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.

In this Aug. 14 photo, Abdel-Latif Moussa, the leader of Jund Ansar Allah, or the Soldiers of the Companions of God, speaks during Friday prayers in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Hamas said Saturday morning that he was killed by an explosion while fighting Hamas forces in Rafah.

Two years after its takeover of the Gaza strip, Hamas has faced down its greatest challenger: A militant, Al Qaeda-inspired organization that says Hamas is not Islamic enough.

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.

Holy revenge

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.

Al Qaeda can itself be seen as a subset of an Islamic movement called the "salafi jihadis." Salaf is an Arabic world that refers to practicing Islam in the manner of the Prophet Mohammed's immediate followers in 7th- and 8th-century Arabia and modern salafi jihadi groups belived themselves to be engaged in a global struggle to restore the ancient Islamic emirate and, ultimately, see the world ruled under one united vision of Islam. In practice they are uncompromising and tend to dismiss other Muslims who don't share their doctrine as worse than infidels.

While small in both numbers and military capability, they do pose an immediate threat at least to both Gaza and the wider Palestinian cause, says Gaza-based political scientist, Mukhaimar Abusaada.

He says such groups have carried out attacks on Internet cafés, hair salons, and the minority Christian community in Gaza in recent years – all examples of what they believe is a decadent, anti-Islamic culture.

Weapons purchases

Hamas commanders involved in Friday's battle say Jund Ansar Allah, with a little bit of money and a strong preaching style, bought weapons from other Palestinian militant groups like Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, while recruiting from among the younger members of the Hamas movement.

Moussa, a pediatrician and Salafi sheikh who ran a small mosque in Rafah, had been watched by Hamas for some time. He spoke out against the movement recently after they sought to bring his mosque under government supervision – and was attracting young followers.

"These new fighters, they are young and they were lost," says a high-level Hamas commander in Rafah who identified himself as Abu Khalil. "They found spiritual guidance from Moussa, who took up their fight against Hamas, and what they see as our more moderate version of Islam."

While the alliance between the preacher and young militants was the catalyst for Friday's violence, analysts say the harsh Hamas response may win sympathy for the salafis.

"Different versions of Friday's events will undoubtedly circulate around Gaza," says Dr. Brown. "And that is bound to aggravate the situation. Any government involved in violence of this scale is running a great risk there will be substantial backlash."

Several other Gaza-based armed groups, including Jaish al-Islam (The Army of Islam), share Jund Ansar Allah's religious and political goals and are reportedly seeking to forge a single Islamist movement to oppose perceived Hamas liberalism.

Abu Khalil says Hamas warned local militant factions that "not a single bullet" will pass through the smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border without Hamas approval. But he admits his movement may have an ideological, as well as a military, fight on its hands.

"They are a threat, but mainly from up here," Abu Khalil says, pointing to his head. "We must teach them that this is not the way, and that even the people in Gaza will not support their extremism. Our fight is with the Israelis."

Brown says that type of rhetoric – promising to maintain law and order while reining in extremism – is reminiscent of how Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority and was ousted from Gaza in 2007 by Hamas, used to talk about Hamas as a revolutionary resistance movement over a decade ago.

"Because it is now so deeply entrenched in political power, and because of this recent cease-fire with Israel, Hamas is seen by some as endangering some of its ideological credentials," says Brown. "This recent crackdown may play into a growing feeling that Hamas is no longer a resistance movement, but a government set on keeping both its power and keeping things fairly quiet with Israel.

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