In a deserted area of southern Gaza, the recently formed Jaysh al-Ummah (The Army of the Nation – JAU) organized its first public training session on September 1. The local Reuters video crew was given access to record the training of this little-known armed group. The resulting video showed about 25 masked gunmen engaged in mock battle. Abu Hafs al-Maqdisi, the masked leader of the JAU, also appeared, saying that his group is not part of al-Qaeda while indicating that “there is an ideological bond between our brothers in al-Qaeda and ourselves. We share the same course, the course of our Prophet Muhammad.” Abu Hafs spoke while surrounded by his men, with the name al-Qaeda written in Arabic on the wall behind them. Other graffiti on the wall read; “We are coming, Jews!” The JAU leader also criticized the Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip; “We believe that Hamas applies neither Sharia law nor any other Islamic rule or order.” In what seemed an echo to Osama Bin Laden’s words, Abu Hafs added: “We say that the world will not live in peace as long as the blood of Muslims continues to be shed” (Reuters, September 2).
Two days after this unprecedented move, Hamas authorities called Abu Hafs in for questioning and kept him in custody. One of his assistants said that the arrest is related to the public training session (al-Hayat, September 5).
The JAU issued a statement calling on the “wise people” of Hamas to release their leader and threatened to launch major attacks against the leaders and establishments of Hamas if they refused (Infovlad.net, September 6, Palestine News Network, September 11). Soon afterwards a masked spokesman of the JAU held a press conference in Khan Younis in Southern Gaza, where he condemned the arrest of his leader but denied that his group had actually meant to threaten Hamas; “We will not let the Israelis and the infidels enjoy a clash between the Salafi-Jihadis and Hamas” (Addustour, September 13).
The first public appearance of the JAU was in January 2008. In a press conference in Khan Younis, a spokesman of the group threatened to kill President George Bush, who was about to begin a visit to the Middle East. A JAU statement read out in the conference said that JAU men who were willing to be martyrs would be waiting for Bush. The spokesman described the United States as the “head of infidelity. It is running a war against everything that is Islamic, starting from Afghanistan through Chechnya and Palestine.” He indicated that the state visit was solely for the interests of Israel. He also strictly opposed the dispatch of any international forces to the Palestinian territories, saying his group would prevent any force from entering Gaza and would consider that force as an invading one (Donia al-Watan [Gaza], January 9).
Despite denying they are part of al-Qaeda, the JAU express their identity as a Salafi-Jihadi group. Their doctrine, as published in their web-site, shows clearly that they are not merely an anti-Israeli Palestinian organization by declaring they are against “the Western Crusade project around the world” (al-amanh.net). The presence of pro-al-Qaeda groups in Gaza has been a matter of controversy in the Palestinian territories before and after Hamas took over Gaza, driving out its rival, Fatah (See Terrorism Monitor, April 17).
The activities of Salafi-Jihadi groups have become more prominent in Gaza following the Hamas takeover. Although Hamas does not support the strategy and most of the tactics of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, it does not strictly condemn the actions of al-Qaeda either. There are certainly differences between Hamas and pro-al-Qaeda groups, but Hamas’s main challenges remain the rival Palestinian Fatah Party and the Israeli state. Until now, al-Qaeda or its affiliates have not disputed Hamas’s control over Gaza. The recent public criticism of Hamas by Abu Hafs has changed this situation. As a result, Hamas did not hesitate to arrest him but did not publicize their action (Hamas has not made any public comment about the JAU training or the arrest of Abu Hafs).
On its way to controlling Gaza, Hamas crushed its rivals in the Fatah-dominated security forces. Only last month Hamas forces cracked down on Fatah’s last stronghold in Gaza; however, suppressing an Islamist group is different. The popular base of the Muslim Brotherhood-rooted Hamas movement might not support such an action. After all, the JAU has launched dozens of attacks against Israel (according to its website), giving it some status as a Palestinian resistance group.
The JAU has found itself in confrontation with Hamas. Such a confrontation does not comply with its stated doctrine, which urges coordination with the other Islamist groups to avoid conflict over ideological differences. Inviting the media to the training session and emerging as a pro-al-Qaeda group might have been an effort to get the attention and perhaps accreditation from the larger and more powerful al-Qaeda group and might bring very badly needed funds and some public support as well.
After a year in power, Hamas agreed to a ceasefire deal with Israel last June. The JAU criticized the agreement, saying that Israel’s aim was to drive the Palestinian factions to fight each other. This is another example of the difficulty that Hamas is facing with the Salafi-Jihadi groups because of their different strategies and agendas. Through their more radical stance, Gaza’s Salafi-Jihadis are trying to gain greater support from Hamas’s traditional base (see Terrorism Monitor, April 17). The recent public appearance of the JAU and the continuing existence of groups like Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Suyuf al-Haq (The Swords of Righteousness) clearly indicate that Palestinian Salafi-Jihadi organizations with global agendas are increasingly active in Gaza. So far, the JAU is believed to have been active in Gaza under an unwritten agreement with Hamas, which has controlled the area since June 2007. The detention of Abu Hafs al-Maqdisi showed that such an agreement, if it exists, might have become invalid.