Gaza Salafi leader seeks reconciliation with Hamas
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Gaza Salafi leader seeks reconciliation with Hamas

Sheikh pleads with group to release Islamist fighters, says only suspected collaborators with Israel should be tortured

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinian salafists demonstrate in the southern Gaza Strip in September 2012. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian salafists demonstrate in the southern Gaza Strip in September 2012. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A Salafi leader in the Gaza Strip outlined the details of a détente between Hamas and more radical Gaza-based jihadist groups on Tuesday, claiming that Hamas was studying his proposal.

Sheikh Issam Saleh, a former leader of the militant Islamist group Jaish al-Islam, convened a press conference in Gaza City to announce the establishment of a reconciliation committee to mitigate the mounting tension between Hamas and local fundamentalist groups vying for power.

In a draft proposal published by the Jerusalem-based daily al-Quds, Saleh — a respected leader who has taught in Yemen, Sudan and Egypt — asked Hamas to release Salafi prisoners held in jail, and designate specific areas within the Gaza Strip for military training and “jihad activity.”

Salafi sheikh Issam Saleh speaks to the press in Gaza, July 7, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)
Salafi sheikh Issam Saleh speaks to the press in Gaza, July 7, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)

Hamas has intensified its crackdown on Salafi jihadist groups in recent weeks in a bid to placate the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who is combating Islamic State-affiliated militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Hamas also considers the local armed groups a potential threat to its rule in Gaza and an ideological challenge to its more pragmatic version of political Islam.

Saleh’s document called on Hamas to return funds and weapons confiscated from Salafi operatives by Gaza’s security agencies, and resort to torture “solely based on evidence of collaboration with the enemy.”

“We live together in one place and must cooperate. This is a religious matter,” he told the press. Saleh went on to condemn “internal explosions” carried out in Gaza by the Salafis, and “torture that runs counter to Islam,” carried out by Hamas.

He denied ties between Gaza jihadists and members of the Islamic State in nearby Sinai, alleged by the Egyptian press. “Most of the mujahideen in Gaza have no connection to Sinai,” he argued. “The brothers in Sinai cause trouble with the Egyptian government, and here [in Gaza] Salafi jihadists operate against the Jews.”

The Salafi, or fundamentalist, trend in Islam is traditionally classified in two separate movements: Salafiya Da’awiyah, which focuses on preaching and religious education, and Salafiya Jihadiyah, which endorses armed struggle to bring about a global Islamic caliphate governed by religious law as practiced in the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

Palestinian youth show their skills during a graduation ceremony as part of a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015 in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
Palestinian youth show their skills during a graduation ceremony as part of a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015 in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)

Hamas, which as part of the Muslim Brotherhood supports the implementation of a more relaxed form of Sharia law within the framework of existing nation states, has been arresting and torturing local jihadist activists. In early June, its security forces shot and killed Younis al-Hunnar, a young Salafi activist living in Gaza. Hamas’s interior ministry later displayed photos of weapons supposedly stashed in Hunnar’s home, claiming he had violently resisted arrest.

Last week, a website associated with the Islamic State broadcast a video clip featuring a young man claiming to be from Gaza threatening to topple Hamas in the Strip in retaliation for its moves against the Salafis.

“We will repeat what we did in [Syria’s] Yarmouk refugee camp in Gaza,” said the man, who called himself Abu-Aisha the Gazan, and was later identified as 23-year-old Issa al-Lakta. “We will take revenge on you.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian media reported Tuesday, Hamas has decided to ban as-Sabirin, an Iranian-backed group founded in Gaza a year and a half ago. Hamas accuses the movement of spreading Shiite doctrine in the predominantly Sunni Gaza Strip.

Observes said the move will deepen the rift between Hamas and its Iranian benefactor, created when Hamas decided to leave Syria in early 2012 and denounce the Assad regime.

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