Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

Sibling rivalry in Palestine

The Palestinian Islamist movements have their own particular history that has been determined by domestic circumstances and resistance to the Israeli occupation, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the darkest of nights, Hazem, 19, walks quickly through the labyrinth of orange groves, his head and face covered. He is carrying a Kalashnikov, and he is on his way to the beach east of the Al-Nosayrat Refugee Camp in the centre of the Gaza Strip where his family lives to join his comrades for another night of surveillance. He climbs a hill overlooking the sea, and using night vision binoculars he stares into the dark at the boats. About 50 metres away, his colleagues are doing the same thing in order to prevent any attempt by the Israeli military to infiltrate the Gaza Strip by sea.

Hazem and his comrades withdraw before sunrise and return to their homes. Their surveillance operations are just one aspect of those carried out by the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. As well as the youth groups like the one of which Hazem is a member, the brigades also have hundreds of members in charge of the surveillance of what are known as “contact areas” close to the border with Israel. Israeli military units sometimes use these areas to penetrate the Gaza Strip, and the Al-Qassam Brigades, operating as a military force, are the only military wing of Hamas in charge of surveillance anywhere in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas’s large youth groups are used for such missions and for other forms of military activities by the Al-Qassam Brigades. As well as surveillance, the brigades manufacture rockets and other forms of weaponry, and they dig tunnels around cities and refugee camps in the Gaza Strip that can be used in case of a ground invasion from Israel. Other Islamist resistance groups do not have such a broad pool of young people to recruit from as do the Al-Qassam Brigades.

Of the Islamist movements and groups operating in Palestine, there are some that utilise resistance operations as well as political means of combat, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Jihadist Salafist groups that go by various names. There are also Islamist groups that neither participate in resistance operations nor politics as such, and these include some of the Salafist groups and the groups focussing on the traditional Islamic Call, which focus on religious proselytising. However, despite the differences between the Palestinian Islamist groups, all of them are offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood except for the Islamic Information and Call group, which originated in Pakistan.

The history of the Islamist groups in Palestine and their resistance to the Israeli occupation goes back to 1935, some seven years after the Muslim Brotherhood itself was founded in Cairo. By 1945, the Brotherhood had opened its first office in Gaza City headed by Kazem Al-Shawa, a member of a prominent family in Gaza. More offices opened later across Palestine, but all of them, except in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, were shut down after the 1948 war and the creation of the state of Israel.

From the beginning of the Islamist movement in Palestine, the Brotherhood wielded the most influence in the Gaza Strip because of its proximity to the mother movement in Egypt. The Brotherhood on both sides of the border constituted a single unit, and since the Gaza Strip was ruled under Egyptian mandate between the 1948 and 1967 wars, the Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip suffered the same kind of persecution that the main organisation suffered from in Egypt under the rule of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser between 1954 and 1967.

Once the Gaza Strip fell under Israeli occupation in the wake of the 1967 war, the Brotherhood focussed on proselytising and welfare activities and did not participate in the resistance to the occupation, unlike secularist nationalist forces such as Fatah and the left-leaning Palestinian factions of the time. While the leaders and members of the secularist nationalist currents were suppressed by the Israeli occupiers, the Brotherhood, because of its focus on preaching and social activism, suffered little harassment from the occupation.

The Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip was directed from the Strip’s Islamic Centre, founded by a paralysed former Arabic teacher, Ahmed Yassin. Within a decade of the 1967 war, the Brotherhood had become the most important religious proselytisation organisation in the Strip, thanks to the social activities and welfare operations overseen by the Islamic Centre. These included building medical clinics and sports centres and engaging in different forms of social activism. However, despite the Brotherhood’s strong grassroots support in the Strip, many secularist groups criticised the organisation because it had apparently opted out of resistance activities.

Brotherhood youth were influenced by such criticisms, and they began to press the leadership to participate in resistance activities, especially in the light of the expanding Israeli settlements in the Strip and Israel’s iron-fist policies towards the Palestinian people. One key factor that encouraged Brotherhood youth to make such demands was the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The influence of the leader of this revolution, the Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, was seen in a split in the Brotherhood in 1981, when a young physician called Fathi Al-Shakaki, who had graduated from medical school in Alexandria in 1980, announced his withdrawal from the Brotherhood and the creation of a new group called Islamic Jihad.

This new group soon built strong ties with Iran, and some commentators at the time went so far as to equate the allegiance of Palestinian Islamic Jihad to Iran with that shown by the Lebanese resistance group Hizbullah. There was much debate within the Brotherhood in the Strip about resistance activities against the Israeli occupation, and Islamic Jihad began to attack targets inside the Gaza Strip. This gave Brotherhood youth another reason to pressure their leadership in a campaign that was led by two charismatic physicians, Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantisi from Khan Younis and Ibrahim Al-Makadma from the Al-Brej Refugee Camp.

The first major adjustment in the Brotherhood’s position on the resistance occurred in 1984, when the Brotherhood formed a first military group that included Yassin, Al-Rantisi, Al-Makadma, Mohamed Shehab, Salah Shahada, and three others. Israeli intelligence arrested the members of this group in 1985 before it could plan any operations. Despite this turning point, the Brotherhood again hesitated about joining the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) against the occupation at the end of 1987.


THE FOUNDATION OF HAMAS: A historic gathering took place on a rainy night on 15 November 1987, during which members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip met to discuss the group’s participation in resistance activities. After many hours of debate, and as the rain pounded the windows of the meeting hall, the young people present, headed by Al-Rantisi and Al-Makadma, managed to impose their demands that the organisation participate in resistance activities.

At the end of the meeting, and before the Brotherhood leadership had left the hall, Al-Rantisi suggested that the Brotherhood should join the Intifada under a new name that would change the past image of the Muslim Brotherhood. He proposed the name of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which would be defined as the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. In time, resistance became a more important activity for the Brotherhood in other areas too, the group having previously focussed on slower means, such as education, as a way of reforming society.

In time, many Palestinians did not even realise that there had at first been a strong relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and that that relationship was continuing. However, because of its large pool of human resources and the enthusiasm of its young members, the Brotherhood was able to contribute to Hamas, and the latter’s participation in the Palestinian Intifada was decisive.

The group was soon at the forefront of the resistance, and its credibility was further reinforced when it became clear that all the founding members of the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades were the offspring of Hamas leaders. Several of these members were killed during operations against the occupation, and others were arrested to serve life sentences behind the bars of Israeli prisons.

Along with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the secularist nationalist factions also played key roles in carrying out resistance operations, but it was apparent that the group’s decades of social activism now enabled it to defeat all the blows that Israeli intelligence could throw at it. Even though hundreds of Hamas members might be arrested in each Israeli assault, this did little to weaken the group thanks to its broad popular support.

The Al-Qassam Brigades were the first group to carry out suicide attacks against the occupation. Raed Zakarna from Jenin carried out the first attack in 1994 in response to the massacre of Palestinians committed by Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein at the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, during which 29 Palestinians were killed and many dozens of others injured by gunfire as they knelt in prayer at dawn during Ramadan. Since then, suicide operations have become a signature feature of the resistance operations carried out against the occupation by the Islamist groups.

The secularist nationalist groups followed the Islamist lead and also began executing suicide operations. However, following the signature of the Oslo Accords by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel, resulting in the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, an inevitable clash occurred between the new authority, whose leadership and members belonged to Fatah and other secularist nationalist groups, and the Islamist groups, namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The reason for the clash was the PLO’s commitment, made at Oslo, to stop resistance operations against Israel, something that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad rejected. The PA responded by coming down with an iron fist against the members of the two groups, peaking in the winter of 1996 when the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat ordered his security agencies to arrest members of the groups. Human rights groups reported at the time that PA security agencies had used torture to extract information that could be used to dismantle the military and organisational structures of the groups.

Israel did not fulfill its obligations under the Oslo Accords, and it continued to expand the settlements in the occupied territories. As a result, Palestinian support for continuing the resistance operations against the occupation grew. The failure of the Camp David meeting at the end of 1999 between Arafat and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak under the auspices of the then US president Bill Clinton sparked a second Intifada in October 2000.

During this second Intifada, the PA not only ended its clampdown on the Islamist resistance movements, but Fatah, the backbone of the PA, joined in the resistance operations. After Arafat’s death, the evidence suggesting that he may have been killed by a poisonous radioactive material, and Mahmoud Abbas, secretary of the PLO’s executive committee, becoming president, the PA once again clamped down on the Islamist resistance movements.


THE PARADOX OF RESISTANCE: Hamas and Islamic Jihad refused to join the PA when it was formed in 1994 because they believed it was built on agreements made at Oslo that abandoned Palestinian rights and principles. As a result, the two groups boycotted the first parliamentary elections to be held in areas under PA rule at the beginning of 1996. Fatah and independent candidates controlled the first Palestinian parliament that issued from these elections, and Israel then implemented its “disengagement plan” in September 2005, under which it unilaterally dismantled Israeli settlements and withdrew its army from the Gaza Strip without coordinating with the PA.

For Hamas, the Israeli move was an indication of the success of its resistance. On the eve of the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, there was a debate within Hamas about whether or not the group should contest the elections, with leaders inside the territories supporting running in the elections since the Gaza Strip had now been liberated from the shadow of Oslo and contesting the elections would protect the resistance that must now continue. However, the group’s leadership abroad opposed the idea of running in the elections, since for them the cost of participation would be too high in political and economic terms. Eventually the group’s domestic leadership won out, and Hamas contested the elections. It won a landslide victory in the Gaza Strip, forming its first government in March 2006.

Islamic Jihad continued to boycott the elections even after the Israeli “disengagement”, holding that the only way forward was continued resistance. The group’s refusal to participate could have been based on principle, but the leaders of the group were also aware that popular support for them was marginal. As a result, some believed, had they participated in the elections they would have made only limited gains, and for this reason they desired to avoid embarrassing the group by revealing its limited popularity.

As for Hamas, the bleak forecasts that had warned about the risks of participating in the political process proved to be on target. The Gaza Strip was put under siege, and Abbas’s security agencies refused to obey the orders of the new government. Meanwhile, disputes erupted between Fatah and Hamas, reaching a zenith in June 2007 when Hamas succeeded in its confrontations with Fatah and Abbas’s security agencies. Most of the leaders of the latter fled the Gaza Strip, and Hamas was able to impose its rule over Gaza.

This development compounded the siege, however, and a majority of Arab states now openly supported the blockade because in their view Hamas had overturned Abbas’s “legitimate” government in Gaza.


THE ISLAMISTS AND REGIONAL SUPPORTERS: It was always evident that Islamic Jihad had special ties with Iran, and according to Aviv Kokhafi, director of Israel’s military intelligence, the group takes its orders from Iran. Whether or not this is true, Islamic Jihad has relied on financial and military from Iran since its creation in the early 1980s. Neither the group nor Iran denies this, but in the case of Hamas things have been very different.

Ever since the group was created in 1987 and until it took control of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007, Hamas has relied on the support of overseas Islamist groups and from wealthy individuals, especially in the Gulf states. There have also been internal donations, and until 2007 Hamas was able to survive by relying on both types of assistance, its expenses being limited to organisational matters.

However, after the group took control of the Gaza Strip Abbas dismissed prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, which Hamas rejected, and as a result two Palestinian cabinets were formed: one ran the affairs of the Gaza Strip, and the other ran the West Bank. For the first time, Hamas was required to fund government offices in the Gaza Strip and pay the salaries of civil servants. It also had to address the deteriorating economic conditions resulting from the siege, and thus the Hamas government had no other recourse but to rely on sympathetic Gulf sources for funding.

At the same time, it looked towards Iran, which was also forthcoming in offering help to the group and its government. This eagerness to help came about for many reasons, including Tehran’s desire to improve its image in Arab and Islamic public opinion and to be seen to be supporting the Palestinian cause. Iran also believed that its support for the Palestinian cause in the shape of Hamas could expose the positions of those Arab states that were hostile to Tehran, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. At the same time, it felt that supporting the Palestinian front against Israel could curb Israel’s ability to concentrate on Iran’s nuclear programme. Tehran may also have wanted to minimise doctrinal differences between Shia and Sunni Islam and refute the argument that its foreign policies were dictated by religious considerations.

Between 2007 and 2011, the relationship between Hamas and Iran was a strong one, and the two became part of the Axis of Defiance along with Syria and Hizbullah. Once the Arab Spring began and with it the uprising against the regime led by president Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the relationship between Iran and Hamas was transformed. Iran asked Hamas to pledge its support for the Syrian regime, as Hizbullah had done in Lebanon, but Hamas refused.

According to Khaled Meshaal, director of Hamas’s political bureau, while Hamas appreciated the actions taken by the Syrian regime in giving political asylum and support to Hamas leaders in exile in Damascus, it could not take up a position opposed to the aspirations of the Syrian people.

As ties cooled between Iran and Hamas, there were fewer visits to Tehran by Hamas leaders. When Meshaal went on his last trip to Iran, the Iranian leadership made it clear that Hamas was no longer in favour in Tehran. He did not meet with the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, and there were reports that Iranian financial support for Hamas had dried up. This does not seem to have affected the group’s ability to meet its financial obligations, however, since support from various donors is still available.


THE EMERGENCE OF JIHADIST SALAFIS: Until Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2006, the only Salafist group operating in the Gaza Strip was the so-called “Scholarly Salafis” created at the end of the 1970s by Brotherhood youth who had studied in Saudi Arabia and wanted to continue their religious studies at home.

This strand of Salafism promotes the imitation of the salafs [forefathers] and emphasises obedience to the ruler and not becoming involved in politics. The Scholarly Salafis were not interested in the conflict with Israel as a result, or in the resistance to the occupation. There were called scholarly precisely because they focussed on scholarly activities, devoting their energies to researching and arguing for different religious opinions. 

The Scholarly Salafis did not come into conflict with the secularist nationalist or Islamist groups because they kept to themselves. However, after Hamas formed its first government in the Gaza Strip it was surprised to be confronted by a group of young Palestinians, formerly belonging to Hamas but also influenced by more radical Islamists, demanding the application of Sharia law. Hamas refused, since it did not want its rule in Gaza to be identified as that of an “Islamic emirate” for domestic, regional and international reasons.

For 25 years, Hamas had been able to combine nationalist and Islamist tendencies and to balance a political and religious approach. It had focussed on its nationalist rather than its religious character, and it had often stressed that it was not an Islamist party like the Muslim Brotherhood but was instead a national liberation movement. It did not want to govern in a theocratic manner as a result, or to forbid the practices often forbidden by religious governments, but instead was committed to promoting democracy and the rule of the ballot box, along with the equality of all Palestinians.

For Hamas, Islamic Sharia law is the main source of legislation, but it is not the only such source. The Islamisation of society means the promotion of virtue, but force cannot be used to achieve this end. Hamas’s actions have reflected such beliefs, and since the formation of the Hamas government in Gaza it has been apparent that the application of Sharia law is not among its goals. Instead, it has adopted laws that emphasise the protection of all citizens while at the same time passing others governing personal status issues and Sharia courts. All such laws have been drafted with a view to their compatibility with developments in Palestinian society.

For some members of the younger generation, a loose and heterogeneous set of individuals who came to be called Jihadist Salafis, these moves on the part of Hamas have not been enough, and they have pushed for the application of Sharia law more broadly in Gaza, seeing this as an unfulfilled duty. The Jihadist Salafis have adopted an Islamist rhetoric that goes beyond anything put out by Hamas, and by focussing on jihadist aspects they have rejected the nationalist doctrines officially championed by Hamas.

The Jihadist Salafis have not been able to accept the refusal of Hamas to apply Sharia law in Gaza, and they have demanded that Hamas should step down from power.

According to Jihadist Salafist literature, the groups do not believe in the creation of a Palestinian state, but instead want to see the foundation of an “emirate” in Sharia terms. They also want to connect the government in Gaza to Jihadist Salafist experiments elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic world.

The naiveté of the Salafist groups in the Gaza Strip was evident in their haste to declare an Islamic emirate in Rafah in the southernmost tip of the Strip in August 2009. On this occasion, Abdel-Azim Moussa, the leader of the Jihadist Salafis, declared the foundation of an Islamic emirate in Gaza during a Friday sermon at the Ibn Tamim Mosque in front of dozens of heavily armed followers. This event marked a turning point in the relationship between Hamas and Jihadist Salafism because the Haniyeh government viewed it as an act of rebellion that had been promoted by a “fanatical ideology”.

Hamas security forces instructed the Salafis to evacuate the mosque and disperse, but Moussa ordered his followers to shoot at the police, killing three of them. In the ensuing gun battle, 30 people were killed on both sides, including Moussa and other Jihadist Salafi leaders. Haniyeh’s firm response resulted in the retreat of the Jihadist Salafis, but they then carried out various acts of sabotage, including attacking leisure and entertainment venues, assaulting Christians in the Gaza Strip, and kidnapping and murdering one resident.

Coming down with an iron fist on the group in the way that Haniyeh did has not entirely succeeded because the current is supported by various factors, even if it remains limited to small groups of young people. Among such factors has been the ability of Jihadist Salafism to infiltrate Hamas ranks, with some Hamas members even agreeing with its view that secularist currents should not be tolerated. Jihadist Salafism condemns efforts to reconcile Hamas with Fatah because it claims there cannot be reconciliation with secularists.

Jihadist Salafism has also convinced some young people to reject democracy, considering it to be irreligious, and it has rejected the truce established by Hamas with Israel under Egyptian auspices. The trend has attacked Hamas, claiming that the latter has “abandoned jihad for governance”. Jihadist Salafis deliberately launched rockets at Israeli settlements during the ceasefire in order to embarrass Hamas and undermine its credibility as a jihadist movement.

Speeches by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri have strongly criticised Hamas and even accused its leaders of apostasy in attempts to erase the group’s legitimacy in the eyes of its supporters. Many Jihadist Salafist websites are dedicated to attacking Hamas, though a key factor associated with sympathy for the Jihadist Salafist groups is lack of education and high poverty levels, compelling some Palestinian young people to join the groups.

Several groups can be seen as belonging to the Jihadist Salafis, including the Army of Islam — Monotheism and Jihad Brigades, which issued its first statement on 8 May 2006, and declared its support for Al-Qaeda. Then there is the Army of the Umma [Nation] — Followers of the Sunna and Assembly, which issued its first statement in mid-August 2007. There is also the Swords of Righteousness — Al-Qaeda Army, which issued its first statement on 12 August 2007, and there is the God’s Soldiers, which issued its first statement on 14 July 2008.

There are other groups whose slogans are consistent with the ideas of Jihadist Salafism, but there is no evidence of their existence on the ground. While there are other Islamist movements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, so far there has been no evidence that Jihadist Salafism exists in the West Bank, which is under the control of the Israeli occupation and PA President Abbas.

The biggest challenge facing the spread of Jihadist Salafism is the fact that Hamas has not abandoned the resistance despite the burdens of power. Not a year passes without Israel launching a campaign to assassinate the leaders of the group, while the group itself continues to carry out the majority of the resistance operations. The best evidence of this came during the recent Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, during which Hamas surprised observers by its successful attacks deep into Israel, especially on Tel Aviv, which earned the group respect among the Palestinian public.

By contrast, during the eight days of the war the Jihadist Salafist groups did not fire a single rocket, angering Palestinians and making the groups look like impotent troublemakers. As a result, there were calls from Palestinians demanding that action be taken to prevent the Jihadist Salafis from interfering in Palestinian affairs by launching rockets that were only intended to embarrass Hamas and question its rule.

There have been indications of cooperation between the Haniyeh government in Gaza and the new Egyptian government fighting the Jihadist Salafis, especially after an attack targeted a border post last year, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers near Rafah. While the map of the Palestinian Islamist groups is complex, it is also unique since the Palestinian Islamist movements are subject to domestic considerations that do not hold for Islamist movements elsewhere in the world.



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