Amidst the latest clash between Gaza’s Islamist leadership, Hamas, and extremist Salafists, prominent Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi announced his upcoming visit to the region Monday. His announcement comes one day after a small group of angry Palestinians held a sit-in in central Gaza to demand the release of Salafist militants being held by Hamas authorities. The Islamist government is reportedly detaining over twenty members of the ultra-conservative sect in connection to recent rocket strikes on southern Israel. The crackdown is nothing new — Hamas has been battling Salafists for influence since practically 2007, when it took control of the Gaza Strip. The main grievances voiced by Salafist groups – which include a majority seemingly content with proselytizing, as well as a jihadist segment that has vocally espoused violence, particularly against Israel – stem notably from Hamas’ tempered approach to Israel and to what Salafists view as a too moderate incarnation of Islam in Gaza. (In 2008, top Salafist leader Abu Mustafa described Hamas as “Islamism lite.”)
The latter sticking point has taken a violent form in the past two months: Salafists militants have claimed responsibility for launching a rocket towards Israel during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit there last month, as well as several other rocket strikes in April. In response, Hamas has cracked down on them, reportedly holding suspects without charge, and assaulting family members during arrests. While the violent response is not unprecedented — in April 2011, Hamas authorities killed two Salafists (and captured a third) in response to the kidnapping and murder of an Italian pro-Palestinian activist – its motivation may lie more in Hamas’ desire to improve its regional standing than in any worry over the domestic threat Salafist extremists pose. (After all, Sunday’s protest only drew a few dozen participants.) In particular, Hamas has actively sought to develop alliances with Islamist-led regional heavyweights (like Egypt) in the wake of the Arab Spring. In return for its support, Cairo has reportedly pressured Hamas to calm rocket fire into Israel, as well as to find and arrest Salafists responsible for a 2012 attack on Egyptian soil.
At the same time Hamas is striving towards greater international credibility, in order to accumulate political clout and secure new funding sources. (Given that one Salafist rocket launch occurred during President Obama’s trip to the region, it’s actually surprising that the ensuing crackdown wasn’t more draconian.) However, the arrest campaign does provide Hamas the opportunity to emerge as a moderate force in Gaza, and possibly reassure Western governments uncomfortable with the group’s Islamist qualifier. Any subsequent boost to its international image will be particularly welcomed by a group that has long sought to reconcile its identity as an Islamist group (see Hamas’ crackdown on Gaza hipsters) with its desire to become a legitimate power player.
But while regional neighbors and Western observers may find themselves in rare agreement (i.e., applauding the crackdown), look for Salafists to continue to be a thorn in Hamas’ side. The movement has successfully played off of Gaza’s current economic crisis to recruit unemployed youths — not to mention burgeoning discontent with Hamas’ waffling on Israel and repressive domestic policies. And while the movement is reported to number only a few thousand members thus far, regional precedents hint at the disruption even a minority Islamist movement can wreak. Namely in Tunisia, where a minority Salafist movement (again numbering a few thousand) have used widespread economic frustration to build ranks and threaten the country’s stability. Oh, and its international standing has taken a hit as well . . .