http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2008/916/re2.htm

25 September - 5 October 2008
Issue No. 916
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gaza's useful mercenaries
According to Hamas sources, groups supposedly affiliated to Al-Qaeda in Gaza 
are but paid and protected pro-Fatah criminal cells, reports Saleh Al-Naami 

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Despite the exhaustion apparent on his face, the young officer made a point of 
shaking hands with his soldiers and thanking them for their efforts. It had 
been a long night of clashes and incredibly harsh conditions. For over 11 hours 
last Tuesday night, this officer and his rapid response soldiers had pursued 
members of the Daghmash family that lives in Al-Sabra, a southwest 
neighbourhood of Gaza City. The dismissed Haniyeh government and its security 
forces announced that the targets of this campaign had been charged with 
several cases of murder and theft but had refused to hand themselves over to 
security. The military confrontation resulted in the death of 11, including a 
policeman, and the injury of dozens. Forty-eight hours following this showdown, 
the Army of Islam organisation -- one that embraces the programme of Al-Qaeda 
-- issued a statement claiming that seven of those killed were from its ranks. 
It further accused the Haniyeh government of targeting the organisation. 

At first glance it may seem difficult to reconcile the two statements. The 
Palestinian police said it was targeting members of the Daghmash family charged 
with crimes while the Army of Islam organisation said the Haniyeh government 
and Hamas targeted it due to its affiliation with Al-Qaeda. Yet a closer look 
at the real source of difference between Hamas and the Army of Islam provides a 
window onto small Palestinian organisations that emulate Al-Qaeda. Following 
the development of these organisations provides answers to several questions. 
Is the environment in Palestine conducive to the development of organisations 
espousing the thought of Al-Qaeda? What are the real motives for the creation 
of these organisations? Do they serve the agendas of Palestinian forces that 
are inimical to Hamas? What is their future?

Anyone who lives in Gaza knows that in many cases the line dividing 
Al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations and those involved in organised crime is 
thin. Some of the leaders and members of these Islamist organisations belong to 
families known for their corruptibility, embezzlement, and even highway 
robbery. They benefited from their close relations with the Gazan security 
agencies of President Mahmoud Abbas before Hamas took control, and have applied 
their previous tactics since transferring their activity to Islamist 
organisations.

Ihab Al-Ghasin, Interior Ministry spokesperson for the Haniyeh government, says 
that many of those who were targeted were "simply tools of the Ramallah 
government and its security circles, as well as leaders of the security 
agencies who tried to overthrow the legitimate Haniyeh government." He told 
Al-Ahram Weekly that: "They employed their leadership in these organisations to 
create an appearance of the dissolution of security, particularly through the 
kidnapping of foreigners to embarrass the Palestinian [Hamas] government in 
collusion with the Ramallah government." To show how closely these 
organisations coordinated with the Ramallah government, Al-Ghasin pointed to 
their targeting of churches, Internet caf├ęs and wedding halls as confirmation 
of Abbas's claim that under Hamas Gaza had turned into an "oppressive Islamic 
emirate". He also confirmed that documents had been found that prove there are 
relations and coordination between the two.

Yehia Moussa, deputy head of the Hamas bloc in the Palestinian Legislative 
Council (PLC), says that these organisations have tried to conceal their real 
motivations and the roles they undertake on behalf of other Palestinian 
parties. He says that contrary to the impression that some international media 
tries to establish, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip realise the difference 
between these organisations and the ideas that they claim to espouse. 
Palestinians know that some of these organisations in fact have relations with 
Palestinian leaders who in 2004 tried to overthrow the democratically elected 
Hamas government. 

Moussa adds that although these groups are not widespread, they accuse those 
who disagree with them of being infidels. He worries about the possibility, 
however small, that their presence will eventually result in a trend of each 
side declaring the other apostates. Moussa also disapproves of the fact that 
these groups did not participate in clashes with Israel prior to the truce. 
"All the leaders and members of these organisations were asleep in their beds 
while Hamas and the other factions were fighting the occupation forces that had 
raided cities and refugee camps in the Gaza Strip," he told the Weekly. "We are 
certain that the members of these groups will disappear completely when the 
truce with Israel collapses." He calls on them to take part in confronting 
occupation forces, as they were supposedly not created for Israel's sake. 
Moussa also calls on the Haniyeh government and its security forces to strike 
with an iron fist at these groups and to apply the law in confronting them. 

Nihad Al-Sheikh Khalil, a researcher specialised in Islamist movements, says 
that it is unlikely that groups espousing the thought of Al-Qaeda could find a 
foothold in the Gaza Strip, given that they can't offer anything new to the 
Palestinian factions. The factions remain active in the resistance, and even 
during times of truce mobilise forces on the assumption that a new wave of 
clashes with Israel is bound to break out. "These groups don't possess a hard 
Salafi core to their thought, as they do in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. 
Rather, they are groups that have developed on the margins of the resistance 
factions and who have benefited from the conflict between Fatah and Hamas," he 
told the Weekly.

Al-Sheikh Khalil adds that these groups benefited from the "dissolution of 
security" that took place in the Gaza Strip prior to the military settlement to 
the Fatah-Hamas conflict and Hamas's taking control of Gaza. He says that some 
of the members of these groups followed the directives of leaders in the 
Palestinian Authority security agencies prior to the military takeover. In many 
cases they undertook criminal operations that aimed to sabotage security in 
Gaza with the aim of embarrassing Hamas and showing its government as incapable 
of imposing control. The most prominent indicator of a lack of security was 
these groups' kidnapping of foreigners, including the kidnapping of Alan 
Johnston, the BBC correspondent in Gaza. His abduction, like the others, was 
commissioned by Palestinian leaders seeking to embarrass Hamas. Al-Sheikh 
Khalil underlines that these groups do not rest upon a solid ideological 
foundation, but rather seek protection from their families, which have 
relations with leaders of the disbanded security agencies in Gaza. 

Khalil also says that Hamas and its government were hesitant in dealing with 
these groups at first and held back from using force against them for two 
reasons. First, some of these groups claimed to raise the banner of resistance 
against the occupation, and so Hamas did not want to look as though it were 
crushing the resistance. Second, Hamas is extremely sensitive about confronting 
groups it differs with ideologically, especially if they wave Islamic banners. 
He says that the Hamas government tried in the beginning to address the threat 
formed by these groups through dialogue on ideological points. For example, 
Hamas sought the aid of sheikhs with a Salafi-fundamentalist orientation to try 
to convince these groups to release Johnston on the basis of Islamic law 
prohibiting kidnapping. Al-Sheikh Khalil says that the turning point in 
relations between Hamas and its government and these groups took place when 
these groups tried to impose an unnatural social order upon Palestinian 
society. Another contributing factor was the growing impression that they 
served agendas with no relation to Salafi movements. Many of their members 
acted as mercenary killers with the aim of spreading chaos. 

Khalil says that the Hamas government made a mistake when it did not marry 
ideological dialogue to security confrontation in its dealings with these 
groups, as that would have limited the threat they posed. Yet he also stresses 
that the Gaza Strip has never formed fertile ground for the spread of extremist 
organisations, supporting this claim with the fact that these groups have only 
spread in two small areas in Gaza and within a family context and with the 
support of other forces.

There is no real presence of organisations that espouse the thought of Al-Qaeda 
in Gaza, as there is no gap for them to fill. Resistance to the Israeli 
occupation remains the most prominent challenge in Palestine, and thus the most 
important justification for forming organisations. The organisations that have 
adopted the thought of Al-Qaeda have nothing to offer that the other factions 
don't, and their failure to contribute to the resistance proves that it is not 
on their agenda. Given the problematic character of their members and the 
people's repulsion by them, it can be said safely that they have no real future 
in Gaza.

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