Jihadists of Gaza take on Hamas for not being Islamic enough

Hamas leadership threatens to strike back with force against the diverse Salafi movement known for advocating violent global struggle.

GAZA CITY // Under the constant watch of Hamas security forces in the Gaza Strip, Abu Musab rarely ventures into public places. He takes calls only after sundown and, while his prayer cap and shin-length robe clearly identify him as a member of an Islamist movement currently at odds with the government here, he changes his location often and conducts his activities mainly at night.

Abu Musab is a commander in the pro-al Qa'eda militant group Jaysh al Ummah (Army of the Nation), one of Gaza's several small but growing radical Islamist factions that preach global jihad and are a mounting threat to the Hamas government they say is too moderate. A series of explosions at several coffee shops and underneath at least four Hamas police vehicles in recent weeks were attributed to militant groups such as Jaysh al Umma, the Hamas-run interior ministry said.

The bombs caused no casualties but rattled the Hamas leadership. The government announced it would crack down hard on home-grown al Qa'eda-style extremism, even as Gaza sinks deeper into poverty and isolation under a tight Israeli economic blockade. "If any group uses weapons against the government or threatens civilian life in Gaza, we will arrest them and we will implement the law," Hamas government spokesman, Taher al Nounou, said of the new militants. "We don't need them to tell us what Islam is."

New to the Palestinian political arena, Gaza's armed extremists subscribe to a strain of ultra-fundamentalist Islam known as Salafi jihadism, and operate under such names as "the Army of Islam" and "Soldiers of the Companions of God". Salafi jihadism advocates violent global struggle to create a supra-national Islamic emirate based on the society of Prophet Mohammed's immediate followers in 7th and 8th-century Arabia. It clashes directly with Hamas's own narrow brand of Islamic nationalism.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from its secular rival Fatah in June 2007, is an Islamist movement with stringent nationalist goals. Its charter calls for an Islamic state in the former mandate Palestine, but the movement has consistently rejected calls for global jihad, and kept its struggle in the framework of Palestinian national liberation. Abu Musab said: "Nothing in Gaza is in line with sharia law, Hamas does not apply the book of God," adding that his Jaysh al Umma faction wishes to see harsh punishments for criminals in Gaza, such as cutting off the hands of thieves.

Local Salafi jihadists, of which there are just 200 to 300, according to analysts, lambast Hamas for entering the political process and failing to implement strict Islamic law. They also see its de-facto ceasefire with Israel since last year's war as a betrayal of the movement's Islamist resistance credentials. "Hamas ran in elections, and became part of an authority that was founded to serve the interests of the [Israeli] occupation," Abu Musab said, referring to Hamas's run in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. "Why do they belong to the institutions of man-made government when they know there is the law of God?"

In the most brazen challenge to Hamas rule by a local jihadi group, members of Jund Ansar Allah (The Soldiers of the Companions of God) declared an Islamic emirate in Gaza from a Rafah mosque last August. A night-long gun battle ensued, leaving 26 dead on both sides, including the Hamas military chief in southern Gaza, Mohammed al Shamali. Hamas subsequently launched a territory-wide arrest campaign against known Salafi jihadists, and while interior ministry spokesman Ehab Ghussein said most of the militants had been "converted" to Hamas' more moderate version of Islam, he later admitted security forces had to re-arrest militants who returned to planning further attacks.

"Last month, we arrested a small group - three or four fighters we had detained before - with $50,000 [Dh184,000] and explosives," said Abu Khalil, a Hamas military commander who fought in the August clashes and whose own vehicle was the target of a bombing by Gaza's Salafi jihadists in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah last month. "They've divided themselves into smaller cells now, so they are more difficult to target."

Abu Musab said his fighters face little trouble acquiring weapons in Gaza, and that Jaysh al Umma has even hosted a small number of foreign militants who came to Gaza to fight Israel. Abu Khalil and other senior Hamas officials said the government was aware of the handful of foreign fighters who had to come to Gaza, but a "very serious decision" at the highest echelons of the Hamas leadership was made to send the foreign jihadists home.

"We don't need al Qa'eda in Gaza. What do they want to do here?" said Mr al Nounou. "If they want to fight against Israel, they can fight outside Palestine." However, Hamas said it is taking the groups seriously. "It's not easy to say we have 100 per cent control over the situation," Mr Ghussein said. "It's a big challenge. But we won't let Gaza become another Baghdad." @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae