When faced with an economic blockade or diplomatic isolation, Hamas has leveraged its position into either greater control over Gaza or greater political influence beyond its boundaries. Such a policy of opportunism has allowed Hamas to outmaneuver policymakers in Israel and the United States.
Last month, Hamas security forces stormed the Ibn-Taymiyah mosque in the Gaza town of Rafah, killing a number of members of an insurgent Islamic sect called Jund Ansar Allah (JAA), along with the group's leader, Abdel-Latif Moussa. The violent clash was a reminder of the mounting difficulties Hamas has faced in consolidating its power in Gaza since Israel's military campaign there this past January -- as well as its resolve to suppress, even crush, any challenges to its authority. In recent months, Hamas has developed an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the various salafi groups in the Gaza Strip, and the battle at the Ibn-Taymiyah mosque marked a new low in this struggle. It is likely that from the ruins of the mosque emerged the Palestinian Islamists' first important martyr.
On August 14, Moussa and about a hundred of his followers, including armed men strapped with explosive belts, holed themselves in the mosque. The conflict between Hamas and JAA, a relative newcomer to the family of Palestinian militant groups, had been brewing for a few weeks. Hamas had accused the group of bombing Internet cafés, music stores, foreign schools, and weddings -- allegations the group denied. In turn, JAA complained that Hamas had persecuted its members, confiscated money and equipment worth $120,000, and even tried to kidnap its Syrian military commander, Abu Abdallah al-Muhajir. At the mosque, Moussa and his followers refused to surrender to the Hamas forces gathered outside, and ensuing fighting left 22 dead.
The question is why Hamas -- which prides itself on being an Islamist movement -- used such violence against a fellow Islamist group.
Moussa and the JAA challenged the core of Hamas' legitimacy -- its credentials as a religious movement. When it joined the Palestinian political system before elections in January 2006, Hamas presented itself as the Islamic alternative to the secular, corrupt, and failing Fatah movement. But as it gained political power, Hamas learned how difficult it is to maintain an image of religious purity and began to reconsider its strategy...