Gaza’s Salafis under scrutiny

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were shocked the week before last when an Italian activist and journalist, Vittorio Arrigoni, was kidnapped and then murdered by a self-proclaimed Salafi jihadi group. Arrigoni, a bighearted man who I met several times during a recent two-month stay in Gaza, was well known around the Strip as a strong ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were shocked the week before last when an Italian activist and journalist, Vittorio Arrigoni, was kidnapped and then murdered by a self-proclaimed Salafi jihadi group. Arrigoni, a bighearted man who I met several times during a recent two-month stay in Gaza, was well known around the Strip as a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause. "I come from a partisan family," he once told an interviewer. His grandparents had fought and died while fighting fascism in Italy. "For this reason," he said, "probably, in my DNA, there are particles that push me to struggle."

In a YouTube video Arrigoni’s captors demanded that Gaza’s Hamas government release Salafi prisoners from its jails within 30 hours or they would execute their hostage. With police closing in, the captors apparently decided not to wait for their own deadline and killed him the same day. Last Tuesday, Hamas-affiliated police and security forces surrounded three suspects in a house in the Nuseirat refugee camp. Nuseirat is where the Salafi group Tawhid wa Al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) is based. As documented in a video, Hamas authorities brought Hisham Sa’idini, the leader of Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, whose release the kidnappers demanded, from prison in an attempt to negotiate their surrender. Police also summoned the mother of one of the suspects, a Jordanian citizen, to aid in the negotiating process. According to Hamas officials, the standoff ended in a shootout in which the Jordanian threw a grenade at his two accomplices then shot himself.

In the initial days after the murder, Hamas officials insinuated that the perpetrators of this inexplicable crime were Israeli agents, although they were reluctant to make this statement unequivocally when speaking on the record. Of course, no evidence has emerged publicly to support this conspiracy theory. Others, particularly in right-wing Israeli and U.S. circles, seized on Arrigoni’s murder in order to depict the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian society at large, as a monolithic den of fanatics. It ought to go without saying that this is not the case. Gaza’s people, who belong to a wide and overlapping spectrum of religious and political views, universally condemned the murder. Similarly, all political parties, including Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, and even Salafi leaders, denounced the killing.

Beyond the tragic events of the story itself, however, Arrigoni’s death highlights a complex political context, a web of power relations among various actors in Gaza including Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, the Salafis, other Palestinian factions, and the international community. At the root of these dynamics is the Israeli and Western policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas. The crippling four-year-long blockade of Gaza has created the conditions of human misery and desperation in which a handful of people have turned to extremism. A new report from International Crisis Group states that the blockade has amounted to "an assist provided to Salafi-Jihadis, who benefit from…Gaza’s lack of exposure to the outside world."

The Jihadi Salafis

Salafism is a stream of Sunni Islam that espouses a literalist reading of scripture and adheres to a conservative, puritan lifestyle. Crisis Group states: "The Salafis attempt to follow the example of salaf as-salih (pious ancestors) — the first three generations of Muslims." Most contemporary Salafis in Gaza and elsewhere also practice nonviolence, and  according to Crisis Group, the majority focus not on politics but on "conventional daawa activities — scholarship, education and social outreach — that serve as a means of "calling" others to Islam." In an interview in Gaza, Hamas official Ahmad Yousef described these traditional groups as "a few people on the street, knocking on doors, calling on people for soul purification."

Traditional Salafism arrived in Gaza in the 1970s when Palestinian students returned from religious schools in Saudi Arabia. To this day Salafi groups in Gaza receive support from Saudi sources. According to Crisis Group, some, like the Ibn Baz Islamic society, are named after Saudi sheikhs. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has allowed Salafi groups to receive funds from Saudi Arabia as well. Fatah and the PA hoped the Salafis could pose an Islamic counterweight to Hamas. Crisis Group reports: "Salafists have enjoyed the support of Fatah, which appointed them to PA institutions in an effort to compete with Hamas, and have voiced no opposition to the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, whom they consider the wali al-amr (ruler)." As recently as last year, the PA reportedly appointed Salafi preachers to mosques in the West Bank.

Militant wing

The subset of jihadi or militant Salafis in Gaza includes four main groups: Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of God’s Supporters), Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam), Jaysh Al-Umma (Army of the Nation), and finally Tawhid wa Al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), whose members were blamed for the killing of Vittorio Arrigoni. Although membership estimates vary widely, the jihadi groups are believed to include no more than a few hundred activists, mostly young men, some of them still in their teens. Two Hamas officials said these groups together number fewer than 100 members. Many of these adherents are recruited from the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. An unknown further number of cadres within these larger factions have sympathy for the Salafis or may participate in Salafi armed action.

The jihadi Salafis are opposed to Hamas over two primary issues: implementation of Islamic law — the jihadis want the imposition of a puritanical reading of sharia — and ceasefires with Israel, which they oppose on principle. Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, the organization whose alleged members were blamed for killing Arrigoni, is said to be one of the smaller groups. According to Hamas and other Salafis quoted by Crisis Group, the group’s leader, Hisham Sa’idni, is "more vehemently against Hamas than other Salafi-Jihadis." Saidini’s first arrest by Hamas was followed by an escape, Crisis Group reports, during Operation Cast Lead, when Gaza’s central prison was destroyed.

The second of the two issues has arguably been more troublesome for Hamas. Salafis have been blamed for launching homemade rockets into Israel in violation of a ceasefire agreed upon by Hamas and the other armed factions in Gaza. With the exception of an escalation of violence in March, Hamas and most other armed factions’ policy since the end of Israel’s devastating 2009 military offensive has been to maintain calm and to arrest fighters responsible for unauthorized attacks.

More recently, Hamas has enforced a system in which each of the main armed groups –Islamic Jihad, Popular Resistance Committees, and others — discipline its own members for ceasefire violations. Those who commit infractions are also denied the protection, prestige, and support of the faction, even if they are killed in the process. Perhaps realizing that a heavy hand can create further radicalization, Hamas has also recently taken a more nuanced approach to the Salafis, including sending religious scholars into prisons in hopes of nurturing a more tolerant outlook among them.

In November, Israel assassinated two members of the Salafi group Jaysh Al-Islam in separate strikes, alleging that they were plotting attacks on Israeli and American targets in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. (The Mubarak government in Egypt also accused Jaysh Al-Islam of carrying out the bombing of an Alexandria church, which killed 21 people on New Year’s Day.) Hamas denied the Israeli allegations. "Maybe this is what the Israelis think, that they can justify to the Americans that they are targeting those people, because some of their rhetoric is that they [the Salafis] are targeting Americans, or trying to depict them as Al-Qaeda," said Hamas official Ahmad Yousef, when asked about the accusations leveled against Jaysh Al-Islam.

In both hits, Israeli drones or helicopters fired missiles at the men’s cars as they drove on the busy streets of Gaza City, leaving only blackened wreckage. The killings threatened to trigger a wider crisis. Fighters — said to be affiliated with the Popular Resistance Committees –responded by firing mortars, homemade projectiles, and one Russian-type Grad missile into Israel. The Grad produced a loud explosion and a fireball in the sky over my temporary Gaza City residence. Less than a day later, that barrage ended with a meeting among the various militant groups and a renewed agreement to maintain the ceasefire. A well-connected Gaza analyst told me that Hamas might have turned a blind eye to the brief spurt of attacks in order to allow fighters to "let off steam."

This is the crux of Hamas’ dilemma: if it allows attacks on Israel, it risks massive retaliation from the Israelis; if it imposes too strict a ceasefire, it risks eroding its credibility among its political base in Gaza, particularly among its armed cadres. A U.N. diplomat, quoted anonymously by Crisis Group explained the problem: "How long can Hamas sustain a policy of not engaging in resistance, while this non-engagement doesn’t produce any results in terms of liberating Palestine, easing the blockade, or any other political goal for which the movement exists?"

Still, Hamas officials I spoke with dismissed the theory that the Salafists posed a significant challenge. Ehab Al-Ghussain, the spokesman for Hamas’ Ministry of Interior, also downplayed the issue: "If you look by percentage, Gaza has the lowest percentage of these people [Salafis] in the world." Ghussain did explain, however, that the first of the assassinated men, Muhammad An-Nimnim, had been jailed by Hamas authorities in the past for actions "against the Palestinian government."

Nimnim was widely believed to have been a top aide to Mumtaz Doghmush, the leader of Jaysh Al-Islam, himself a former member of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Forces, often described as a Mafioso-like figure. Doghmush’s group cooperated with Hamas in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006, but relations between the two groups soured over Jaysh Al-Islam’s kidnapping s of westerners, which began with the August 2006 kidnapping of two Fox News journalists , and culminated in the prolonged captivity of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in 2007. Johnston was freed days after Hamas seized full control of Gaza in June 2007. He was the last foreigner kidnapped in Gaza until Arrigoni’s abduction two weeks ago. Indeed, many Gazans credit Hamas for ending the lawlessness and chaos that characterized the last years of Fatah rule. According to Ghussain, however, Nimnim had been imprisoned for assisting another group, Jund Ansar Allah, whose challenge to Hamas rule marked another turning point in relations with the Salafis.

Rafah shootout

Jund Ansar Allah, which came into existence in late 2008, became prominent in June 2009 when it mounted a failed attack on Israeli soldiers using explosive-laden horses. After a summer of mounting tensions with Hamas, on August 11, 2009, the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdul Latif Musa, delivered a sermon in a mosque in the city of Rafah in which he chastised Hamas and declared an Islamic emirate in Palestine. This declaration began a standoff with Musa’s supporters that ended when Hamas security forces and Al-Qassam Brigades re-took the mosque by force. In a night of fighting, 28 people were killed including at least seven police — all Qassam members.

A man who identified himself as one of Jund Ansar Allah’s only remaining members told me in an interview that the battle in Rafah had been a turning point, the beginning of a comprehensive crackdown on Salafi jihadis. "There is more pressure these days, we can hardly move here and there," he said. "It is very hard to work with [other] Salafis now, we are pursued by the Hamas government and the Zionists, both sides." More than 20 of his comrades were in Hamas-run prisons, he said. "Salafis do not convene like they used to do before because of the Hamas crackdown on them. Each group works alone, we cannot work as one group."

In regard to the assassination of Muhammad An-Nimnim, he even accused Hamas of passing information to Egypt that Israel could have used in the killing. "I believe a kind of coordination occurred between the Hamas government and Egypt’s intelligence in detecting him," he said. "It is very well known that Egypt’s intelligence sends security information to the Jews, provides them with information; Hamas thinks that this information actually is delivered to the CIA and the Mossad." (Asked about this later, Interior Ministry spokesman Ghussain denied this account, claiming, "Nobody actually imagines that Israel needs information from Egypt about Nimnim. They know everything. Maybe they give information to all sides. They have technology. They have spies. They have collaborators.") The man, who appeared to be in his twenties, said he was originally a member of Islamic Jihad but prefers Salafism because, "I believe it’s good to follow a respected ideology than a corrupt one. We are completely against any truce with Israel. We will attack our enemy by every means according to our military capabilities, we will never hesitate or shy from resisting."

The role of the Salafi jihadis is not to be exaggerated, and much ambiguity still surrounds these groups’ activities, intentions, and relations with other internal and external forces. Interior Ministry spokesman Ehab Al-Ghusssain theorized that by targeting them for assassination, Israel was attempting to elevate these groups’ importance. The jihadis have become, he said, "like a white paper, whatever you write on it, it will be."

Jared Malsin is the former chief English editor of the Palestinian news agency Ma’an. His Twitter feed is @jmalsin.

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