Al-Qaeda-inspired groups are increasingly feeding on Palestinian frustrations. This could prove detrimental to the Palestinian cause.

Continued infighting between the Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas is leading to a situation where all hope of a solution to the six-decade-old conflict with Israel may recede.

Since June 2007, the energies and attention of the Palestinian fighters have been consumed to a great extent by internecine clashes. This has naturally caused frustration and resentment among the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Worse, the infighting is fuelling extreme, al-Qaeda-inspired, Islamist groups that until now had no place in the Palestinian resistance.

The al-Qaeda-inspired groups are still tiny and fragmented. But many of them are rudderless and without an identifiable alternative leadership. This has created peculiar problems for the Hamas. In recent weeks, these fringe groups have reportedly carried out provocative rocket attacks on Israel.

For a year or so, the Hamas had desisted from firing rockets into Israel: it was an unofficial ceasefire. But Israel has said it would hold the Hamas responsible for any rocket attack from the Gaza Strip. And, true to form, the Israeli military has retaliated against attacks, sending in troops and tanks into the Gaza Strip and destroying houses.

The Hamas has attempted to rein in the fringe groups, broadly termed Jihadi Salafis. Some of the operatives have been arrested; others have been killed in Hamas-led raids. According to a Hamas spokesman, around 150 Salafi fighters, some of them formerly affiliated to the Hamas, have been arrested.

In August 2009, one of the Salafi groups, Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Supporters of God), challenged the Hamas in a Gaza mosque. Its leader, Abdul Latif Musa, declared Gaza to be an Islamic state. He proclaimed its intention to carry on violent resistance against Israelis and dared the Hamas to act against it. The Hamas retaliated, killing the group's leader and 26 others.

The Hamas attempted to play that down as an isolated incident, but it led to a mushrooming of other Salafi groups. These go by names such as “Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades,” “Rolling Thunder” and the “Army of God.”

These groups are angry with the Hamas, which they accuse of not being true to its Islamic moorings. In Gaza, the Hamas (which is short in Arabic for the Islamic Resistance Group of Palestine) has not enforced Islamic laws. For example, Gazan women need not wear the veil and men do not have to sport a beard. This has irked the Salafis, who want Taliban-style law enforcement in Gaza.

There have been attacks on Internet cafes and music stores, viewed as haraam by the Jihadi Salafis. Across the Muslim world, Salafis are known for their rigid interpretation of Islamic laws. They are mostly involved in religious teaching and social service. But some of them have taken to arms, influenced by the al-Qaeda's call for a holy war against the West and moderate Arab leaders.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh recently acknowledged that the Jihadi Salafi groups had indeed managed to influence a small section of Gazans. But he expressed confidence that they could be talked out of their extreme views.

Ironically, the Hamas, which a section of the media and the Israeli, U.S. and most European governments projected as a hardline group, is now coming out as being moderate in its beliefs and ideology. Of course, the Hamas has not recognised Israel's existence, which causes animosity against it in Israel and the West. This is also a key reason for it being branded as “terrorist” by the U.S.

On several occasions the Hamas leadership has categorically said it is interested only in an independent Palestinian state and that its only enemy is Israel. Its violent acts are confined to the Palestinian territories. It has distanced itself from the al-Qaeda and sees no purpose in violence. It does not support violence in any other part of the world, even if it is for the cause of Palestinian resistance.

The Hamas' refusal to recognise Israel is the reason for its relationship with the Fatah having broken down. This has caused a wedge in the Palestinian resistance and a split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As for the Fatah, it has long recognised Israel and is now comfortable talking to it. The Fatah leadership under Mahmoud Abbas accuses the Hamas of jeopardising the gains the Palestinians have made and of being an obstacle to a possible solution to the conflict. The Hamas, in turn, accuses the Fatah of compromising on Palestinian interests to curry favour with Israel and the U.S.

Several rounds of talks, brokered by certain Arab countries led by Egypt, have been held between representatives of the Fatah and the Hamas, but to no avail. Conflict-weary Palestinians and the diaspora who expected some sort of an agreement have expressed dismay at the intransigence of the two groups. For the first time in the six-decade-long resistance to Israeli occupation, the Palestinians are no longer sure who the enemy is. Adding to the confusion are the Jihadi Salafis.

The Hamas has brutally put down attempts by the Jihadi Salafi groups in Gaza to challenge its rule and lead the resistance into unchartered territory. But the larger implications of a possible descent into al-Qaeda style, uncontrollable violence does not bode well for the resistance. The fight against Israel and the demand for an independent Palestinian nation have supporters around the world. If the resistance falls into the hands of groups deriving inspiration from al-Qaeda, this support is likely to evaporate. And with that, the isolation of the Palestinians will be complete.

Alternatively, if the West Bank remains with the Fatah and Gaza falls into the hands of the Jihadi Salafis, each will go its own way and the Gazans will be at the mercy of Israel. In the West Bank, the Fatah's bargaining power will erode and it may have to make do with what is doled out by Israel.

Already, in the face of a divided resistance, the consequences are apparent. Israel is pressuring even its principal sponsor, the U.S., to agree to its plan to build Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. In February, a key Hamas figure, Mahmoud al-Mahbouh, was assassinated in Dubai by Israeli agents. The killers were reportedly supplied crucial information by Palestinians opposed to the hardline group.

There is extensive documentation linking Israel to the creation of the Hamas in 1987, in order to undermine the hold of the secular Fatah-led Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Since that time, especially after the death of the Fatah chief Yasser Arafat in 2004, the Hamas has eaten into the Fatah's support base. It even won elections in 2006. Though there is no evidence until now of covert Israeli support to the Jihadi Salafis for a similar purpose, to undercut the Hamas, it would be worthwhile for the Hamas and Fatah to expect the worst and patch up before the situation deteriorates further in Gaza.

(K. S. Dakshina Murthy was formerly an Editor with Aljazeera, based in Doha.)

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