As direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians drag on in Jerusalem, it should not surprise anyone that militants in the Gaza Strip have stepped up their rocket and mortar attacks into southern Israel. Neither should it surprise anyone that the Israeli government is holding Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing control of it in 2007, responsible for the attacks, accusing the group of trying to derail the peace process.
What is surprising, however, is that it may not be Hamas who is responsible for most of the rockets that have recently been launched into Israel. Rather, a group of Palestinian militants connected to al Qaeda has been repeatedly staging attacks against Israeli targets over the last year as a means of challenging Hamas’s rule over Gaza.
A civil war is brewing in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and a new crop of more radical militant groups like Jaish al-Umma, Ansar al-Sunna, and Jund Ansar Allah, who believe Hamas is not fighting the “Jewish enemy” as aggressively as it should be. According to the Economist, these Palestinian militants have been heavily influenced by time spent in Saudi Arabia, where they apparently absorbed the Kingdom’s ultra-orthodox (sometimes called “Salafist”) brand of Islam—a particularly conservative interpretation of Islam that, until recently, had not taken root in the Palestinian territories.
A spokesman for Jaish al-Umma says his group’s purpose is “to awaken the Islamic nation from the backwardness and the ignorance the tyrant regimes in Islamic countries have caused, and to free the Muslims from the despots.”
Although the leaders of this new movement tend to be doctors and university professors, they draw their rank and file membership from Hamas militants who have grown disenchanted with the group’s attempt to moderate its ideology and accommodate Israeli demands. Unlike Hamas, which has diligently kept its distance from al Qaeda and openly rejected its global ideology, many of these so-called “Salafist” groups are fervent supporters of al Qaeda, and some have referred to Osama bin Laden as their "righteous shepherd” (though a few continue to preach loyalty to the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas).
• Leslie H. Gelb: Hillary’s Dangerous Mideast LeapAccording to a report by the pro-Israel think tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy ( WINEP), al Qaeda has long been desperate to establish a link to Gaza, though some Qaeda leaders have expressed concern over the Gazans’ lack of “ideological commitment” and their “susceptibility to infiltration by Israeli intelligence.” Despite these reservations, the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reports that a Kuwaiti operative named Sami al-Mutairi has taken charge of al Qaeda’s activities in Gaza. Mutairi has reportedly sent his supporters in the Gaza Strip a total of $850,000 through a Saudi citizen, Abdullah al-Dusri, who traveled to Gaza from Sinai carrying the money in a suitcase. Haaretz claims Mutairi gave orders to buy weapons in Sinai for militants in the Gaza Strip, and to purchase apartments in Khan Yunis and Rafah where the militants could hide. Apparently Mutari gave explicit orders to his followers to hide the arms, which may include 25 Grad-type Katyusha rockets, so they would not be confiscated by Hamas.
These Qaeda-inspired militants have been responsible for a number of recent rocket attacks against Israel, including last March’s Qassam attack against the Israeli city of Netiv Ha'asara, which took the life of a Thai farm worker, and August’s attack on the Jordanian city of Aqaba, which killed one Jordanian national and injured several others. The group has even carried out attacks on fellow Gazans, launching assaults on coffee shops and Internet cafes.
Abu Abdullah al-Ghazi, a spokesman for Jaish al-Umma, which is estimated to have between 200 and 300 members, described the purpose and ideology of his group thusly: “to awaken the Islamic nation from the backwardness and the ignorance the tyrant regimes in Islamic countries have caused, and to free the Muslims from the despots.” That is almost word for word the ideology spouted by al Qaeda ideologues like the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Syrian Abu Musab al-Suri. And while al-Ghazi admits that groups like Jaish al-Umma keep communication with Hamas at a minimum and only for coordination on the battlefield, he criticized both Hamas and Fatah for their treatment of his followers (“Fatah and Hamas torture us in their prisons. There is not a man that is arrested by them that is not tortured”) and declared Fatah, the Popular Front, and Hezbollah to be “enemies that must be fought.”
Hamas has attempted to fight back against these Salafist groups, but without much success. In August of 2009, after Abdel-Latif Moussa, the leader of Ansar Al-Sunnah, declared Gaza to be “an Islamic emirate,” Hamas security forces stormed the mosque in which he was hiding. A deadly firefight ensued in which twenty-four people, including Moussa, were killed.
Yet despite Hamas’ attempts to tighten its grip over the security of Gaza, the Salafist groups are becoming increasingly bold in their attacks against both Israeli and Palestinian targets, even as the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority continue to hold Hamas responsible for their actions. “I see Hamas as directly responsible for any attack that comes from the Gaza Strip toward the state of Israel and the international community should see it this way as well,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said.
Whatever the truth of that statement, what is clear is that the rise of these new militant movements in Gaza present yet another obstacle to the already faltering peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His new book Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East comes out in Nov. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.