get bored with it," Brandon explains. "They tell people, you just have to be patient until we can overthrow all the regimes in Muslim or Arab lands. Whereas in Palestine, people have tried asserting their national or religious identity with existing groups and this hasn't worked, so maybe the attitude is, 'let's try something new.' "
The group may also have growing appeal in some countries because its pan-Islamic message can be translated into a promise to heal the Shiite-Sunni rift that opened in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Hizb ut-Tahrir's leader, Sheikh Atta Abu Rishta, reportedly lives in Lebanon but does not make regular media appearances. Jabari, the spokesman in Hebron, notes with some pride there is no cult of personality surrounding their leader and one will not find a picture of him or any other Hizb ut-Tahrir leader tacked on the wall of a home or office, as is common with other religious and political parties in the Middle East. Until there is a caliph, which means literally "successor" or "representative" of the prophet Mohammad, he says, no man's image belongs on the wall.