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One of the most notable political processes currently taking place in Hamas-ruled Gaza is the growing prominence of “Salafi jihad” organizations.
These are groupings committed to the rigorous, apocalyptic version of Sunni Islamism associated with the al-Qaida network.
The attempt in August by the Hamas authorities to suppress the Jund Ansar Allah group in southern Gaza momentarily cast the spotlight on the growth of the Salafis. They have not gone away.
Following Hamas’s mini-crackdown, the Salafi groupings have continued to grow. No clear line exists between them and the more “moderate” Islamists of Hamas. Rather, Salafi sentiments and loyalties proliferate among rank and file Hamas militants, in particularly in the movement’s armed wing – the Kassam Brigades.
A complex myriad of Salafi groups exists in Gaza. A key question is whether they will succeed in unifying, in order to pose a more serious challenge to the Hamas authorities.
Among the most significant are the Jund Ansar Allah, the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), and the Jaish al-Umma (Army of the Nation.) The Jaish al-Islam is built around the powerful Doghmush clan of Gaza. The Jaish al-Umma, meanwhile, is headed by Sheikh Abu Hafez al-Maqdisi, a well known Salafi cleric from southern Gaza. But it is the Jund Ansar Allah which is considered by many analysts to have the best chance of acting as a unifying force for the plethora of small sects which make up the Salafi subculture in Gaza.
Hamas’s crackdown on Jund Ansar Allah came after the group attempted in August to proclaim an Islamic emirate in the Gaza Strip. The Salafi movement’s leader, Abdul Latif Abu Moussa (Abu al-Nur al-Maqdesi) was killed in the August fighting. His movement, however, has survived and is now attempting to bring other, smaller groups under its banner.
Among the most noteworthy of these groupings is the Suyuf al Haq al-Islamiyyah.Also of note is the Fatah al-Islam group, consisting of 120 survivors of the Lebanese group of the same name, which was bloodily suppressed by the Lebanese Armed Forces in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
Behind this confusing swirl of names is a common process whereby young former activists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Hizb al-Tahrir party are increasingly being attracted to the Salafi groups. The reason is quite simple. A considerable number of young Gaza Palestinians want to engage in “armed struggle” and military action against Israel.
Hamas has been of necessity in a situation of de facto cease-fire since Operation Cast Lead. A situation of de jure cease-fire was in place in the months preceding the operation. So the formerly peripheral Salafi groupings are acting as a channel for grass-roots militancy.
The Salafis benefit from a lack of real competition. The secular nationalist Palestinian groupings are largely an irrelevance. The popular Hizb al-Tahrir Party does not itself engage in armed militancy – rather, its role tends to be as a way station and “university” for young activists on the way to violent activity. And Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which might once have been expected to have picked up disaffected former Hamas activists, is generally regarded as starved of cash and close to being defunct.
Jund Ansar Allah and the groups around it have proven in the last year that their commitment to Islamist militancy is more than purely verbal. The largest attempt at an attack on Israel took place on June 8, 2009. This (barely) foiled attack is largely remembered with a certain amusement in Israel, because of the involvement of seven jihadis-on-horseback in it. However, the attack also involved around 40 IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and would have carried a heavy death toll if it had succeeded.
In addition to the rocket and cross-border attacks, Jund Ansar Allah and its associates are also considered responsible for a large number of “honor killings” in Gaza, and for attacks on the small Christian population, on Internet parlors and other examples of non-Islamic life in the Strip.
The organization is now thought to command around 700 fighters, with a much larger network of supporters. The perceived inactivity of Hamas is also aiding the growth of the Salafi tendency within the ruling movement. The “Jaljalat” – as the Salafi groups within Hamas are known – came into being during the period of the cease-fire.
Powerful figures in Hamas are associated with these elements. Sheikh Nizar Rayan, who was killed during Operation Cast Lead, was a key figure behind them. Ahmed al Ja’abari, commander of the Kassam Brigades, is also a known Salafi.
The Jaljalat groupings appear to be maintaining a curious half-in, half-out relationship with Hamas at the present time. Adherents have begun to organize militarily outside of the framework of Hamas, while maintaining their membership in the movement. The Hamas leadership is watching events carefully. They are reluctant to move against the Jaljalat, for fear that this could precipitate a split in Hamas. At the same time, localized suppression is undertaken, when Jaljalat militants are seen to have undertaken actions which could challenge Hamas’s prestige as the sole ruling authority.
Salafi activity both within Hamas and outside it is aided, according to diplomatic sources, by large-scale support and financing from outside of Gaza. The growth of this trend is a product of the meeting of grass roots Islamic militancy, plentiful outside support and a clear, religious-oriented ideological outlook.
The Salafis are now firmly established on the Palestinian political map – a little way from the main spotlight of daily events. There are those who see them as the wave of the future.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.