When al-Qaeda invited journalists and the people at large to direct questions by internet to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the most frequent questions was: “Why does al-Qaeda not launch operations in Palestine?” Al-Zawahiri responded with an audio message published on al-Sahab, the media wing of al-Qaeda, threatening Israel and Jewish interests. He endorsed “every operation against Jewish interests” and promised to “strive as much as we can to deal blows to the Jews inside Israel and outside it, with Allah’s help and guidance.” Al-Zawahiri also advised “the people of Palestine to perform jihad, jihad and jihad.” He added, “I expect the jihadi influence to spread after the Americans’ exit from Iraq and to move toward Jerusalem” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 4).
The Palestinian issue has been a big challenge for the propaganda of al-Qaeda. Most Muslims around the world look at Israel as a hostile occupier and sympathize with the Palestinians. At any level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Muslims obviously consider Israel as their enemy, yet al-Qaeda activity within Israel has been strikingly non-existent.
Al-Qaeda Front in Gaza?
In early March Israel ended a week-long offensive in Gaza in an attempt to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets against the nearby Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Sderot. The Israeli assault killed more than 120 people, including many civilians. Three Israelis were also killed (al-Jazeera, March 13; AP, March 24). During the weeks following the operation, al-Qaeda released two audiotapes by bin Laden, one of which addressed the situation in Gaza and the Palestinians (al-Jazeera, March 20). Al-Zawahiri also appeared in an audiotape, which arrived shortly after bin Laden’s March 20 release:
Today there is no room for he who says that we should only fight the Jews in Palestine. Let us strike their interests everywhere, just like they gathered against us from everywhere… Let [the Americans] know that they will get blood for every dollar they spend in the killing of the Muslims, and for every bullet they fire at us, a volcano will turn back on them…They cannot expect to support Israel, then live in peace while the Jews are killing our fugitive and besieged people (al-Sahab, March 24).
Bin Laden called for the use of “iron and fire to end the siege of Gaza” and accused what he called the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” of implementing the siege on Gaza, which came on the heels of the U.S.-hosted November 2007 Annapolis Conference, intended to revive the peace process in the Middle East. “This killing siege has started after the support of the Arabs of Annapolis to America and the Zionist entity (Israel); by that support they are partners in committing this horrible crime.” Bin Laden identified jihad as the only way to support the Palestinian people, but urged Muslims to join “the mujahideen brothers in Iraq” to support the Palestinians rather than going to Palestine to fight:
Iraq is the perfect base to set up the jihad to liberate Palestine… Palestine and its people have been suffering from too much bitterness for almost a century now at the hands of the Christians and the Jews. And both parties didn’t take Palestine from us by negotiations and dialogue, but with arms and fire, and this is the only way to take it back (Al-Jazeera, March 20).
After Hamas took over Gaza and drove out rival Fatah fighters and security services, the Palestinian president and leader of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, accused Hamas of protecting al-Qaeda and allowing it to gain a foothold in Gaza (Haaretz, July 10, 2007). Abbas renewed his accusations this year, alleging that al-Qaeda militants had infiltrated the Gaza strip and were receiving assistance from Hamas to establish a base of operations there. He also declared that an alliance had formed between al-Qaeda and Hamas (al-Hayat, February 25). Hamas denied the accusations, but interestingly it seems that Hamas used the specter of al-Qaeda in Gaza during their talks with Egypt right before taking over Gaza. Khalid Meshaal, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, told the Egyptians that if Hamas lost its battle with Fatah over Gaza, “al-Qaeda will be your neighbor.” The delegation told the Egyptians clearly that only Hamas was capable of securing the borders and curbing the cells of al-Qaeda. In retrospect it appears Meshaal wanted to neutralize Egypt before his approaching battle with Fatah in Gaza (Masrawy, June 18, 2007).
New Extremist Groups Emerge in Gaza
The propaganda of jihad has been spreading for years among the youth in Gaza, with stores making big profits selling the recordings of bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq—killed by a U.S. air strike in June 2006. The Gaza strip borders with Israel and Egypt and is approximately 25 miles long and 6 miles wide. It is populated by only about 1.3 million Palestinians, most of whom live in poverty and suffer from both unemployment and neglect—an ideal environment for extreme ideologies to spread. Gaza has been a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood-rooted Hamas since its formation in the late 1980s.
After the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Gaza became a land of political confusion and lawlessness. The conflict between Hamas and Fatah elements was escalating and under these circumstances the name of al-Qaeda appeared in Gaza. On May 8, 2006, a group called al-Jaysh al-Quds al-Islami (The Islamic Army of Jerusalem) announced its formation: “With Allah’s help the Islamic Army of al-Quds (Jerusalem), which follows the organization of al-Qaeda in the land of Ribat (i.e., Palestine), has been formed, basing [itself] on the words of Shaykh Osama bin Laden, Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri and Shaykh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” The group added that it would target every enemy of Islam: “We will explode with our bodies all of their locations and shake the land under their feet” (Al-Watan, May 24, 2006).
Later in 2006 another allegedly Palestinian group released a videotape. Calling itself Qaedat al-Jihad Wilayat Palestine (The Base of Jihad – Palestine region), the group started the tape with an excerpt from bin Laden’s well known speech that followed the 9/11 attacks: “To America, I say to it and its people: I swear by God, who has elevated the skies without pillars, neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live in Palestine” (al-Jazeera, October 7, 2001). The video also included al-Zarqawi saying: “We fight in Iraq with our eyes on Jerusalem which cannot be regained without the sword” (al-Asr, November 2, 2006).
A Gaza group called Suyuf al-Haq (The Swords of Righteousness) proclaimed its existence with attacks on Internet cafes, music stores and women not wearing Islamic dress. Churches and Christian book shops were also targeted. The group did not introduce itself as part of al-Qaeda but seemed to have similar Salafist beliefs. Khalid Abu Hilal, spokesman of the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior, said that he did not believe there was a link between the Palestinian extremists and the international organization of al-Qaeda, but a security source said that some al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists might have succeeded in entering Gaza through the border with Egypt the previous year (al-Naba, June 6, 2006).
On March 12, 2007, BBC reporter Alan Johnston—the only Western journalist based in Gaza—was kidnapped. A group called Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) claimed responsibility and released a video of Johnston. The group demanded the release of Abu Kutada, who is believed to be al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader in Europe and is currently jailed in Britain. After Hamas took power in Gaza, Johnston was turned over to Hamas forces (BBC, October 25, 2007).
The Jaysh al-Islam, which is believed to be headed by Mumtaz Daghmash, was also linked to the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. In an operation launched on June 25, 2006, Jaysh al-Islam joined with two other groups: the Izz al-Din al-Kassam brigades—the military wing of Hamas—and the Salah al-Din brigades, who are closer to Fatah. Three Israeli soldiers were killed in the operation and corporal Schalit captured. The statement of the Army of Islam garnered a lot of attention; it was their first appearance and the operation indicated the organization’s ability to coordinate with other active armed groups or with extremist elements within them, creating new strategic possibilities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (al-Arabia, July 7, 2006).
As al-Qaeda endures continuing difficulties in Iraq due to the success of the Awakening (al-Sahwat) movement in Iraq, it has become crucial for the supreme leaders of al-Qaeda to revive their appeals for support, with the miserable conditions and ongoing conflict in Gaza providing a propaganda opportunity. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri indicated that the way to Jerusalem passes through Iraq, so despite the new messages, the main front for al-Qaeda is clearly still Iraq. At the same time, Palestine has been and always will be an essential part of the ideology of al-Qaeda and the situation in Gaza has presented an opportunity for al-Qaeda to examine opening a presence in the Palestinian territories. Muslim extremist groups in Gaza like the Army of Islam might not have a direct link to the international organization of al-Qaeda but it seems that Mumtaz Daghmash and his followers have succeeded in operating outside the control of Fatah and Hamas. The Army of Islam will likely try to launch other operations in the region.
The existence of al-Qaeda in Gaza was used by Fatah and Hamas as part of their internecine conflict, both trying to gain political benefits by raising the issue. There is a danger in the Palestinian leaders using al-Qaeda as a propaganda prop while ignoring the reality of the issue and its possible consequences.