Analysis: Al-Qaida-style extremism gains real power within Hamas

"The secular era in Gaza has ended without a trace."

Hamas gunman 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hamas gunman 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Al-Qaida-type Salafi Islam is rising in popularity within the ranks of Hamas. This trend is particularly noticeable in the movement's armed wing, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades. Observation of this process shows that attempts to draw a clear dividing line between the "nationalist" Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamism of Hamas and the Salafi trend can no longer be sustained. The growth of Salafism within Hamas is part of a larger pattern of increasingly extreme Islamic piety and practice in Gaza. The existence of Salafism within Hamas is not a new development. Indeed, Hamas leaders have long been aware of the potential threat this outlook represents to their authority. As long ago as December 2001, the Israeli authorities intercepted a document produced by Hamas prisoners in Israeli custody which warned of the spread of al-Qaida-type ideology among Hamas members. However, supporters of Salafism now appear to be achieving positions of real power within Hamas. In mid-2006, Izzadin Kassam commander Muhammad Deif was badly wounded by an IDF missile strike and subsequently left the Gaza Strip for a long period of recuperation. His replacement at the helm of the Brigades was Ahmad al-Ja'abari, who carried out his tasks in close cooperation with two allies, Ali Jundiyeh and Nizar Rayyan. All three of these men are known supporters of Salafism. Rayyan is considered to be the key tactical planner of the Brigades at the current time. He is believed to have formulated Hamas's operational plan for the takeover of Gaza in July 2007. He is also thought to have formulated Hamas's plan for resisting a major IDF operation into Gaza. He is in charge of weapons production for the Brigades, and is also believed to command its suicide units. Rayyan maintains close relations with a Saudi Salafi cleric resident in Ramallah who is a supporter of al-Qaida. One level below, the majority of the five brigade commanders of Izzadin Kassam are also Salafis. Among them, Muhammad as-Sanwar, commander of the Khan Yunis Brigade, is a particularly significant figure. He was among the planners of the Kerem Shalom attack in 2006 in which then-Cpl. Gilad Schalit was kidnapped. Deif returned to the Strip via the Sinai-Gaza tunnels in November 2007. Deif himself is known as a very strict Muslim, but the nature of his links to the Salafis are unclear. However, in early 2008, he complained to friends that his own influence in the Izzadin Kassam Brigades had declined, since the "Salafists had taken completely over." Salafi supporters within Izzadin Kassam are organized, and are known to have made contact with the al-Qaida leadership. As early as 2006, a group of 200 Salafi-oriented Izzadin Kassam members opposed to a cease-fire with Israel made contact with al-Qaida. As a result, an open letter from al-Qaida was sent to Hamas. The letter contained advice for combating the cease-fire. Friction over the cease-fire resurfaced in June 2008. Salafi elements within the Izzadin Kassam Brigades made clear their opposition to the renewed tahadiyeh (period of calm) with Israel. At that time, an Izzadin Kassam-associated Web site published a list of nine attacks carried out in 2002-2005 for which Hamas had never previously taken responsibility. The Salafis remain firmly entrenched within Izzadin Kassam at all levels. There have been reports, however, of an internal power struggle, with Deif seeking to replace Ja'abari, or at least to reduce his influence. In July 2008, a group of Salafi members of the Brigades split off to form a new group, al-Jaljaleh (Thunder). Friction also exists between the Brigades and other Hamas-controlled military organizations, such as the Executive Force in Gaza. The Executive Force, formed after the Hamas election victory in 2006, is responsible for a variety of policing and paramilitary functions in the Strip. On June 25, 2008, the Executive Force sought to arrest a number of Izzadin Kassam members suspected of criminal activity. Ja'abari refused to hand them over, and the men remained at liberty. This friction notwithstanding, the rise of supporters of al-Qaida ideology within Hamas cannot be seen in a vacuum. Rather, it is an element of a broader process of the Islamization of many aspects of public life taking place in the Gaza Strip. This may be seen, for example, in the many incidents of women in "immodest" dress being stopped by members of the Executive Force in the weeks following the July 2007 coup. This has led to the near disappearance of non-hijab wearing women from the streets of Gaza. There have also been reports of enforced observance of Ramadan, and harassment of unmarried couples seen together by members of the Force. All these incidents are signs that the rise to power of Hamas, and within it of extreme Salafi elements, are events of more than simple immediate political significance. After the July 2007 coup, Rayyan declared that "the secular era in Gaza has ended without leaving a trace." Events in the subsequent 18 months show little to disprove this declaration. Jonathan Spyer is a senior Research Fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.