Gaza Extremists Drifting Toward al-Qaeda?

RAMALLAH – Two separate bomb attacks on Internet cafes in Gaza last week have served as an uncomfortable reminder that extremist groups within the coastal territory may be stronger than the moderate Hamas organization that rules the strip.

The attacks in Khan Yunis preceded a warning in a study, due to be released this week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that Gaza-based, militant Palestinian groups may be moving closer to al-Qaeda – the international Islamist network that has called for global jihad.

The Associated Press (AP) has obtained a copy of the study, which was conducted by Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism and intelligence expert at the Washington Institute, and Yoram Cohen, an ex-deputy director of the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet.

"Al-Qaeda likely remains unconvinced of the ideological commitment of groups like Jaish al-Islam," AP quoted Levitt. "Al-Qaeda may also have concerns about the survivability of such groups, including their susceptibility to infiltration by Israeli intelligence."

There are several groups, including the Jaish al-Islam, Jaish al-Sunna, and the Jund Ansar Allah, which are known to be operating in Gaza. Each group is alleged to have 200-300 men, making them small yet a significant threat.

The most serious clash between the extremist groups and the Hamas, which has tried to rein them in, broke out in August last year when the Jund Ansar Allah declared the southern town of Rafah an "Islamic Emirate" and holed up its fighters in a local mosque.

A shoot-out between Hamas security men and the armed militants, who had laid explosives at strategic points in the mosque, left over 20 people, mostly militants, dead.

The following week Hamas police were seen searching cars at roadblocks set up across Gaza city as several bombs exploded outside government buildings in apparent retaliation for the Rafah shoot-out.

Prior to Hamas taking over Gaza in June 2007, a number of kidnappings of Westerners took place, including that of Gaza-based BBC journalist Alan Johnston, whom Hamas later managed to free.

The kidnappings were believed to have been carried out by Gaza clans affiliated to al-Qaeda that had previously run extortion and smuggling rings linked to the Palestinian Authority, which jointly ruled Gaza before the Hamas coup.

Since then Hamas has largely managed to bring security to the streets of Gaza. However, the spate of attacks on CD/DVD shops, cafés, Internet cafés, beauty parlors, and male-run hairdressing salons catering to female clientele have continued sporadically.

These institutions are viewed as Western and un-Islamic in the eyes of the extremists, who argue that Hamas does not apply Islamic law in Gaza strictly enough and who are also against Hamas’ truce with Israel.

Israel’s security services, meanwhile, say that dozens of foreign fighters and Islamic extremists have entered Gaza, through its ubiquitous smuggling tunnels, where they are undergoing further training in preparation for a military confrontation with Israel.

Many of the fighters have allegedly made their way to Gaza after leaving Iraq as U.S. forces continue to wind down operations there and become less of a target for the insurgents.

The insurgents have been identified as part of the "Worldwide Jihad." Many of them identify with al-Qaeda and may have been involved in a few attacks against Israel from the Gaza strip.

Israel says the flow of fighters is likely to increase and states that while Hamas has been able to keep control over other Palestinian resistance groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it is struggling to rein in the foreign fighters.

The Israelis believe, however, that Hamas is not interested in the foreign fighters entering Gaza as they operate independently of the Gaza-based resistance movement and threaten to provoke retaliatory attacks by Israel.

The authors of the Washington Institute study believe that although al-Qaeda does not yet have firm ties with the extremist groups – due to their lack of commitment in targeting a Western target – this could change.

Samir Awad from Birzeit University’s political science department near Ramallah believes that strong links are unlikely to ever be established.

"These splinter groups are small and disorganized and more a spontaneous reaction to Israeli’s crippling blockade of Gaza and the lack of work, hope, and any future," Awad told IPS.

"These people are desperate and unemployed with too much time on their hands, and in such circumstances people start cracking up and looking at alternative ways to relieve the social and economic pressure."

"That is why Israel’s blockade is so counterproductive and could instigate a backlash against the Jewish state," Awad said. "While al-Qaeda might not gain a significant foothold in the Gaza strip these groups of gunmen could go crazy and cause enormous damage even with their small numbers."

Ahmed Yousef, foreign adviser to Ismail Haniyah, Gaza’s Hamas leader, told IPS: "We will keep the situation under control and will never allow these groups to bring disorder to our streets again."

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the Burej refugee camp, just south of Gaza City, a group of masked and armed Jaish al-Sunnah fighters has been spotted undergoing training.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.