World News

FACTBOX - Qaeda-inspired Islamists in the Gaza Strip

(Reuters) - A hitherto unknown group which appears to be part of a growing constellation of al Qaeda-inspired factions opposed to Gaza’s ruling Islamist movement Hamas claimed responsibility for a fatal rocket attack on Israel on Thursday.

Here are some key facts:

* Group which claimed responsibility for rocket attack that caused first such death in Israel for over a year calls itself Ansar al-Sunna (Followers of the Sunna), a name previously used by, among others, al Qaeda-allied Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

* Its email statement came from an account previously used by other groups inspired by al Qaeda and usually called Salafist by Palestinians. A known Salafist figure in Gaza told Reuters that Ansar al-Sunna was indeed a new group within that network.

* The differences between groups are unclear. Some analysts believe they work in cells to evade Hamas pressure on them. All share a goal to fight the Western powers and found a purist Islamic state across the Middle East. Hamas, by contrast, wants a Palestinian state, albeit an Islamic one. It has largely refrained from imposing Islamic law since taking control of Gaza in 2007. Hamas has condemned al Qaeda attacks in Western cities.

* Membership of the Salafist groups appears to number in the hundreds but with potentially thousands of supporters among the 1.5 million population. Hamas has some 25,000 men under arms and is widely popular, as shown by winning a parliamentary election in 2006. There has been disillusion since then with its rule in Gaza and the embargo on Hamas which has ravaged the economy.

* Salafists appear to be attracting recruits, including from Hamas, among those unhappy with a failure to impose Islamic law and with Hamas’s policy of restraint against Israel since the war 14 months ago which left more than 1,400 people dead in Gaza.

* Hamas has been tolerant of Salafist groups in its public statements. It has said they are simply misguided offered them “re-education”. But in practice Hamas has tried to crack down. While not condemning the firing of rockets, such as the one on Thursday, it has tried to stop Salafists provoking Israel. And in the bloodiest incident, on Aug. 14, over 20 people were killed when Hamas forces stormed a mosque in the southern border town of Rafah hours after the preacher and leader of the Jund Ansar Allah (Warriors of God), Abdel-Latif Moussa, publicly challenged Hamas by declaring Gaza to be an Islamic emirate.

* Among Salafists’ other complaints about Hamas are its tolerance of Gaza’s 3,000-strong Christian community and the backing Hamas receives from Sunni Muslims’ sectarian rivals in Shi’ite Iran. Most Palestinians, including Hamas members, are Sunnis. Salafists are also blamed for attacks on people and groups they see as defying religion, including Internet cafes.

* While Hamas has an ally in long-established Palestinian Islamist group Islamic Jihad, challengers to it in Gaza include an array of other groups going by various names. These include:

Jund Ansar Allah (Warriors of God), who raided an Israeli border post last June -- on horseback; Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), closed linked to Gaza’s powerful Doghmush clan, which worked with Hamas to capture Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 but broke with it over the Doghmushes’ four-month kidnap of a BBC journalist in 2007; Jaysh al-Ummah (Army of the Nation), whose leader, Abu Hafs, was detained by Hamas; Jaljalat (War Cry), which includes former Hamas members.

Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Louise Ireland