Qaeda groups active in Gaza after year under Hamas

GAZA (Reuters) - Abu Hafss is not happy.

Palestinian Hamas supporters attend a Hamas rally calling for the end of Israeli sanctions, at the Rafah border in the southern Gaza Strip June 6, 2008. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A year after Hamas Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip, Abu Hafss is waiting impatiently to see a sword remove the hand of a thief or a woman stoned to death for adultery.

“Hamas does not implement the rule of God,” the Palestinian ally of al Qaeda said. “We have seen no one have his hand cut off for stealing. We have seen no one stoned as an adulterer.”

Yet for all Abu Hafss’ disappointment with the approach Hamas has adopted since it routed secular rivals in Gaza a year ago, some analysts believe smaller, more radical groups like Abu Hafss’ secretive Jaysh al-Ummah (Army of the Nation) have benefited from the Hamas takeover to expand their membership.

Despite an official Hamas policy of respecting the rights of Gaza’s small Christian minority, there has been an increase in attacks on Christians in the past year, apparently by Islamists not content with the extent of Hamas’s “Islamisation” of Gaza.

Among the outward signs of that have been a proliferation of beards on men and headscarves on some women, along with the virtual disappearance of alcohol and a ban on pornographic websites -- though Hamas officials reject accusations that they are embarked on a program to impose Islamic law on daily life.

If Gazans are more observant of Islamic practice -- and not all in the enclave agree that this so -- that is the result of persuasion, Hamas says.

“It does not happen by force but through growing public awareness,” said spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.


Yet Israel, Egypt and others are concerned that Gaza under Hamas’s isolated control may become a haven for al Qaeda-allied groups, such as the Army of Islam, a clan-based group which last year held a British journalist hostage in Gaza for four months.

A week of fighting with the Fatah forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saw Hamas take control of Gaza and its 1.5 million people on June 14 last year -- and saw Abbas dismiss a Hamas-led government that had been hit by Western sanctions over Hamas’s refusal to renounce violence against Israel.

Within three weeks of seizing power, Hamas was quick to trumpet its success in securing the freedom of the hostage reporter, the BBC’s Alan Johnston. Its spokesmen say it continues to oppose violent Islamist factions.

“Anyone who harms the public order will certainly be hunted down,” Hamas spokesman Abu Zuhri said, while also saying Hamas was ready to accept the aid of such groups in its fight against Israel.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad control the majority of mosques in Gaza and both groups restrict the activity of other extremist factions who tend to meet at smaller mosques or in homes where they preach their fanatic brand of Islam.

Market stalls do brisk business in selling recordings of speeches of al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as well as videos of beheadings of U.S. and foreign soldiers and personnel in Iraq.

In an environment where a tightened Israeli blockade against Hamas has increased hardships for people in the enclave, more radical forms of Islam appear to some analysts to be exercising a growing influence over some Palestinians.

A Gaza political analyst, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution, said Hamas’s influence on fostering more Islamic social behavior in Gaza had been mixed. He argued that the fact Hamas had taken control but then did not impose more severe Islamic ways may have boosted those groups which favored that.

“Hamas is keen not to be seen as an Islamic state, so they’ve refrained from passing laws or forcing people to follow what they believe. They have not taken action to Islamise the community. But allowing extremist thinking to breed armed cells is much more dangerous,” the analyst said.

The heavily bearded Abu Hafss said his group was finding recruits among disillusioned members of Hamas and other factions. He had been taken in three times for questioning by Hamas security men, but each time he had been released.

His group had wider ambitions than Hamas’s stated goal of establishing a united state in what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“Even when the rule of Jews ends in Palestine ... we must continue to bring people to Islam,” Aby Hafss said, adding other nations must accept Muslim overlordship.”

“They can be asked to chose, either convert to Islam, or pay the Jizya...Either that, or the sword,” he added. Jizya is a tax paid by non-Muslims under an Islamic regime.


Statements by bin Laden and Zawahri have placed growing emphasis on Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Zawahri urged Palestinians last week to step up attacks against Israel.

Abu Hafss, who conducted an interview with Reuters clad in the traditional black Arab robes and skullcap favored by Islamist fighters elsewhere, said his group, whose strength he declined to detail, was firmly aligned with al Qaeda -- although it lacked a formal hierarchical link with Osama bin Laden.

“There is no need for al Qaeda to be here in Palestine as an organization. It exists as thinking on the ground,” he said. “We have no factional link to al Qaeda but they are our brothers in the religion ... There is no difference in our understanding.”

It remains hard to gauge the influence of such radical ideas among a Palestinian population in Gaza whose brand of Islam has long been of a more tolerant variety than that further east in the Arab world.

Though Hamas won a majority of seats in Gaza in the 2006 parliamentary election, it is not clear that all their supporters favor a formally Islamic state.

Many Gazans say they have felt pressured by the widespread presence of Hamas fighters into adopting more Islamic ways.

“I know many people who have changed their mobile phone ringtones to Islamic songs,” said teacher Abu Emad. “Some women have started covering their hair especially when they go out.”

Yet some women say they have even felt freer not to wear a headscarf because of a sense of greater security in the streets following the end of the factional fighting last June.

“I don’t like Hamas but I feel more secure these days going without a scarf in the street because Hamas policemen do not curse us,” said Ahlam, a secretary.

Abu Emad, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of problems with the authorities, said he believed people were wary of their new Islamist rulers.

“Yet still, Hamas is not the Taliban and their rule is not so strictly Islamic,” Abu Emad said.

Editing by Samia Nakhoul