How Salafism’s Rise Threatens Gaza

What It Means for Hamas and Israel

Members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas patrol on the border with Egypt in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, October 2017. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / REUTERS

The once-feuding Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may be moving closer to reconciliation in Gaza, but Salafi jihadist groups launching audacious attacks could spoil any rapprochement, potentially dragging the Palestinians back into another conflict in the process. In August, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest in the Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt, killing a member of Hamas’ security team and wounding several others. Far from being an isolated incident, this attack represents the emergence of yet another violent militant faction in Gaza—a densely populated strip of land wedged between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which crams 1.8 million people into an area slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C. This major shift toward an even more radical and violent milieu is mainly due to a growing Salafi movement in Gaza, a new phenomenon that threatens the temporary equilibrium of what is usually a turbulent area within the Middle East.

The suicide attacker is widely suspected of being a member of a Palestinian Salafi group with links to the Islamic State (or ISIS). The rise of hardline Salafism—a branch of Islam that embraces a literalist interpretation of the Koran and advocates the restoration of a so-called global caliphate—is a worrisome trend in Gaza. Hamas, whose ideology is a blend of Palestinian nationalism and hardline Islamist politics, is being outflanked by more violent, extremist terrorist organizations determined to destroy Israel and wage war on Palestinian groups it has deemed too moderate.


Salafism historically took root in Gaza in the 1970s, when Palestinian students returned from studying abroad at religious schools in Saudi Arabia. A number of Salafi groups in Gaza continue to receive support and funding from Riyadh today, according to journalist Jared Maslin. The four principal active groups are Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of God’s Supporters), Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam), Jaysh Al-Umma (Army of the Nation), and al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad).

Although these groups have not traditionally been a

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