Hamas announced the creation of a “popular army” in the Gaza Strip on Friday, saying it was ready for any future conflict with Israel, particularly over the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque site at The Temple Mount.
At a ceremony at the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of the devastated Palestinian territory, a spokesman for the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades — the military arm of the Islamist terror group — said 2,500 recruits would form “the first section of the popular army for the liberation of Al-Aqsa [mosque] and of Palestine”.
Mohammed Abu Askar, a Hamas official, said those older than 20 could sign up “to be prepared for any confrontation” with Israel.
Hamas and Israel fought a 50-day war this summer which resulted in the deaths of 2,140 Palestinians — at least half of them combatants, according to Israel — and 72 Israelis, the majority of them soldiers.
Tensions have been rising at and around the Temple Mount in recent months, with Palestinians frequently clashing with police in protest against Jewish visitors to the compound and some right-wing Israeli politicians calling for Jews to be allowed to pray there. Israel has barred Jews from praying at the Temple Mount compound, revered by Jews as the site of the biblical temples, since it captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967.
The tensions have led to two vehicular terror attacks, which have killed at least four people and the attempted assassination of a Temple Mount activist.
On Wednesday, Shuafat resident Ibrahim al-Akary, 48, plowed into pedestrians at a light rail station along the seam-line between East and West Jerusalem, killing a border policeman and a 17-year-old yeshiva student and injuring a dozen others.
A similar hit-and-run attack took place two weeks earlier at an adjacent train station along the seam-line when another East Jerusalem man, Abdelrahman al-Shaludi from Silwan, drove his car onto a platform, killing two people, including a three-month old baby girl, and injuring several more. Both attackers were killed by police.
On October 29, Rabbi Yehuda Glick, who campaigns for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, was shot outside the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in central Jerusalem by an Arab employee of the center, who was later killed by police during an attempt to arrest him.
Abu Askar said the new Hamas force had been established “at a moment when the Al-Aqsa mosque is subject to serious Israeli violations”.
Another Al-Qassam spokesman said “the people, arms and the tunnels are going well”, in reference to Hamas’s network of underground passages, hundreds of which have been destroyed by Israel and Egypt to prevent arms smuggling, and which were used during Operation Protective Edge to attack Israeli troops.