GAZA (Reuters) - Islamist radicals from a pan-Arab group defied the Hamas rulers of Gaza Friday by declaring an “Islamic emirate,” prompting clashes that killed 16 gunmen.
Although Jund Ansar Allah (“Warriors of God”) rallied only a few hundred men for an event at a Gaza mosque, it marked a clear challenge to Hamas’s nationalist brand of Palestinian Islam by groups espousing a pan-Arab militancy aligned with al Qaeda.
It was followed by clashes between Hamas policemen and supporters of the leader of the movement in the southern town of Rafah, near the Egyptian border.
Medical workers said 16 gunmen, including at least three Hamas policemen, were killed and about 85 people injured.
Hamas said its gunmen stormed the movement’s stronghold, including the mosque where Abdel-Latif Moussa -- known to followers by the al Qaeda-style nom de guerre Abu al-Nour al-Maqdessi -- had announced before weekly prayers the start of theocratic rule in the Gaza Strip, starting at Rafah.
Hamas also stormed Moussa’s house but did not find him.
“We declare the birth of the Islamic Emirate,” said Maqdessi, a heavily-bearded, middle-aged cleric in a red robe who was guarded by four black-clad, masked men with assault rifles. One wore what appeared to be an explosive suicide belt.
An audience of several hundred men filled the mosque with cheers and shouts. Al Qaeda uses the historical term “emirate” to mean clerical rule across the Islamic world.
Ismail Haniyeh, who heads Gaza’s Hamas government, denied in his sermon Friday that any non-Palestinian gunmen were in the territory, as alleged by Israel which says veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken up residence.
“Such groups do not exist on the soil of the Gaza Strip ... there are no fighters in Gaza except Gazan fighters,” he said.
Such “Zionist propaganda” from Israel was designed to turn the world against Hamas, he said.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri called Maqdessi’s speech “wrong thinking” and the Interior Ministry said he was “mad.”
His group announced its presence in Gaza two months ago after three of its members were killed in a border raid on an Israeli base in which gunmen rode on horseback.
Outside the mosque Friday, nearly 100 of the group’s masked fighters in Pakistani-style dress, and with long hair in a style believed to imitate the Prophet Mohammad, carried automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Hamas’s leaders say it is a moderate movement while independent analysts say it gives priority to Palestinian nationalist goals over the international religious aims that are typical of al Qaeda’s network.
Israel unilaterally ended its occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005 and withdrew its forces. Islamist radicals began to surface in Gaza following the takeover of the Israeli-blockaded enclave by Hamas in 2007, when it routed the forces of the secular Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Andrew Dobbie