Other than launching Katyusha rockets at Israel in December 2005 and attempting to launch rockets at Eilat from Aqaba in Jordan in August 2005, al-Qaeda has not launched significant attacks against Israeli targets in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda has not been active in the Palestinian territories, although fighting Israel is a top priority of Salafi-Jihadist ideology. There were many indications, however, of al-Qaeda’s desire to penetrate the Arab-Israeli conflict as a consequence of Israeli’s pullout from Gaza; this explains why al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, criticized Hamas’ participation in the peace process (al-Jazeera, April 3). The potential for al-Qaeda to penetrate the Arab-Israeli conflict exists, and it is important to understand the ideological perspective of Salafi-Jihadists toward Hamas, indications of al-Qaeda’s role in the territories and al-Qaeda’s chance for success.
Ideological Perspective Toward Hamas
On March 4, al-Jazeera aired a videotape of al-Zawahiri, who criticized Hamas for participating in the political process, calling on Hamas not to recognize Israel and the agreements signed by the “Secular Palestinian Authorities with Israel.” It further warned Hamas not to participate in the “American game called political participation” (al-Jazeera, March 4). Al-Zawahiri’s perspective in criticizing the participation of Hamas in the political process is not a new one. He previously criticized Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for participating in the political process in a long book he wrote, titled Bitter Harvest, focusing on their “wrong” belief in political participation. Likewise, the Salafi-Jihadist perspective on Hamas revolves around the same connotation, even though this perspective is not publicized.
The Salafi-Jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi once wrote an article entitled “Hamas Mojard Hamas” (“Hamas is Just Enthusiasm”), resenting its alliance with the secular Palestinian forces and Hamas’ criticism of the suicide attacks by al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. He wrote, “we remark that there is no prohibition on the existence of Hamas or whomever on the right path that seek to elevate Allah’s word. There is good in Palestine and elsewhere, but our criticism of the so-called Hamas is because it has delayed the big holy war in Palestine and distorted the fundamentals of the religion which can never be argued or renounced for political gains” (http://www.tawhed.ws, 2004).
In the same context, al-Qaeda ideologue in Saudi Arabia Abu Jandal al-Azdi (also known as Faris al-Zahrani), currently imprisoned there, criticized Hamas for its support of late Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Yasser Arafat and for believing in democracy, deeming the PNA apostates that should be fought on par with Israel (http://www.tawhed.ws, 2003). Also, the Salafi-Jihadist ideologue in Iraq, Abu Anas al-Shami (also known as Omar Yossif Joma’a), called Hamas an incomplete Islamic movement due to its cooperation with ideas of “citizenship” and “political participation.”
Al-Zawahiri’s pep talk presents al-Qaeda as an alternative to Hamas. Al-Zawahiri stated clearly that “Jihad and Sharia” are the only alternatives (al-Jazeera, April 3). This explains al-Maqdisi’s continuing aspiration to move the Salafi-Jihadist ideology “west of the river Jordan” (http://www.alasr.ws, December 25, 2004). Therefore, it is noteworthy that the Salafi-Jihadists are trying to penetrate the Arab-Israeli conflict zone. It is also what Osama bin Laden expressed in two of his speeches—in October 2001 and in October 2004—when he linked the September 11 attacks to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and vowed that the security of the United States is connected with that of the Palestinians. If this is an ideological aspiration of al-Qaeda, what is the potential of implementing that reality?
Al-Qaeda and the Territories
In an interview with al-Hayat, PNA President Mahmoud Abbas stated that there are strong indications of al-Qaeda’s presence in Gaza and the West Bank (al-Hayat, March 2). Also, Jordanian authorities indicated the presence of an al-Qaeda cell in Gaza (al-Hayat, April 4). In May 2005, the Palestinian Azzam Abu al-Adas from Balata refugee camp in Nablus, studying in Jordan, was recruited in the Jordanian city of Irbid by Abdullah (also known as Abu Qudama) and Mo’taz Omar Seelawi, both members of al-Qaeda. They instructed Azzam to set up a terrorist cell in Gaza to perpetrate terrorist attacks against Israeli industrial facilities to undermine the Israeli economy; Azzam recruited Bilal Hafanawi from Gaza to assist in the operation. Bilal is a former Hamas activist who was heading a cell for al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades/Fatah in Gaza. On January 10, Israeli authorities arrested Azzam and Bilal as they were crossing from Jordan into PNA territories. On February 2, both men were tried and charged in an Israeli military court for attempting terror attacks in Israel. This case indicated real mobilization of the Salafi-Jihadist movement westward, particularly to Gaza. This is logical due to the lack of Israeli control over the dense population of potential recruits in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal. Furthermore, the pro-Hamas al-Risalah newspaper indicated the increasing support for al-Qaeda ideology in southern Gaza, particularly in Rafah and Khan Yunis districts (al-Risalah, March 9).
The dissidence of Hamas’ right wing that opposes peaceful solution of the conflict and the May 8 announcement of a group claiming affiliation with al-Qaeda called Jaish al-Quds al-Islami (Islamic Army of Jerusalem) were the expected outcomes of Hamas’ participation in the political process (al-Ghad, May 9). Hamas’ success in the elections increased the chances of al-Qaeda’s penetration for the following reasons. By shifting away from the right-wing, Hamas left Islamic Jihad alone and created a vacuum exploited by al-Qaeda through the rumor that the commander of Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades (the military wing of Hamas), Muhammad Daif (also known as Muhammad Diab al-Missri), had switched to al-Qaeda. Hamas denied the rumor. Regardless of the validity of the rumor, it strongly indicates that the discord between the military and political wings of Hamas is expected to intensify in the future. On the other hand, pressure on Hamas will weaken it and prove true what Nehemia Strasler, an Israeli analyst in Haaretz, said: “And so Israel will continue imposing sanctions and a political boycott, and the radicals, such as Islamic Jihad, will become stronger. And when the Palestinian nation comes to the conclusion that neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad have managed to improve the conditions, it will turn to the most radical of all, to al-Qaeda” (Haaretz, February 21).
Externally, Hamas is facing a real challenge to proceed from political participation to the peace process. Internally, Hamas has to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinians, a top priority according to recent polls conducted in the territories. It seems that as a consequence of the external and internal factors, al-Qaeda is counting on the failure of Hamas. The last factor is connected to Al-Qaeda in Iraq which is more Shami (a geographical term used in Arabic to describe Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq) in its outlook. This explains why it may become active in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and on the Gaza border in the Sinai desert, a weak area lacking development, education and suffering from poor socio-economic conditions (al-Hayat, May 7). Sinai was targeted more than five times last year. Tacking westward seems a substantive decision of al-Qaeda considering its constant efforts to create a safe haven for its operations, and the ideological priority of the Palestinian issue.
The factors mentioned above play a major role in the possible penetration by Salafi-Jihadists into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These factors are divided into local, regional and international levels. Al-Aqsa press noted the increasing popularity of al-Zarqawi among Palestinian youths as a consequence of his latest videotape aired on al-Jazeera (al-Jazeera, May 6). Al-Aqsa said that even the head cover that al-Zarqawi wore in the tape became a vogue among Palestinian youths. Most significant is that those youths express the duty to fight traitors in the PNA in conformity with al-Qaeda’s pep talk instigating the killing of apostates and Israelis. It seems that the proclamation of responsibility for the attempted assassination of the head of the Palestinian intelligence services on May 21 by a new group calling itself Al-Qaeda Organization of the State of Palestine is contextual. Therefore, all parties, including the international ones, should not push the Arab-Israeli conflict into a dangerous slide and escalation that is bound to occur if al-Qaeda enters the conflict. Despite the obstacles that al-Qaeda faces in penetrating the Arab-Israeli conflict area as a result of the highly politicized nature of the Palestinian people, Hamas’ possible failure in the political process and the regression of other Palestinian parties will make it that much easier for al-Qaeda to penetrate.
Palestinian political parties need restructuring to be able to understand the political variants of the region; more importantly, they need to keep their cadres from switching to al-Qaeda. Hamas has to create a balance between internal support and recognition by the international community. Israel, on its part, has to realize the threat of Salafi-Jihadist success in penetrating the area. Fewer Palestinian political options mean a greater chance of violence prevailing over politics.