Eyebrows were raised around the world Aug. 14 when Hamas security forces in Rafah swiftly, and brutally, destroyed an al-Qaeda-inspired group that had proclaimed the southern Gaza town an "Islamic emirate." After all, Hamas is listed by the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization, and many in the West don't expect an avowedly Islamist political organization to forcefully suppress jihadist groups.
Yet, that's exactly what happened when pro-al-Qaeda cleric Abdel Latif Moussa gathered about 100 of his heavily armed supporters in a mosque to denounce Hamas rule and declared himself the "Islamic prince" of the new "emirate." Hamas security men moved in to disarm the group, and 24 people, including Moussa and about 20 of his followers, were killed in the ensuing firefight. Their group, Jund Ansar Allah, claimed inspiration from al-Qaeda, and condemned Hamas both for maintaining a cease-fire with Israel and for its failure to impose Islamic Shari'a law after taking full control of Gaza in 2007. It had mounted small-scale attacks on rivals inside Gaza, and two months ago failed in a bizarre cavalry charge by mounted fighters against Israeli border guards. Following the Rafah showdown, the fringe group has vowed to wage war on Hamas, turning Gaza's rulers into an unlikely ally against Osama bin Laden.
Still, there was little surprise about the Rafah confrontation for longtime observers of Palestinian politics. Hamas, in fact, has always been at odds with al-Qaeda. Despite its Islamist ideology, Hamas is first and foremost a nationalist movement, taking its cue from Palestinian public opinion and framing its goals and strategies on the basis of national objectives, rather than the "global" jihadist ideology of al-Qaeda. For example, Hamas has periodically debated the question of whether to attack American targets in its midst, and each time has reiterated the insistence of the movement's founders that it confine its resistance activities to Israeli targets.
"What distinguishes Hamas as well as organizations like Hizballah and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood from groups like al-Qaeda is that they recognize, whether out of principle or practical necessity, that the will of the people they claim to represent is paramount," says Mouin Rabbani, an Amman-based senior fellow of the Institute for Palestine Studies. "In deciding their actions, they're ultimately more responsive to their environment than to their principles."
And it's precisely that more pragmatic strain in Hamas that has often infuriated al-Qaeda leaders. Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has savagely and repeatedly condemned Hamas for participating in elections, for accepting Saudi and Egyptian mediation of its conflict with Fatah, and for observing a cease-fire with Israel. Hamas officials routinely dismiss al-Qaeda's criticisms. Hamas' Beirut representative Osama Hamdan two years ago suggested that "a fugitive in the Afghan mountains" offered the Palestinian cause no advice worth heeding. Also in 2007, when a self-styled "Army of Islam" claiming inspiration from al-Qaeda kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston in Gaza, Hamas forced the group to release him.
The harsh crackdown on Jund Ansar Allah sends two emphatic messages from Hamas: one to potential rivals, the other to potential interlocutors. The speed and violence with which it suppressed the jihadist group is a warning to all potential rivals that Hamas will tolerate no challenge to its authority in Gaza. But it also signals that as long as Hamas maintains a cease-fire, it is willing and able to forcibly restrain others in the Strip from launching attacks on Israel.
That display of force will likely reinforce the emerging consensus in the West that no credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process is possible without the consent of Hamas. Indeed, one European diplomat in the region told TIME that U.S. officials were pleased by the Hamas action in Rafah. The action "benefited Hamas because it allowed them to show that they're capable of enforcing their authority and order, in Gaza, and also to distinguish themselves from the radical jihadists," says Rabbani. "This shows not only that Hamas is different from al-Qaeda, but that the two are actually violently at odds."
While Hamas may have gained diplomatically from taking down Moussa's outfit, the emergence of an al-Qaeda-inspired group ready to openly challenge Hamas authority is a reminder of the downside. Some of the leading elements in Jund Ansar Allah were former Hamas members who broke with the movement over its decision to join in the political process of the Palestinian Authority by running for election in 2006. They were bolstered, according to Palestinian observers, by jihadist elements from other Arab countries, taking advantage of the widespread despair and frustration in Gaza brought on by the ongoing economic siege. While Hamas is currently enforcing the cease-fire it adopted seven months ago at the close of Israel's Gaza invasion, the economic siege remains largely in place although if Egyptian-mediated negotiations over the fate of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are successfully resolved, that might prompt Israel to ease the pressure.
Although basic food and fuel supplies are entering Gaza, the Israelis have kept out the construction material essential for rebuilding the thousands of homes damaged and destroyed in January's fighting. If the onset of winter sees no progress in rebuilding the homes of those currently living in tents and other temporary shelters and especially if the U.S. pushes a plan that is viewed as an attempt to isolate Hamas the pressure on the group to end the cease-fire will be coming not just from more radical challengers, but from Hamas' own commanders and fighters.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem