Gaza’s Hamas prime minister was adamant: There is no al-Qaeda presence in Gaza, he said, rebuffing what he portrayed as Israeli allegations 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 were 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 said.
“The Palestinian resistance does not work outside the borders of Palestine,” he said.
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 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.
In recent months, Islamic radicals have targeted cyber cafes as dens of vice, attacked Christian institutions and kidnapped several foreign journalists, often without Hamas’ blessing. A Gaza mosque shootout between Hamas forces and Salafis in August last year left 26 dead.
There is also cooperation. 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.
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. Egyptian officials said early last month that they had 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 US targets in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
A senior Israeli military official said this week that several Gaza gunmen from that cell were still hiding in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, which borders Gaza. 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 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 received military training in Sudan and Yemen.
Israeli government officials declined to comment on these issues, deferring to the military.
Earlier this year, a study by the US-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Gaza’s Salafis are inspired by, but not formally affiliated with, al-Qaeda.
Commentators on Web sites 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. Pledged to Israel’s destruction, it has carried out scores of suicide bombings and other attacks over the years, killing hundreds.
However, the Islamists have rejected the idea of global jihad. Moreover, in recent years, some in Hamas, including its supreme leader, Syrian-based Khaled Mashaal, have softened their rhetoric and said they would not object to a Palestinian state alongside Israel after years of total rejection.
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