The assassination over the weekend of a prominent sheikh in Gaza City has brought to the surface a behind-the-scenes power struggle that has been raging in recent months between Hamas and a new al-Qaida-affiliated 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.
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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.
Followers of Salafism have appeared in different locations in the Gaza Strip over the past few months, drawing sharp criticism from Hamas members. At least two other Salafi sheikhs have been killed in the Gaza Strip and West Bank over the past six months.
Palestinian Authority security forces have blamed Hamas for the assassinations. But Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip on Saturday strongly rejected the allegations, saying those behind the killings were trying to drive a wedge between Hamas and the Salafi followers.
Eyewitnesses told The Jerusalem Post that Adnan Manasreh, 30, a prominent member of the Salafi branch in the Gaza Strip, was gunned down as he walked out of a mosque in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City last Friday. Two of his relatives were wounded in the attack.
"Four masked gunmen approached him and opened fire, killing him instantly," the witnesses reported. "They fled in a white Peugeot."
A senior PA security official in the Gaza Strip told the Post that "Hamas's fingerprints are all over this murder." He said that intelligence gathered by the PA security forces showed that the assassination was carried out by members of Hamas's armed wing, Izzaddin Kassam.
The official noted that tensions between the Salafis and Hamas have been mounting in the Gaza 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. The Salafis are very close to al-Qaida and the two have been trying to establish a presence in the Gaza Strip, much to the dismay of Hamas.
Hundreds of PA security officers attended Manasreh's funeral over the weekend, triggering speculation about the close ties between the Salafis and the PA. Many in Gaza City are convinced that the PA is using the Salafis as a tool to undermine Hamas's popularity.
Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, strongly denied that his movement was behind the assassination.
"These lies are being spread by Fatah and its media outlets," he said. "They are aimed at driving a wedge between our people. Some people in Fatah are trying to renew the infighting [with Hamas]."
In a separate development, unidentified gunmen blew up another Internet cafe in the Gaza Strip over the weekend. No one was hurt in the attack, the latest in a series of similar attacks on Internet cafes in the area in the past four months. A group calling itself the Righteous Swords of Islam claimed responsibility for the attacks.