More Islamist than Hamas

Salafi movement in Gaza could rival Hamas as politcal force among Palestinians.

Salafi Palestinians 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Salafi Palestinians 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
A narrow staircase leads up to the apartment of the Islamist Sabri Abdel Latif in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. The plaster is crumbling away from the grey walls, typical of the decay in this impoverished and overcrowded neighborhood. Rafah is a place with little hope, where conservative Islamists enjoy significant popularity, not least because they offer religious answers to the residents’ many worldly problems.
“Islam brings justice. Our job is to preach our understanding of Islam and to help the people,” Abdel Latif says, dressed in a long white jalabiya, a friendly smile shining through his black full beard. Abdel Latif’s understanding of Islam is different from ordinary Sunni Muslims. As a so-called Salafi, he sees the first three generations of Muslims, named Salaf, as a model example for today’s Muslim practice.
While Salafism originally grew out of a 19th-century movement of Islamic reform, it is known today for its puritan practice and conservative reading of Islamic scripture.
Most of its adherents in the Gaza Strip tend to be apolitical, concentrating their activities on Islamic preaching and education, called dawa.
But this, however, appears to be changing.
Inspired by the Islamist political awakening in Tunisia and neighboring Egypt, the Salafis in Gaza are discussing the foundation of a political party, thereby posing a potential challenge to the power base of Hamas, the Islamic movement that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007.
One of these Salafis who do not confine themselves to religious practice is Khalid Suleiman Abdallah, a local Salafi leader and preacher in one of the Rafah mosques. As he reclines on a seat cushion in the living room of Sabri Abdel Latif’s apartment, he recites a few lines from a Koran opened up in front of him before moving on to political matters.
“We have been holding meetings to discuss the issue of founding a party. We even talked about possible candidates,” Abdallah explains.
He says the discussion has been inspired by the surprising success of Egypt’s Salafist al-Nour party, which currently holds 111 out of the 498 seats in the post-revolutionary Egyptian parliament. “There has been a series of communications between members of al-Nour and Salafis in the Gaza Strip. Many Salafis from the Gaza Strip study in Egypt. We know each other,” Abdallah says.
In April, an al-Nour delegation arrived in Gaza for talks with Palestinian officials, including the Hamas government. But as much as he is inspired by the success of al-Nour in Egypt, Abdallah also sees the limitations of a political Salafi movement within Palestinian politics. In particular, the separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and anticipated restrictions by Israel – and indeed the Palestinian Authority – on any kind of Salafi political activity, particularly in the West Bank, significantly lower the prospects for success.
Moreover, many consider it unlikely that Palestinian elections will happen any time soon. “Elections are not on the agenda. I don’t think there will be any election in the near future,” says Mkhaimar Abu Saada, professor of political science at Gaza’s al- Azhar University.
Indeed, whether or not elections will take place soon is difficult to predict. But much of it will depend on the success of the national reconciliation process between the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.Under pressure from Cairo, the rival parties signed onto the Palestinian Reconciliation Accord in May 2011, thereby providing the basis for a single Palestinian government charged with unifying institutions and preparing for elections. But so far the obstacles on the ground have overshadowed the goodwill gestures. However, precisely because there is no specific date for elections yet, Salafis are in no hurry to make their intentions official.
A politically organized Salafi movement could be forming up underneath the surface, encouraged by the Arab Spring. “In establishing a political party, they could have been influenced by the Salafi movement in Egypt. They might have realized that in religious terms, there is nothing that prohibits them from establishing a party. We are probably in the early stages of witnessing the birth of a Salafi political party,” Abu Saada says.
“We are different from ordinary Muslims,” Abdallah says, pouring tea into the tiny cups in front of him. “Take for instance the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They want to develop the economy and give people food first, and only introduce shari’a Islamic law step by step. We want to do that immediately and in all areas of life.”
In dealing with legal offenses, he says Salafists would base their decisions on the same punishments that were imposed during the time of the prophet Muhammad.
“If someone commits buggery, he should be whipped. The good thing about shari’a law is that its effects are immediate,” he says.
As he is talking, the door opens and two women completely veiled in black enter the apartment. For a moment, the two Salafi men become nervous. There are severe restrictions on religious Muslim men and women mixing in private homes. But the women quickly rush into one of the back rooms. “No problem,” says Abdel Latif.
The Salafis’ guiding example of governance is the Islamist monarchy of Saudi Arabia, where ultra-conservative Wahhabism – an orientation of Salafism – is the ruling ideology. According to Abdallah, Saudi Arabia’s oil-based wealth is a direct result of its puritan Salafist ideology.
“In pre-Islamic times, Mecca and Medina were mere deserts. Only with the arrival of Muhammad did they turn into an oasis of wealth, just as in Saudi Arabia today. Why do they have so much oil? Because they are religious,” Abdallah says. But Salafis would not demand that much from life, he adds. Sufficient food and a place to sleep would be enough. Ultimately, it is adherence to Islam that will bring justice. “Islam will bring dignity to our society,” he says.
As internal discussion about launching a political party is taking place among Salafis in the Gaza Strip, concerns are rising about the limitations of such a move, especially in the light of Hamas’s anticipated opposition.
Hamas has repeatedly been at odds with Salafis in the Gaza Strip, especially with its militant Jihadist followers, who have upheld violent resistance against Israel, often in violation of Hamas cease-fires, thereby challenging the authority of the regime.
Today’s militant Salafi Jihadists are believed to be rather small in number, with estimates ranging from a few hundred up to a few thousand active militants. Despite their small size, Salafi Jihadis have carried out a number of violent attacks in the past.
In January 2009, the Tawhid wa al- Jihad (Unity and Jihad) group claimed responsibility for the bombing of an Israeli army jeep in which an Israeli soldier was killed. In April 2011, the same group kidnapped and then strangled to death the Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni – a killing that other Salafis subsequently condemned.
Another Salafi group, Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), initially partnered with Hamas in the capture of the now released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. But after the same group kidnapped the BBC journalist Alan Johnston in 2007, Hamas arrested one of their leaders. Jaish al-Islam retaliated by killing several Islamic University students.
In July 2008, the group carried out a bomb attack in Gaza on the same day that blasts blamed on Fatah killed a young girl and five ranking members of the Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing.
A few weeks later, Hamas forces entered the Jaish al-Islam stronghold in the Dagmush clan quarter of southern Gaza City and fought a pitched battle in which 11 Dagmush clan members were killed, nine of them followers of Jaish al-Islam. Following the crackdown, Jaish al-Islam has carried out very few attacks.
In August 2009, Hamas crushed a rebellion by another Salafi group, Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Followers of God). At least 24 people died when Hamas forces stormed a mosque in Rafah and launched a seven-hour gun battle after the group’s leader, Abdul- Latif Moussa, had declared an “Islamic emirate” in Gaza. Moussa blew himself up with a suicide explosive belt, also killing a Hamas security officer who was trying to capture him. He had sworn to fight to the death rather than allow Hamas to control the mosque.
Kahlid Suleiman Abdallah does not advocate using violence against fellow Palestinians. While traditionally opposing democracy and involvement in governance as un-Islamic, some Salafis like Abdallah increasingly consider politics as a justified means to realize their vision of a just and Islamic society. He is confident that non-violent Salafists could pose a serious challenge to Hamas if they become an organized political force.
“We think we could be successful. But so far we are not sure how freely we can move under Hamas rule,” Abdallah concedes. “Our relationship with Hamas is a fragile balance. They closed down a conference we organized in support of the Syrian revolution.
But as we are not looking for confrontation, we adhered to their rules.” If elections were held today, he thinks Salafis could win about 15 percent of the vote. “We are the Nour party of Gaza,” he says. “Although politics goes against preaching and education, which Salafis are traditionally known for, they might look to Egypt and see that Salafis there are doing it, with success. I would imagine there is a transfer of ideas; if they have contact with al-Nour, they could give them persuasive explanations why politics and Salafism are not mutually exclusive,” says Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group.
But Thrall cautions against overstating the impact a political Salafi movement might have. The numbers of those Salafis who endorse militancy are rather small, while many of those who practice non-violent activities possibly continue to be opposed to politics. Besides the encouraging example of al-Nour, it is the strong conviction that only their own practice of Islam is true and pure, which might have caused some Salafis to rethink their traditional aversion to democracy and politics.