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Clash of Islamists the talk of Gaza

August 17, 2009
Ibn Taymea mosque

Coming home on Sunday after a long day at work, there was still no rest. Several of my neighbours in Gaza were escaping the late evening heat of their apartments to sit outside our building chatting about the previous two days that had seen the bloodiest inter-Palestinian fighting in two years, between forces of the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza and gunmen of an al Qaeda-style group. It left 28 people dead.

Knowing I’ma journalist, and discovering that I had been at the scene of the clashes, down in the south of the Gaza Strip at Rafah, the neighbours started bombarding me with their questions. Most of them were confused about what exactly happened between these two groups, which both endorse Islam as a political ideology.

Some of them asked whether the clashes would have a backlash and whether they should keep a distance from Hamas police stations and even restaurants to avoid being blown up by followers of the Jund Ansar Allah (the Warriors of God), whose leader had been killed in the fighting with Hamas security forces.

Most of the neighbors did not condone the radical splinter group’s support of the use of force to impose Islamic law on Gaza’s community of 1.5 million people, nearly all of whom are Muslim. But some were confused over the religious implications of such clashes with Hamas, which also sees itself as a guardian of Islamic orthodoxy.

“Killing in the name of Islam?” said Mustafa, one of my neighbours, reflecting on the clash of two groups both sure of their beliefs. “But who among the dead will go to heaven and who to hell? Who was the good guy and who was the evil one?”

“Those wanted to establish an emirate,” said Abu Hassan, referring to Jund Ansar Allah. “Do you know what that means? Like the Taliban in Afghanistan. That means American warships will sail to Gaza.”

Others complained that Hamas itself sometimes seemed no less extreme in its religious views than these small, al Qaeda-like groups. They cited a recent campaign by Hamas’s religious affairs ministry in Gaza to encourage women to wear headscarves and adhere to Islamic values. “Hamas police are stopping couples walking in streets and checking their IDs,” one of the neighbours complained. “Am I supposed to carry around my marriage certificate whenever I go out with my wife?”

As a reporter, I tried to listen more than talk, and my answers to their questions were mostly similar to the various stories we wrote during the day. For an even more detailed view of the challenge to Hamas from al Qaeda-aligned Jihadists, and an insight into the details of their different brands of political Islam, I’d recommend this recent research report by Are Hovdenak of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

I am struck, though, by how this sudden, complex and bloody controversy has become the talk of ordinary Gazans, some of whom seem unsure where their sympathies, or their duty as Muslims, should lie. It seems for now an inexhaustible source of conversation.

Running to the lift as it suddenly came to life after a typical hours-long power cut, I got away from my inquisitive neighbours and gratefully went up to my floor and opened my apartment door, looking forward to a rest.

“So,” asked my wife, “What really happened down in Rafah…?”

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