Gaza Escalation: Sabotaging Hamas
By: Ahmad al-Dabba
Published Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Missile attacks launched from Gaza aim to put pressure on Hamas to free Salafis detained in a crackdown after last month’s attack on an Egyptian military post. Israeli retaliation to the attacks continues to decimate civilian life in the Strip.
Gaza - The Gaza Strip has been witnessing a military escalation recently, with Salafi jihadi groups firing off a number of shells and missiles over the course of several days, prompting retaliatory Israeli airstrikes that killed six and injured dozens of Palestinians.
This escalation from the Salafi groups is not in fact directed against Israel, but against the Hamas movement which rules the Strip. Observers see it purely as a means to put pressure on the Hamas government and wring concessions from it, including the release of Salafi activists recently detained by Hamas security forces. The repeated firings – of Russian Grad missiles as well as homemade projectiles – are intended to warn Hamas, which has been committed to a truce with Israel since 2009 , that the Salafis cannot be trifled with and are capable of causing it serious difficulties.
“It is an effective card to play,” notes Gaza political analyst Akram Atallah, “because Hamas bears ultimate responsibility for security in the Strip, and so the onus is on it to stop the firing of these missiles.” Hamas’ main worry is the Israeli retribution that the missiles invite, especially as several Israeli military and political leaders have been threatening to launch a large-scale military assault on Gaza like Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 which killed some 1,400 people.
The “Mujahideen Consultative Council in the Environs of Jerusalem” has claimed responsibility for the missile attacks, the most recent of which was last Wednesday when two projectiles were launched from Gaza towards Israeli controlled territories.
Atallah links the flare-up to a crackdown launched by Hamas against members of local Salafi jihadi groups after the Egyptian government implicated them in the killing last month of 16 Egyptian soldiers in an attack near the border.
“Many Salafis were arrested by the Hamas government, and that prompted the Salafi groups to give the green light to their members to launch more missiles at Israel. They are well aware that Hamas and most of the other Palestinian factions in the Strip do not want a military confrontation with Israel, at least not at present,” says Atallah. “Playing this card might achieve some gains for the Salafis, as they have been completely marginalized politically and on the ground since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007.”
The Mujahideen Council earlier issued a statement demanding the release of one its leaders, Mohammad Rahwan, who it said was arrested by Hamas after being wounded in an Israeli raid in Rafah. It said he needed medical treatment which he was being denied in jail, and charged he had been tortured while under joint interrogation by Hamas and Egyptian intelligence operatives.
Hamas has denied arresting or torturing any Salafis in connection with resistance-related activities, with officials dismissing reports of a crackdown and even denying that Gaza-based Salafis were accused of involvement in the attack on the Egyptian troops.
“It seems that these groups will continue firing at Israeli towns until a compromise is reached between them and Hamas, which fears a clash with Israel. So long as the Salafis continue to fire, there will be Israeli retaliation, and Hamas’ premises and leaders will be the occupation army’s first targets,” says Atallah.
Analyst Naji Sharab agrees that the missile attacks against Israel are intended to put pressure on Hamas, but believes there is a further dimension to them. The groups concerned are for the most part ideologically affiliated to al-Qaeda and guided by its concept of global jihad, and there are indications that the latest escalation in Gaza was initiated on the instructions of foreign-based leaders of these networks.
Sharab also notes that Hamas has largely sidelined the Salafis since it assumed control, excluding them from important local and national questions such as the truce with Israel and the inter-Palestinian reconciliation process with the Fatah movement and other factions. The missile attacks are thus also a way for the Salafis to “impose themselves on Palestinian politics and be made partners in national decisions, even if they answer to global jihadi leaders.”
There are two types of Salafi group in the Gaza Strip. Daawa (proselityzation) Salafi groups have existed for years, devoted to spreading their version of the Sunni creed exclusively through preaching. They have always been peaceful, and have had no problems with any Palestinian political factions.
Jihadi Salafi groups, linked to the international networks led by al-Qaeda, and calling for an Islamic caliphate and jihad against pagans, only emerged in Gaza a few years ago. Their number is unknown. Some Gazans believe there are dozens of such groups, though there are probably far fewer. Their members are mostly former members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the Salaheddin Brigades. While not numerous, their activities are shrouded in secrecy. Nobody knows where their funding comes from, the names of their leaders, or where they train their fighters.
Hamas has had a frequently fraught relationship with the Salafis since it took over in the Gaza Strip. After it assumed control in 2007, jihadi Salafi leader Abdul-Latif Moussa proclaimed from Rafah the establishment of an Islamic state. Armed clashes ensued between Hamas security forces and Moussa’s supporters, leading to his death along with a number of his followers inside the mosque where he preached.
Hamas later launched an extensive campaign of arrests targeting Salafis, declaring it would not tolerate illegal activities in the name of religion.
Tensions flared again in April 2011 when an Italian solidarity activist, Vittorio Arrigoni, was kidnapped and murdered by a group of Salafis demanding the release of their leader from detention by Hamas security forces. This triggered a fresh showdown, which ended three days later after Hamas located and raided the kidnappers’ hideout, leading to the death of one and the suicide of another before he could be captured.
Calm was then restored to the relationship until last month’s attack on the Egyptian border post, which prompted Cairo to accuse Gaza-based Salafis, and Hamas to crack down once more.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.