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Palestinian Authority security officials accused supporters of al-Qaida in the Gaza Strip of carrying out Sunday's attack on a UNRWA-run school in Rafah in which one person was killed and six others were wounded.
"There is no doubt that al-Qaida is operating in the Gaza Strip," a senior PA security official said. "Today's attack carries the fingerprints of al-Qaida."
Witnesses told The Jerusalem Post that at least 70 Muslim fundamentalists participated in the attack on the Omariya School, where UNRWA and PA officials were attending a celebration.
The director of UNRWA operations in the Gaza Strip, John Ging, was inside the school at the time. He was not hurt, as PA policemen whisked him away to a safe location.
"The protesters surrounded the school and began chanting slogans denouncing the event as immoral," said one witness. "Their main argument was that girls and boys were asked to dance together in violation of Islamic teachings. This is a false claim because I didn't see a mixed gathering."
Another witness said the protesters threw a number of hand grenades and opened fire with automatic rifles as participants prepared to leave the school premises.
"It was a large organized attack on the elementary school," he said. "This is something unprecedented. It's a miracle that many people were not killed."
The dead man was identified as Suleiman al-Shaer, a bodyguard for Fatah legislator Majed Abu Shamalah, who was one of the speakers at the celebration.
According to a third witness, the protesters also opened fire at an UNRWA vehicle as it left the scene.
He said at least two of the assailants were later captured by PA policemen.
Five Palestinian journalists covering the event were beaten by masked gunmen, according to the witness.
Local residents and PA security officials said the attackers belonged to a new al-Qaida group identified with Salafism - a school of thought that takes the pious ancestors [Salaf] of the patristic period of early Islam as exemplary models.
Salafism is a branch of Islam that is often referred to as Wahhabi - a derogatory term that many adherents to this tradition avoid using. Salafis believe that Islam declined as a result of foreign innovations (bid'ah) and seek an Islamic revival through the purging of these influences and the emulation of the early generations of Islam.
Unlike Hamas, the Salafis believe that Muslims should not engage in politics. Instead, they argue, Muslims should stick to Islamic activities, particularly jihad, and promote Shari'a rather than an Islamic political program or state.
The Salafis and other al-Qaida-linked groups, including the Righteous Swords of Islam, are believed to be behind a series of attacks on young women, Internet cafes, hair salons, restaurants, schools and foreigners in the Gaza Strip over the past two years.
"These groups have attracted many young men, including high school students, who are disillusioned with Hamas," said a PA security official. "They have killed several women in the Gaza Strip in the past few months after accusing them of being prostitutes."
Last month, members of the group blew up large parts of the American International School in the northern Gaza Strip. The attack took place in the early morning and no one was hurt.
They are also responsible for the assassination of at least three Hamas representatives in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the same period.
Hamas, on the other hand, is said to be behind the killing of a number of Salafi figures. The most recent victim was Adnan Manasreh, 30, a prominent Salafis who was gunned down as he walked out of a mosque in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City in March.
Two of his relatives were wounded in the attack.
Tensions between the Salafis and Hamas have been mounting in the Strip ever since Ayman Zawahiri, the No. 2 in al-Qaida, accused Hamas of abandoning its ideology and "selling out" to Israel and the US.
A senior Hamas leader warned that al-Qaida's power was on the rise in the PA-run territories because of the ongoing international boycott of the Hamas-led unity government. Yunis al-Astal, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said: "Al-Qaida is on its way to Palestine, whether we like it or not. As long as Fatah, President Mahmoud Abbas, some Arab regimes, Israel and the US continue to boycott Hamas, al-Qaida will find its way to Palestine. I can understand al-Qaida's criticism of Hamas's political moves."
Salah Abu Khatlah, a Fatah operative in Rafah, said the attack was aimed at "taking the Palestinian society back to the Dark Ages." He accused radical Islamic groups of waging a campaign of terror and intimidation against Palestinians.
Abu Shamalah, whose bodyguard was killed in the attack, described the celebration as a cultural and athletic event and denied that boys and girls had been dancing together.
"On the eve of the celebration, the Salafis in Rafah distributed leaflets accusing UNRWA of encouraging infidelity among Muslims," he said. "They described the UNRWA director as an anti-Islam infidel and threatened to prevent the celebration by force."
Abu Shamalah said he and many Palestinians were ashamed of what happened.
"The celebration did not violate Islamic law," he said. "These mercenaries do not represent the real Islam. I call on all Palestinians to stand against this bunch of ignoramuses who are leading the Palestinians toward the abyss."