GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, (AP) – Gaza’s Hamas prime minister was adamant: There is no al-Qaeda presence in Gaza, rebuffing what he said were Israeli allegations possibly meant to justify military action against the territory.
At the same time, a new homegrown crop of zealots — even if only inspired by the global terror network — is increasingly turning into a problem for Gaza’s ruling Islamic militants.
Dismissing Hamas as too tame, Muslim firebrands have challenged the Gaza government’s informal truce with Israel — in place since Israel’s bruising offensive against Gaza two years ago — by sporadically firing rockets at Israeli border communities. Israel says they also planned to try to cross into neighboring Egypt to use it as a springboard for attacks against Israelis and foreigners.
Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, speaking at a rare news conference for foreign reporters on Wednesday, suggested that claims of an al-Qaeda foothold are part of an Israeli attempt to further discredit the group already shunned by much of the world and to perhaps justify action against Gaza in the framework of the global war against terror.
“There is no such thing as al-Qaeda in Gaza,” Haniyeh insisted. “The Palestinian resistance does not work outside the borders of Palestine.”
Hamas remains firmly in control of Gaza, the territory it seized in a violent takeover in 2007. Its radical challengers, known as Jihadi Salafis, are estimated to number only a few hundred armed men in several small groups, according to experts.
These groups preach global jihad, or holy war and adhere to a form of Islam even more conservative than that of Hamas. While al-Qaeda’s battle is against the West at large, Hamas says its sole target is Israel.
Jihadi Salafis, as they are known, have organized into small, shadowy armed groups that have clashed with Hamas forces and fired rockets at Israel in defiance of Hamas’ informal truce.
Perhaps even more worrisome for Hamas, they claim a growing appeal among Gazans in the territory’s pressure cooker of isolation and poverty, raising fears they could serve as a bridgehead for their ideological twin, al-Qaeda, from which they take their call for global holy war.
Hamas insists it dismantled the groups after a mosque shootout last summer that left 26 dead.
But after months of lying low, Jihadi Salafis become active again. Besides resuming rocket fire on Israel in recent weeks, they blew up the car of a Hamas chief outside his southern Gaza home. The chief, who was not in the car, was unhurt, and the group that claimed responsibility said the blast was a warning.
“We will not stop targeting the figures of this perverted, crooked government (Hamas), breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations,” said the group, the Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades. “What will come next will be harder and more horrible.”
Going by names like “Rolling Thunder” and “Army of God,” they oppose Hamas for refraining from imposing Islamic law since seizing power in Gaza in 2007 and largely sticking to a tactical truce with Israel since the latter’s devastating offensive last year.
The armed Salafis started attracting attention shortly after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. They planted pipe bombs outside Internet cafes, targeted as dens of vice, attacked Christian institutions and kidnapped several foreign journalists. The Army of Islam — one of the main al-Qaeda-inspired groups — had a hand, along with Hamas, in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006. A Gaza mosque shootout between Hamas forces and Salafis in August 2009 left 26 dead.
The Salafis, who castigate Hamas for failing to impose Islamic law and for suspending attacks on Israel, are a potential magnet for Gazans dissatisfied with their rulers. And Hamas could find itself the target of crushing retaliation if Salafis ever manage to carry out a major attack.
Israel says the threat is very real. And Egyptian officials say in the first week of November, they arrested 25 sympathizers of the Army of Islam.
Last month, Israel killed three members of the Army of Islam in separate airstrikes, alleging at the time that the men planned to attack Israeli and American targets in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which borders Gaza.
A senior Israeli military official told The Associated Press this week that several Gaza gunmen from that cell are still hiding in Sinai. He said it wasn’t clear whether the cell planned to kidnap Israeli tourists in the Sinai or use Egypt as a gateway to infiltrate into Israel to carry out attacks there.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations, also alleged that hundreds of militants, mainly from Yemen and including some trained by al-Qaeda, have sneaked into Gaza through smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt. He said Gaza militants have also gotten military training in Sudan and Yemen.
In an apparent attempt at damage control, Haniyeh sent a letter to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, assuring him that Palestinian militants are not active outside Gaza’s borders.
Commentators on websites affiliated with al-Qaeda have urged Hamas and the Gaza Salafis to set aside their differences. An article on one of the sites said the leaders of al-Qaeda are not interested in these groups because they are small, divided and scattered.
Hamas has traditionally focused on its conflict with Israel and rejected the idea of global jihad. In recent years, some in Hamas, including its supreme leader, Syrian-based Khaled Mishal, have softened and said they would not object to a Palestinian state alongside Israel after years of total rejection.