I published a piece on Foreign Policy’s Middle East channel on Monday (“Gaza’s Salafis under scrutiny“) examining the role of jihadi Salafi groups in Palestinian politics in Gaza. The piece draws on reporting I did in Gaza toward the end of last year. I was, sadly, spurred by news of Vittorio Arrigoni’s death—reportedly at the hands of Salafis—to finish the piece.
Here’s an excerpt:
The subset of jihadi or militant Salafis in Gaza includes four main groups: Jund Ansar Allah(Soldiers of God’s Supporters), Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam), Jaysh Al-Umma (Army of the Nation), and finally Tawhid wa Al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), whose members were blamed for the killing of Vittorio Arrigoni. Although membership estimates vary widely, the jihadi groups are believed to include no more than a few hundred activists, mostly young men, some of them still in their teens. Two Hamas officials said these groups together number fewer than 100 members. Many of these adherents are recruited from the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. An unknown further number of cadres within these larger factions have sympathy for the Salafis or may participate in Salafi armed action.
The jihadi Salafis are opposed to Hamas over two primary issues: implementation of Islamic law — the jihadis want the imposition of a puritanical reading of sharia – and ceasefires with Israel, which they oppose on principle. Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, the organization whose alleged members were blamed for killing Arrigoni, is said to be one of the smaller groups. According to Hamas and other Salafis quoted by Crisis Group, the group’s leader, Hisham Sa’idni, is “more vehemently against Hamas than other Salafi-Jihadis.” Saidini’s first arrest by Hamas was followed by an escape, Crisis Group reports, during Operation Cast Lead, when Gaza’s central prison was destroyed.
The second of the two issues has arguably been more troublesome for Hamas. Salafis have been blamed for launching homemade rockets into Israel in violation of a ceasefire agreed upon by Hamas and the other armed factions in Gaza. With the exception of an escalation of violence in March, Hamas and most other armed factions’ policy since the end of Israel’s devastating 2009 military offensive has been to maintain calm and to arrest fighters responsible for unauthorized attacks.
More recently, Hamas has enforced a system in which each of the main armed groups –Islamic Jihad, Popular Resistance Committees, and others — discipline its own members for ceasefire violations. Those who commit infractions are also denied the protection, prestige, and support of the faction, even if they are killed in the process. Perhaps realizing that a heavy hand can create further radicalization, Hamas has also recently taken a more nuanced approach to the Salafis, including sending religious scholars into prisons in hopes of nurturing a more tolerant outlook among them.
In November, Israel assassinated two members of the Salafi group Jaysh Al-Islam in separate strikes, alleging that they were plotting attacks on Israeli and American targets in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. (The Mubarak government in Egypt also accused Jaysh Al-Islam of carrying out the bombing of an Alexandria church, which killed 21 people on New Year’s Day.) Hamas denied the Israeli allegations. “Maybe this is what the Israelis think, that they can justify to the Americans that they are targeting those people, because some of their rhetoric is that they [the Salafis] are targeting Americans, or trying to depict them as Al-Qaeda,” said Hamas official Ahmad Yousef, when asked about the accusations leveled against Jaysh Al-Islam.
In both hits, Israeli drones or helicopters fired missiles at the men’s cars as they drove on the busy streets of Gaza City, leaving only blackened wreckage. The killings threatened to trigger a wider crisis. Fighters — said to be affiliated with the Popular Resistance Committees –responded by firing mortars, homemade projectiles, and one Russian-type Grad missile into Israel. The Grad produced a loud explosion and a fireball in the sky over my temporary Gaza City residence. Less than a day later, that barrage ended with a meeting among the various militant groups and a renewed agreement to maintain the ceasefire. A well-connected Gaza analyst told me that Hamas might have turned a blind eye to the brief spurt of attacks in order to allow fighters to “let off steam.”
This is the crux of Hamas’ dilemma: if it allows attacks on Israel, it risks massive retaliation from the Israelis; if it imposes too strict a ceasefire, it risks eroding its credibility among its political base in Gaza, particularly among its armed cadres. A U.N. diplomat, quoted anonymously by Crisis Group explained the problem: “How long can Hamas sustain a policy of not engaging in resistance, while this non-engagement doesn’t produce any results in terms of liberating Palestine, easing the blockade, or any other political goal for which the movement exists?”
Still, Hamas officials I spoke with dismissed the theory that the Salafists posed a significant challenge. Ehab Al-Ghussain, the spokesman for Hamas’ Ministry of Interior, also downplayed the issue: “If you look by percentage, Gaza has the lowest percentage of these people [Salafis] in the world.” Ghussain did explain, however, that the first of the assassinated men, Muhammad An-Nimnim, had been jailed by Hamas authorities in the past for actions “against the Palestinian government.”
Nimnim was widely believed to have been a top aide to Mumtaz Doghmush, the leader of Jaysh Al-Islam, himself a former member of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Forces, often described as a Mafioso-like figure. Doghmush’s group cooperated with Hamas in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006, but relations between the two groups soured over Jaysh Al-Islam’s kidnapping s of westerners, which began with the August 2006 kidnapping of two Fox News journalists , and culminated in the prolonged captivity of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in 2007. Johnston was freed days after Hamas seized full control of Gaza in June 2007. He was the last foreigner kidnapped in Gaza until Arrigoni’s abduction two weeks ago. Indeed, many Gazans credit Hamas for ending the lawlessness and chaos that characterized the last years of Fatah rule. According to Ghussain, however, Nimnim had been imprisoned for assisting another group, Jund Ansar Allah, whose challenge to Hamas rule marked another turning point in relations with the Salafis.