Ariel Schalit/AP
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.

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.

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. 

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.

"[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. 

Mr. Saidani reportedly spent time with Al Qaeda groups in Iraq. He also spent two years in Hamas’s prisons before being released in August this year. Hamas accused him of kidnapping Italian pro-Palestinian activist Vettorio Arrigoni in 2011.

Salafi militants in Gaza, guided in part by Saidani, have fashioned themselves as a small vanguard promoting an agenda of pan-Arab Islamism. Although they can't match the network of social welfare organization that have been key to Hamas's influence in Gaza, they have adherents within the Islamist establishment there, says Ms. Kurtz.

"Even before the Arab Spring eruption, these groups have become more assertive, trying to mobilize public opinion to endorse radical Islamist directives as themes of social life. This message is essentially not so nationalist, as pan-Islamic," Kurtz says. 

Although Hamas launched a deadly offensive against the Gaza salafis three years ago, that has been an exception, Ms. Kurtz said.

Disrupting deterrence 

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue to hit salafi targets, while a Hamas spokesman predicted that forces of the Palestinian "resistance" would exact revenge on Israel for the weekend attacks.

"The rise in tension reflects … a real threat to the mutual balance of deterrence in the south," wrote Amos Harel, a military columnist for Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Under the noses of Hamas and sometimes with its encouragement, networks identified with Al Qaeda have established a far-flung array of activists and armaments. The deployment is now broad enough to inflame the entire front" in southern Israel.

But analysts say that both sides have an interest in winding down the tension. Mr. Netanyahu won’t want to order a major offensive in the Gaza Strip that could risk his reelection campaign.

Hamas, meanwhile, is awaiting a potential visit from Qatar Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has promised to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Gaza infrastructure. The visit and investment is likely to be a powerful symbol of Hamas’s increased acceptance in the region. But if salafi groups continue to spar with Israel, it might not be able to sit on the sidelines.

"Hamas is not in favor of this escalation," says Nashat Aqtash, a professor of communications at Birzeit University in the West Bank. "If Hamas wants to control, they can get control. But why should they? At what price? Why should they burn themselves to look like traitors against the resistance?"

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