By Howard Schneider and Islam Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 15, 2009
JERUSALEM, Aug. 14 -- Security forces and fighters of the ruling Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip battled for several hours Friday with gunmen from a splinter group advocating a strict form of Islamist law for the enclave.
The clash left up to 13 people dead and scores injured, according to Moawia Abu Hassanain, head of the Gaza Health Ministry's ambulance and emergency service. It broke out after armed members of the Jund Ansar Allah group gathered at a mosque in the southern town of Rafah to hear hard-line cleric Abdel Latif Moussa taunt Hamas for being too moderate and to declare Gaza an Islamic state, according to Hamas officials and people who attended the gathering.
Video footage of Moussa's sermon broadcast on al-Jazeera television showed the cleric flanked by armed guards at the Ibn Taymia mosque as he lambasted Hamas.
"We declare a new birth, the birth of the Islamic emirate," Moussa said.
In the meantime, Hamas forces surrounded the mosque and demanded that Moussa and his supporters surrender, triggering a gunfight.
By late evening, the fighting had ebbed, but police in the Rafah area said they were still searching for Moussa and fighters who had escaped from the mosque. Those killed included a senior Hamas police commander, officials said.
"We dealt with them as an illegal group having guns and weapons, and we are telling anyone who is a member to give themselves up," said Taher al-Nouno, a spokesman for Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Hamas government.
The battle was a blow to the image Hamas has tried to convey of strict control over Gaza since it seized power there more than two years ago from the more moderate Palestinian Authority -- and particularly since a recent three-week war further undermined living standards for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
Hamas has tried in recent months to prevent other Islamist groups in the Palestinian enclave from firing rockets into Israel or conducting other attacks, part of a cease-fire that followed the war in January.
Hamas police spokesman Islam Shahwan said that Moussa has emerged as the main leader of those splinter groups, now folded into Jund Ansar Allah. They include former Hamas members, he said.
According to wire service and eyewitness reports of Moussa's sermon, the cleric said the group drew its inspiration from al-Qaeda, demanded that a strict Salafi form of Islam be imposed in Gaza, and criticized Hamas for its occasional meetings with Europeans and Americans, including former president Jimmy Carter.
Though Hamas is an Islamist movement whose militant stands include a call for Israel's elimination, it has rejected al-Qaeda's goal of a broad Islamic war with Western nations. Since seizing control of Gaza, it has not imposed the sorts of restrictions on public dress and behavior found in countries such as Saudi Arabia.
The issue of al-Qaeda influence in Gaza is particularly sensitive, with Israeli officials arguing that foreign fighters might infiltrate the area and launch attacks. In a sermon Friday, Haniyeh, the prime minister, denied the presence of outside militants.
Gaza "only contains its people," he said.
Abdel Kareem reported from Gaza City.