GAZA CITY // Still recovering from a devastating war with Israel last summer, Gaza’s Hamas rulers now find themselves confronting a new internal threat: extremists who support the ISIL group and appear intent on provoking Israel to pressure and embarrass Hamas.
While these Salafi groups are not strong enough to threaten Hamas, they are making life increasingly difficult for the ruling militant group.
Hamas accuses them of being behind a series of mysterious explosions aimed at Hamas security posts, as well as recent rocket launches that have drawn Israeli reprisals and threats of tougher military action.
A Hamas crackdown on the Salafists killed a wanted fugitive during a raid last week, appearing to erase any hopes of reconciliation in the near term.
The fugitive, Younis Al Hunnor, had been wanted for months, and his death has prompted angry calls for revenge.
“Hamas are infidels,” says a spray-painted message written on the stairway of Al Hunnor’s apartment building in southern Gaza. “No condolences before revenge,” said another message.
On a recent day, blood stains were still visible outside the apartment, and Al Hunnor’s mother, Basma, pointed to several bullets holes at the entrance.
“They killed him here. They executed him,” she said.
She said her son supported the ISIL ideology but had never acted against Hamas.
“Even if he pays allegiance to the ISIL, what gives them the right to execute him?” she said.
Salafists include a number of ultraconservative extremist groups that seek to turn Gaza into an Islamic ‘caliphate’. These groups have accused Hamas of being too soft on Israel and of failing to adequately impose religious law.
Hamas has generally tolerated the Salafists since they emerged in Gaza a decade ago, though there have been occasional confrontations.
In 2009, Hamas killed a Salafi leader who declared an Islamic emirate in the southern town of Rafah. Since then Hamas has worked quietly to dismantle the groups. “Now, they are scattered groups, sometimes made up of 10 people who have an ideological problem with Hamas,” said Adnan Abu Amer, an analyst from Gaza.But in recent months, Gaza’s Salafists have been emboldened by the rise of ISIL.
At the same time, Hamas has been weakened by last year’s war while a stifling blockade of Gaza’s borders by Israel and Egypt remains in place.
Analysts believe there are about 1,000 Salafi loyalists – too few to pose a threat to Hamas but enough to cause persistent problems.
While the attacks have caused no casualties, they have strained a 10-month-old ceasefire.
Wary of the rising threat, Hamas has launched a crackdown on the most radical groups.
Mushir Al Masri, a local Hamas official, said such steps are a last resort. “We are not interested in the existence of tension.”
But after the crackdown, particularly last week’s killing of Al Hunnor, tensions are running high.
Abu Mohammed, a Salafi activist, said the Salafists “love, support and defend ISIL” and anyone who opposes the group is “intentionally or unintentionally taking part in the war against Islam”.
Another Salafi, identifying himself only as Abu Ahmed, said Salafists receive no weapons or money from abroad, unlike Hamas which has help from Iran and other regional allies.
He said the group has no interest in battling Hamas: “Our problem with Hamas is that it wants to dominate, it wants to control, it wants to let everybody work according to its own interest.”
* Associated Press