Courtesy Reuters

Hamas and Its Discontents

The Battle Over Islamic Rule in Gaza

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.

Hamas gradually found itself exposed to many of the same accusations it had previously directed at the Palestinian Authority. Jihadi organizations, particularly al Qaeda, criticized Hamas' willingness to join a democratic political process, which they perceived as contradicting Islam. This criticism increased after Hamas gained complete control over Gaza in June 2007. Salafis had hoped to implement sharia law in Gaza and were outraged when Hamas declared -- in an effort to assuage local fears and to project a moderate image to the international community -- that it would not do so. To Palestinian salafis, this was the ultimate betrayal. Indeed, in his last sermon, Moussa said that Hamas' authority to govern was tied to its willingness to implement sharia, and he warned that without it Hamas is no more than a secular party using the slogans of Islam.

Hard-line groups such as JAA have also denounced Hamas' differing policies toward the Islamists and Israel. According to their accusations, Hamas is targeting the salafis, or the true believers -- arresting them and stealing their property -- while it avoids attacking Israel, even protecting it by preventing Islamist groups from carrying out attacks. Moussa declared that, unlike Hamas, the JAA never directed its weapons against its Muslim brothers.

As long as this challenge was restricted to fiery rhetoric, Hamas appeared willing to tolerate it. But when Moussa announced the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Gaza, he crossed Hamas' red line. The declaration suggested that JAA intended to move beyond vocal criticism in resisting Hamas' control over Gaza. Such an interpretation may not have been far from the truth -- Moussa called for citizens in Gaza to join the emirate and bring their weapons to the mosque.

The resulting clash revealed that although Hamas and the secular Fatah remain the primary Palestinian factions, new and increasingly influential alternative power bases have emerged. This proliferation of salafi groups has placed additional constraints on Hamas. Now, when crafting policy, it must not only take into account Fatah, Israel, and the international community but also a vocal and extreme Islamic opposition at home. This leaves it uncomfortably stuck between two forces. In one example, its popularity declined when it imposed some Islamic legal and behavior codes on Gaza, yet such measures failed to satisfy the salafis who demanded the full implementation of sharia law.

Although these Islamist challengers are still small in number, they are enjoying a boost in public support and represent a growing worry for Hamas. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the declining support for Hamas among Palestinians and its precarious position in Gaza. The Israeli military campaign weakened Hamas by exposing its failure to deliver on its promises. Gaza suffered greatly from the offensive, whereas Hamas demonstrated little ability to inflict significant losses on the Israeli side. Eight months after the fighting, Hamas has been unable to get the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip lifted, and reconstruction has barely started.

Adding insult to injury, Fatah is enjoying a resurgence in Palestinian public opinion. At a general convention last month, it elected a new and younger generation of leaders. Meanwhile, the considerably improved quality of life for Palestinians in the West Bank stands in stark contrast to the gloom inside the Gaza Strip. Under Fatah control, the West Bank has seen an impressive rate of economic growth, greater personal security, and an expanded ability to travel. And despite a newfound conciliatory tone toward the Obama administration, Hamas has failed to convince the United States to alter its policy toward the movement, leaving it scrambling for a seat at the negotiating table.

Although fighting Israel proved to be very costly, abandoning violence may exact a similar price on Hamas' standing in Gaza. Since the war ended, Hamas has temporarily halted its fire to allow for negotiations with Israel on opening borders and exchanging prisoners. This cease-fire has yet to produce tangible benefits -- but it has exposed Hamas to salafi criticism. Even more alarming for Hamas, the temporary abandonment of the military struggle has proven controversial among its military ranks and is threatening to undermine the movement's internal cohesion. Al Qaeda has called for members of Hamas to defect. Though such statements have had limited traction so far, there is evidence that discontent within Hamas is growing, as seen by the number of former Hamas fighters who have recently spoken out against the movement's national orientation.

As its position in Gaza has grown weaker, Hamas has shown itself more willing to take extreme measures to squash emerging threats to its authority. But such crackdowns are becoming riskier. Unlike past internal conflicts, the assault on JAA produced the martyrdom of a high-profile Islamist leader who is likely to become a symbol for salafis. Moussa may not have been a very important figure in life, but his death echoed far beyond the Gaza Strip, provoking a wave of condemnation by jihadi groups throughout the Middle East. The angry denunciations issued by such influential Islamist scholars as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi in Jordan and Abu Basir al-Tartusi in the United Kingdom should be a particularly worrisome development for Hamas. But, at least for the moment, these heavyweights have stopped short of calling for direct action.

Hamas may soon find that its attempt to prevent the unification of the diverse salafi groups in Gaza around Moussa and his emirate could lead these groups to coalesce around his memory. Among many Palestinian Islamists, the killing of Moussa and his followers was a declaration of war and a sign that Hamas is seeking to annihilate them. Even those salafi followers who believed in a quiet, more passive struggle may now adopt more active and potentially violent resistance against the Hamas regime. Although Hamas' power remains superior to anything the salafis -- or even Fatah -- may conjure up, it is now faced with another threat to its already embattled regime.

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