When news emerged of fighting in the southern Gaza town of Rafah after jumu‘ah prayers on August 14, many observers would have been surprised to learn that it was between Hamas authorities and militants belonging to a Salafi-Jihadi group known as Jund Ansar Allah — “Soldiers of the Followers of Allah”.
The fighting began after the group’s leader, Abdul Latif Moussa, known as Abul-Nur al-Maqdisi, declared Gaza an Islamic Emirate during his khutbah. By the time it finished the following day, up to 50 people had been killed, including Moussa and dozens of his followers, and at least five Hamas soldiers, including Mohamed al-Shamali, commander of Hamas forces in southern Gaza, who had reportedly previously been involved in talks with the salafi group. His death was celebrated by Israelis, who had long accused him of being responsible for Hamas operations against them.
In fact the events in Rafah only brought to global attention a problem that had been growing in Gaza for some time. Jund Ansar Allah were only one of several salafi-jihadi groups to have emerged in the area since Hamas took power in Gaza following the parliamentary elections in January 2006.
Like similar groups elsewhere, they take a very hardline position on all issues, arguing that Hamas were wrong to participate in elections, which they consider haram, and that jihad is the only solution to a range of problems they perceive in Gaza, from the enmity of the Israelis, to the illegitimacy of Hamas, to what they perceive as the un-Islamic behaviour of many people in Gaza, including cultural practices such as music at weddings, and evidence of immoral behaviour, such as beauty salons and internet cafes. They have also revealed a tendency to denounce as “apostates” all those who do not share their simplistic views of Islam and the political situations in the world, including Hamas and its leaders.
The groups are often associated with al-Qaeda, although it is unlikely that there are any instituional links. What is clear is that they share a similar worldview, language and methodology with salafi-jihadi groups elsewhere, of which al-Qaeda is only the most prominent and best known.
The activities of these groups, which refer to themselves as “gelgelt” in Gaza, have caused increasing problems in Gaza in recent times. In July, 60 people were injured when a bomb exploded at a wedding party in the city of Khan Younis, apparently because the Gelgelt regard dancing at such weddings, common in Gaza throughout the summer, as un-Islamic. Gelgelt groups have also been responsible for unauthorised attacks on Israeli positions on the border between Gaza and Israel, which has resulted in the deaths of several of their members without causing significant losses to the Israelis. Some of these attacks have been carried out on horseback. They have also been accused of bombings of internet cafes andChristian churches in Gaza.
As in other areas of the Muslim world, it appears that the emergence of these groups has been the result of a combination of the enthusiasm and fervour of local Muslims with more anger and commitment than knowledge and political understanding, and the encouragement of outside forces determined to exploit these Muslims for their own purposes.
Local commentators believe that they were particularly encouraged to work against Hamas by Muhammad Dahlan, formerly the commander of Fatah security forces in Gaza, during the period between Hamas’s victory in the elections of January 2006 and Hamas taking control of the Gaza in June 2007. Gelgelt forces were responsible for a number of incidents that caused problems for Hamas during this period, including the kidnapping of British journalist Alan Johnston, which many in the West blamed on Hamas. The influence of these groups waned after the Hamas takeover, resulting in the release of Johnson, but has grown again in recent months, partly as a reaction to the unofficial ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
In other parts of the world, notably Lebanon, the US and Israel have themselves encouraged the emergence of such groups to counter the influence of groups they considered more dangerous. The American journalist Seymour Hersh revealed in 2007 that the salafi-jihadi Fatah al-Islam group, which was responsible for sectarian violence against Hizbullah and associated groups in Lebanon, most notably the fighting at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp that year, had been financed by the Saudis with US and Israeli approval. It is entirely likely that Gelgelt groups in Gaza are being encouraged by the same parties to undermine Hamas.
Gaza officials had been trying to curb the activities of these groups for some time before the confrontation in Rafah last month. However, Moussa’s announcement of the establishment of an Islamic emirate, which had been rumoured for some time, took their activities to a new level, as a direct challenge to the state and the Hamas administration in Gaza, hence Hamas’s strong reaction.
Immediately after the Rafah clash, there were mixed signals from gelgelt sources. Initially, statements threatened retaliation against Hamas leaders, with people being warned to stay away from mosques where they prayed. Later statements took a more conciliatory line, denying that there had been any intention to undermine the government or target Hamas officials.
In statements that echo Hamas’s own attempts to avoid confrontation with the Fatah government of the PA during much of the 1990s and early 2000s, a Gelgelt statement said that “we are the sons of one nation and our cause is a shared one and we must not shed each other’s blood in any circumstances.” Hamas officials, meanwhile, continue to desribe the salafi groups as “misguided and dangerous”. Prime minister Ismail Haniyeh said after the incident that Hamas had no option but to take action against Jund Ansar Allah once it had directly challenged the government, and warned that certain people were exploiting “some youths to feed alien ideas of denunciation and bloodshed, a turn that followed the failure of the siege and the war on Gaza”. He called on them to “distance themselves from negative thinking and misguidance”.
As elsewhere in the Muslim world, the simplistic views and crude methods of such salafi-jihadi groups are capable of creating massive problems for the Islamic movement and Muslims in Gaza, playing into the hands of their enemies. Hamas faces a difficult balancing act in trying to restrict their influence, and the damage they cause, without allowing the situation to deteriorate further into intercenine conflict and bloodshed.