Gaza Salafists hail success of Egyptian 'brothers'

AFP , Monday 23 Jan 2012

Gaza Salafists take their Egyptian counterpart's success in parliamentary elections as a sign for a coming Islamic Caliphate, prompts them to prepare for battle between "Good and Evil"

The meteoric rise of Egypt's Salafists has given fresh hope to Gaza's Salafist minority, who see it as a sign of their future victory and of the rise of an Islamic Caliphate.

In Gaza, the Salafists hold little power, but Egypt's Salafist al-Nur party took nearly 25 percent of the vote, its deputies a significant contingent among those being seated at the beginning of Egypt's parliamentary session on Monday.

Abu Abdullah al-Ghazi, who leads one of Gaza's main Salafist organisations Jaish al-Umma, takes strength from the success of his Egyptian counterparts.

The victory encourages Gaza's Salafists to "prepare for the battle to come between Good and Evil," he says.

Ghazi sports the long beard characteristic of Salafists, who espouse an austere form of Sunni Islam that seeks a return to practices that were common in the early days of the faith.

He is convinced that Palestine will be free "within 10 to 12 years" and urges his fellow Salafists to "unite, shake off religious differences and overcome what divides them."

"All the changes in the Arab world are leading up to the coming of the Islamic Caliphate," he says, indicating that his group has good relations with Al-Nur.

Abu Hudaifa, another member of Gaza's Salafist community, says Al-Nur's sweeping electoral success is a potent sign of the times.

"The victory of our brothers in Egypt is encouraging and we are sure that victory is approaching along with the establishment of the Caliphate," he added, referring to a governing structure similar to that which existed during early Islam and which is based on strict Islamic Sharia (law).

He says Gaza-based activists gave "brotherly advice to the Egyptian Salafists and urged them to pursue jihad."

At present, there are at least five main Salafist groups in Gaza -- Jaish al-Islam, Tawhid wal Jihad, Jaish al-Umma, Ansar al-Sunna and Jund Ansar Allah, all of whom express "strong support" for their Egyptian counterparts.

But although they welcome their counterparts' success, none of them have plans to go into politics for now, and all are expected to shun the legislative and presidential elections planned in the Palestinian territories in May.

"Their interpretation of religious doctrine keeps them out of power," said Walid al-Mudallal, professor of political science at Gaza's Islamic University, referring to Salafist disdain for democratic elections.

"In any case, the environment in Gaza is different from that in Egypt due to the resistance to the occupation," he said.

Salafists generally reject participation in elections, and in Gaza they have criticised Hamas for focusing on electoral politics over fighting Israel.

Though small in numbers, their criticisms of Hamas have stung the group, which long had a virtual monopoly on the role of chief Islamist party and leader of the armed groups fighting Israel.

A March 2011 report by the International Crisis Group on radical groups in Gaza found that a large proportion of Salafists in the territory were former Hamas members angry about the movement's participation in elections, failure to implement Islamic law and various ceasefire deals with Israel.

Mudallal said while Salafist rhetoric may have won over some disgruntled Gazans, he remains sceptical the groups can upend the political hierarchy in Gaza, "where Islamist movements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have a significant presence."

Ghazi says his faction's relationship with Hamas "is dependent on a change in its behaviour, particularly with respect to the arrests" of Salafists.

Hamas has cracked down on Salafists, with tensions between the groups boiling over in August 2009 when Jund Ansar Allah declared an Islamic "emirate" from a mosque in the southern city of Rafah and demanded the imposition of Sharia law.

The move sparked a bloody showdown with Hamas security forces that left 24 people dead, and around 100 injured.

In April 2011, Gaza's Salafists hit the headlines again with the kidnapping and murder of a young Italian rights activist, sparking a fresh crackdown on their members.

But Naji al-Shurrab, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University, said the rise of Egypt's Salafist leaders could protect their Palestinian counterparts.

Egypt's Salafists will extend "an umbrella of protection," he said. "So Hamas will show a degree of flexibility and adaptation towards the Salafists in Gaza."

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