Gaza is facing yet another threat exacerbated by the ongoing Israeli siege: Islamic fundamentalism.
In mid August, 24 people died in a bloody gun battle between Hamas and the Jund Ansar Allah ("Soldiers of the Companions of God") group in a Rafah mosque. The group’s leader, Abdul-Latif Moussa, reportedly killed himself using a suicide belt and more than 100 people were injured over the course of the battle. Hamas said that it launched the crackdown on the group after Moussa announced an "Islamic emirate" in Gaza, directly challenging the elected government’s rule. Hamas accused the US-backed Fatah and Arab states of being behind the militants, supporting them as part of an attempt to destabilise the Strip.
The clash was hardly surprising. I heard during my time in Gaza that a growing number of Islamists were frustrated with attempts by Hamas to discuss engagement with the international community. For them, resistance means no compromise in the face of ongoing Israeli attacks. BBC journalist Shahdi Alkashif told me that he regularly spoke to Islamic extremists in Gaza and they were thriving under the siege. He acknowledged they were a tiny minority, but noted that a lack of political progress only adds strength to their challenge of Hamas’s current strategy. Such militants ask Gazans, why even bother trying to negotiate with Israel and Washington when resistance could achieve far more?
My fixer in Gaza, a Fatah man, knew some of the family members of another militant group in Gaza, the "Army of Islam", which kidnapped the BBC journalist Alan Johnson in 2007. They still exist — Gaza is run and controlled by a clan and family system — so destroying whole groups militarily is next to impossible. In order to present a coherent unified, and credible face as a negotiating partner, Hamas has imposed a tight grip on the Strip and doesn’t tolerate challenges to its authority from groups like these.
But from Hamas’s point of view, this strategy hasn’t paid off yet. Barack Obama remains deaf to the Hamas overtures. Amr Hamzawy and Jeffrey Christiansen who work at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, wrote in this week’s National newspaper that, "the US must realise that excluding Hamas cannot possibly advance the peace process beyond the status quo".
There is little evidence (at least not in public) to indicate that Washington understands this reality and has noted the Hamas leadership’s consistent calls for a viable two-state solution. Countless Hamas figures told me the same thing in Gaza. The destruction of Israel was out and some kind of co-existence was in, but the right to "resist" Israeli aggression was a legitimate condition to these pronouncements.
Some of the international media coverage of the shoot-out between Hamas and the allegedly al Qaeda aligned group accused Hamas of committing a "massacre". Yet as Orly Halpern pointed out, Hamas has a democratically conferred responsibility for law and order in Gaza. That means that its response was in fact no different to the response most people anywhere else would expect their own law enforcement agencies to carry out if an armed group took on the police.
As senior Hamas minister Ahmed Yusuf told the Washington Post, "We are a liberation movement with an Islamist hue. We are not the Taliban or al Qaeda. We like law and order." It’s an important distinction and acknowledges Hamas’s aims of Palestinian liberation, as opposed to carrying out a generalised campaign against the West which characterises the aims of some other Islamist organisations.
It remains difficult — or not politically expedient — for many in the West to accept that Hamas has greatly mellowed in recent years as it has assumed pragmatic policies towards Israel and been slammed as collaborators by al Qaeda for doing so. They’re certainly not on Osama Bin Laden’s Ramadan card list.
New York Jewish commentator Tony Karon wrote in the National that the Hamas action against Jund Ansar Allah "won’t harm the growing recognition in the West that Hamas is an indispensable part of any peace process".
But Karon also made an intriguing observation:
"For some Israeli commentators, the incident was a wake-up call. One of them, Nehemiah Strassler, cautioned that by destroying Yasser Arafat, Israel had brought Hamas to power, and now by its siege of Gaza it was empowering al Qaeda: ‘That’s because on our side people don’t want to understand that when the oppression increases and there is nothing to lose, the adversary doesn’t surrender and grovel. Just the opposite. He becomes more radical … so when poverty in Gaza increases and unemployment is on the rise, al Qaeda will take control … and we will long for that terrible Hamas.’"
I investigated the growth of creeping sharia in Gaza under Hamas and found worrying signs of increasing crackdowns on women and against what it was calling "vice". While it’s hard to gauge exactly how much this shift is a response to pressure from more extreme parties present in Gaza, any perceived threat by a more militant party against Hamas’s popularity could motivate Hamas to partially mimic its excesses.
The underlying cause of these ongoing troubles is the Israeli-directed siege. It affects everyone in Gaza, shapes their days and nights, affects what they eat, trade or consume and causes profound frustration and hatred. It is an incubator of steadily growing anger.
Extremism thrives in this kind of environment.
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