On the dawn of a new unity deal between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah differing reactions to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death show the path may be littered with stumbling blocks. In a statement on Monday Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh stated that Hamas viewed the killing of bin Laden as “a continuation of the American policy based on the oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood” and praised him as an “Arab holy warrior”. A spokesman for the PA, Ghassan Khatib, however, claimed that the death of bin Laden was “good for the cause of peace”. The opposing statements appears to show a considerable gap in the ideological positions of the groups that may hint at troubles ahead for the unity deal.
Haniyeh’s statement however may be less ideologically divisive then initially thought, and might simply be a means of staving off recent pressure from Salafist Jihadist elements in Gaza loyal to Bin Laden’s and al Qaeda’s ideology. Though Salafist groups have found fertile ground among alienated Palestinian refugees in Lebanon the phenomenon has not been a factor in the struggle against Israeli occupation within the Occupied Territories. That is, until recently.
Salafists first made their presence known in Gaza with the kidnapping of BBC journalist, Alan Johnston, in March 2007. In an interview with Spiegal Online, the leader of one such group, Abu Mustafa, claimed that Salafists now number up to 5,000 in Gaza ‘not including women and children’. However the muted reaction of Gazan society to the death of bin Laden on Sunday night would suggest Mustafa overestimates the support Salafists have in the Gaza Strip. Israeli newspaper Heertz, for example, reported that a small group of but two dozen turned out to pay tribute to the deceased Bin Laden in Gaza on Tuesday.
However the murder of Italian peace activist and blogger Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza last month demonstrates that Bin Laden’s Salafist ideology still holds some weight among isolated pockets of Gaza’s population. In a piece on Gaza’a Salafist movement in 2010 The Economist pointed out that dissatisfied Hamas fighters are increasingly looking to Salafist groups such as aish al-Umma (Army of the Muslim Community), frustrated that Hamas is not living up to its firebrand religiour rhetoric. Haniyeh’s statement, therefore, may be an attempt to bolster his credentials among those in Gaza who see Hamas as too moderate.
Though Hamas shares similar ideological and organisational roots to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, (both originating from the Muslim Brotherhood and the ideas of its Egyptian founder Sayyid Qutb), both groups have been highly critical of each other in recent years. Al Qaeda and other Salafists groups have criticized Hamas’ decision to engage in the democratic process in Occupied Palestine, which they view as undermining the rule of God and the Koran, as well as for refusing to implement sharia law and suspending the armed struggle against Israel. In turn, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have criticized Al Qaeda’s explicit tactic of targeting Shiite civilians in Iraq. According to The Gaurdian, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, of which Hamas is an offshoot, reacting to his death, stated that bin Laden ‘did not represent Islam’.
Although ideology is one difference among Fatah and Hamas it reflects a broader divergence that includes differences in tactics and grassroots support. The first days of the unity deal have reflected these. Already Hamas’s website is reporting the arrest of four Hamas activists in the West Bank despite agreements by both parties, as part of the Cairo deal, to mutually release political prisoners. Differences have also arisen over how government positions will be allocated, including the Prime Ministership.
Ultimately, Haniyeh’s condemnation of Bin Laden’s death will play into the hands of those Israeli politicians who are opposed to peace between the two sides. As Maan news agency has reported today, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who visits France and Britain this week, will point to the statement as reason why any new Fatah-Hamas government cannot be negotiated with.