KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA STRIP // The electoral triumphs of Islamist parties in the Arab world have inspired an unusual challenger to Hamas.
The Salafis of Al Nour Party are brandishing themselves as a democratic and pious alternative to the Gaza Strip's one-party rule under the Palestinian-Islamic resistance movement.
Its members say the success of their politically organised Salafist brethren - also called Al Nour Party - in Egypt's first free parliamentary elections have encouraged them to form a party to open Gaza to competitive politics. They have fashioned a platform that says their ultraconservative interpretation of Islam should be the backbone of society. But Hamas has been arresting its members, they say, something they call hypocritical since Hamas officials hope to reap the political rewards from the democratic empowerment of fellow Islamists in the region.
One of those rewards was yesterday's landmark visit by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar's emir. Sheikh Hamad was the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas came to power five years ago.
"Hamas has become a one-party dictatorship in Gaza," Mohammed Abu Jamiaa, an Al Nour Party leader, said at the group's headquarters in Khan Younis earlier this month. "But we respect democratic politics and all we seek to do is enter the political system in a democratic and peaceful way, and we seek to implement Sharia in a democratic way."
Still, Hamas could be forgiven for being wary of Salafism.
Salafis - puritans who want to impose Islamic law far more rigidly than Hamas - have gained influence here, fuelled by the bleak circumstances of a crippling Israeli blockade over the territory and a Palestinian leadership hamstrung by bitter divisions.
Ranging from peaceful, ultraconservative proselytisers to Al Qaeda-linked extremists, Salafis have gained a reputation in Gaza for violence.
This month, an Israeli air strike killed two Salafis, Hisham Al Saedni and Ashraf Al Sabah, with suspected links to Al Qaeda. The pair, known for launching attacks against Israel, rejected the relative pragmatism of Hamas and the de facto - if shaky - ceasefire it has maintained with Israel.
Hamas security forces have arrested and killed many Salafis since it took control of Gaza, forcing their religious practices underground, Salafis here say.
Al Nour members said police in Khan Younis prevented them from formally announcing the party's creation this month. Just before a scheduled news conference, Mr Jamiaa said police detained him and several members for six hours.
"They call us spies and foreign agents," said Mr Jamiaa, who denied his group received formal support from Salafist allies in Egypt. "But we just want to be democratic like our Arab brothers. Salafis here need political representation."
Al Nour, led by a dozen men in their twenties who graduated with religious-studies degrees from Gaza universities, first requested party recognition in late September in a letter to the office of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza.
They received no response.
After news broke of Hamas's detention of Al Nour members, Hamas officials have said they do not oppose the party. If made official, Al Nour would be the first party formed in Gaza under Hamas rule, said Mustafa Sawaf, an adviser to the Hamas leadership. "Nobody has ever applied or been accepted," he said.
Desperate for an end to Israel's blockade on Gaza, Hamas hopes the election victory of its fellow Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in Egypt will help end its international isolation. Qatar, known for its links to Muslim Brotherhood organisations in the region, has announced hundreds of millions of dollars of investment for Gaza as a reward, analysts here say, for Hamas breaking ties with the regime of Bashar Al Assad, Syria's president.
But Al Nour presents Hamas with a novel challenge that has begun playing itself more broadly in the region between Salafist parties and the Islamist moderates of the Mislim Brotherhood, said Ibrahim Ibrach, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University.
In the Egyptian parliamentary elections held between November and January, the Salafis of Al Nour won nearly 28 per cent of the vote - just 10 per cent shy of the bloc led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party.
"Because of the new freedoms offered to Islamists in the Arab world, you're starting to see the establishment of a new opposition of Salafist groups against the Brotherhood," he said. "And here in Gaza, this is something that Hamas is going to have to grapple [with], and eventually open up to, within the new reality of Arab world politics."
Hamas has historically vied for power with its secular-leaning rival, Fatah, which runs the West Bank. But Fatah influence has eroded in Gaza and, Mr Ibrach said, the territory's dire circumstances have turned it into an incubator of religious ideologues.
That has nurtured Salafism. Although there are no reliable statistics on their numbers in Gaza, Salafist groups here have done everything from storming Israeli border posts on horseback and assisting in the 2006 capture of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, to defying Hamas by openly declaring Gaza an Islamic emirate.
But most do not espouse violence or, for that matter, participation in democratic politics like the Salafis of Al Nour.
"Islam and its laws have a prescription for everything - human rights, women's rights - and if you enter the politics of democracy, you stray from Islam," said Sheikh Yassin Al Astal, the head of Gaza's Al Dawa Salafia group. The group has called for an Islamic state in Gaza through peaceful means.
But encouraged by recent examples in the Arab world, Al Nour party members say Islam and democracy are not incompatible. Contrary to Hamas's official call for Israel's obliteration, they even said they would recognise Israel if a Palestinian state were created.
An oversized poster of Jerusalem in Al Nour's office shows the Jewish west side in the backdrop of city's holy places, unusual in Gaza, where such depictions often airbrush out the city's Jewish character.
"For too long, we have been trying to force a reality that has not been compatible with the reality on the ground," Mr Jamiaa said. "We believe that we have to adapt, to be flexible, and that is why we believe in peace, democracy and our party."
& Hugh Naylor on