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Middle East

Sinai attack presses Hamas to bridle Salafists

Hamas security forces, front, and Egyptian soldiers, rear, stand guard on the border between Egypt and southern Gaza.

GAZA CITY: Tensions between Hamas and Gaza’s more radical Islamists were strained to breaking point by a gun attack in Egypt blamed in part on infiltrators from the Palestinian enclave.

Hamas, once hopeful of building an alliance with Egypt now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, its ideological kin, and of ending the blockade on the Gaza Strip, is now under pressure to show it can bring Salafist militants under control.

The Palestinian Islamist movement, which has governed Gaza since 2007, denied Egyptian and Israeli charges that some of the gunmen who raided a Sinai police post and then tried to storm into Israel Sunday came from its side of the border.

But with Cairo incensed at the death of 16 border personnel, Hamas said Monday it was arresting radical Salafist Islamists in Gaza and shutting down the around 1,000 smuggling tunnels to the Egyptian Sinai.

The Gazan government’s spokesman Taher al-Nono said steps were being taken “to help uncover the perpetrators” in coordination with Egypt. He said “no Palestinian could take part in such an ugly crime.”

Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Ehab al-Ghsain blamed Israel for the attack, “whether directly or through collaborators infiltrating those ... groups.”

While Hamas and the Salafists share hostility to the Jewish state, the former works within the framework of Palestinian nationalism while the latter subscribe to the globalized holy war popularized by Al-Qaeda.

A Salafist group called “Magles Shoura al-Mujahedeen,” which claimed a deadly June attack on Israel from Sinai, said in a video statement that it recognized neither Israel nor “claimed or imagined borders between Muslim countries.”

That kind of thinking unsettles Egypt, which has been at pains to restore order since secular, U.S.-aligned President Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a citizen revolt last year.

Hamas, which won a Palestinian vote in 2006 only to battle its secular rivals for control over Gaza, is keen to show Cairo it is in control.

Past Hamas sweeps against the armed Salafists, who often try to fire rockets into Israel in defiance of de facto Palestinian truces, have often been low-key to avoid the appearance of collaboration with the Israeli enemy.

Crackdowns were more overt when Salafists targeted Gaza women and Christians in religious vigilante attacks or, in the case of one imam in 2009, declared secession from Hamas. That incident drew a Hamas raid on the cleric’s mosque which killed 28 people.

“The growth of these characters should have been prevented. Their ability to sabotage the Palestinian national cause should have been blocked long ago,” said Gaza-based political analyst Hani Habib.

“Legal action should be taken against them in order to spare Palestinian blood and preserve the national security of Egypt, which has always been the Palestinians’ major supporter in the Middle East.”

The risk of a possible rift in relations with neighboring nations was illustrated by the anti-Palestinian sentiment that immediately surfaced in Egypt’s Sinai border towns.

“Since yesterday, people in Arish, Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah are forcing Palestinians to return home, and those who are caught are beaten up,” said a resident of Sheikh Zuwaid who declining to be identified.

Gazans expressed remorse for the dead Egyptians but the deputy chief of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who himself lives in exile in Cairo, criticized Egypt for subsequently shutting its border “indefinitely” with the Palestinian territory.

That decision, which along with Hamas’s tunnel closures drove Palestinians to stockpile gasoline and other irregularlyimported goods, was deemed “collective punishment” by Abu Marzouk.

In a statement on his Facebook page, he urged Egypt instead to impose “control and sovereignty over the entire Sinai” – a demand long made by Israel as well.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 07, 2012, on page 9.

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