June 3, 2007 / 9:36 AM / 11 years ago

Chaos and embargo nurture seeds of al Qaeda in Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - A man sits alone, clad in red by his captors, addressing the camera. The Web video is adorned with the symbols of radical Islam. So far, so familiar.

But this is not Iraq or Afghanistan. This is Gaza, and last week’s posting showing kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston highlighted the emergence of shadowy groups in the Palestinian enclave that draw, at the very least, inspiration from al Qaeda.

The relationship is hazy between the hitherto unknown Army of Islam, which says it seized the British journalist three months ago, and dozens of other armed groups in Gaza driven by a mix of politics, religion, moneymaking and clan rivalries.

But dozens of attacks this year on Internet cafes, Christian sites, barbers and other symbols of “immorality” have raised fears of ever more embittered anarchy in a crowded territory where security forces have been riven by factional conflict since taking over control from Israeli troops in 2005.

Some Palestinian officials blame the radicalisation of some of Gaza’s 1.4 million people on poverty and despair deepened by sanctions imposed by Israel and Western powers last year after the Hamas Islamist movement won a parliamentary election.

On Friday, a group that emerged this year, the Righteous Swords of Islam, threatened to “slit the throats” of women presenters on Palestine Television if they do not cover their hair: “The corruption that is coming from their mouths and their faces ... raises fears for the future of our children,” it said.

Along with The al Qaeda Organisation in Palestine and other mysterious groups, the Swords have claimed several bomb attacks.

Though Palestinians in the somewhat more fortunate West Bank have seen no such violence — despite scattered al Qaeda-style propaganda — recent attention has also been focused on al Qaeda links among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, where troops are fighting the Fatah al-Islam group in the Nahr al-Baled camp.

As elsewhere in the Middle East, the propaganda of holy war has been popular among Gaza’s youth for years — market stalls do brisk business in recordings of speeches by Osama bin Laden or the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late al Qaeda leader in Iraq.

In recent months, however, radical words have become deeds, although it remains unclear how far this reflects direct outside influence in Gaza and how far local groups have simply been inspired by the teachings of bin Laden and others.

ATTACKS

About 50 attacks in recent months have damaged Internet cafes, stores selling television satellite dishes, barbers shops and pharmacies as well as a church and other Christian sites.

Last month, gunmen threw grenades at a U.N.-run school where boys and girls were holding a sports day. One person was killed.

Intended to push Hamas into renouncing violence and to strengthen the hand of President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah party, sanctions may, Palestinian officials say, be driving some in Gaza toward leaders inspired or influenced by al Qaeda.

Israel’s “siege” of Gaza and the aid embargo have helped to “push some youngsters into adopting weird ideas”, said Khaled Abu Hilal, a spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry.

He did not believe a direct link to a wider al Qaeda network yet existed. But a security source, on the other hand, said some militants linked to al Qaeda may have managed to enter Gaza from Egypt last year but were not fully operational: “Maybe they are not able to communicate with the official Qaeda bodies outside and also they may not have the capabilities to act,” he said.

That official agreed with analysts who see Hamas being the main loser from such a trend — though hardly in the way the group’s critics and supporters of sanctions would welcome.

“The presence of al Qaeda in Palestine would hurt Hamas because such groups would try to attract Hamas followers, not those of secular factions,” political analyst Hani Habib said.

There are signs of divisions within Hamas over truce deals with Israel, however frayed those are at present. Such restraint is not popular with some youngsters who see little future in overcrowded slums where jobs are scarce.

“Youngsters tell me they want the CDs of Sheikh Zarqawi, the beheading CD,” said Mohammed, a stallholder on the busiest square in Gaza City. “We’ve sold hundreds.”

One 19-year-old customer, who gave his name as Saleh, spoke with admiration of al Qaeda fighters: “They left their families, homes and countries to defend people in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in other places. I think they are good Muslims.”

Hamas has endorsed attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq but not al Qaeda killings of civilians. Radical fringe groups appeal to those Palestinians without such qualms. The Army of Islam — also linked to the holding of an Israeli soldier — proclaims itself an ally of Fatah al-Islam in the Lebanon camps, while mainstream Palestinian leaders distance themselves from it.

As Palestinians observe the 40th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, there is little progress toward peace. Some now fear a translation of al Qaeda propaganda into deeds among Palestinians may both aggravate internal feuds and, if new groups attack Israel, provoke Israeli retribution.

Analyst Hani Habib said: “The nightmare is that it may go beyond admiration to action.”

Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald

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