Friday, May 11, 2007

Al Qaeda expands in Gaza

Very worrisome. You wonder if things can get worse in Gaza. The answer is yes. Things can always get worse in Gaza.
--Wendy in Washington

Al Qaeda tactics expand in Gaza

The emergence of several new Islamist groups has Palestinians wondering whether local militants are aligning themselves with Al Qaeda's ideologies.
By Ilene Prusher | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Over the past few months, a slew of Internet cafes and video stores have been attacked and forced to close.

Earlier this week, Islamists opened fire on an elementary school, killing one bodyguard and wounding seven, while the most senior United Nations official in Gaza was visiting the institution.

And now, nearly two months since the kidnapping of a British BBC journalist in Gaza, a group calling itself the Army of Islamhas released a video claiming responsibility for the abduction, demanding the release of all Muslim prisoners in the United Kingdom.

The startling events point in a direction that, until recently, many Palestinians thought was far from their reality: the appearance of groups driven by a fundamentalist, anti-Western agenda aligned with that of Al Qaeda.

Most Palestinians say they don't think Al Qaeda, with its global agenda that attracts Muslim militants from around the world, has any real foothold in Gaza. Palestinian Islamists – including in the ruling Hamas – have usually distanced themselves from Al Qaeda in favor of reminding all who ask that their goal is not waging war against the West in general, but in fighting against the Israeli occupation in particular.

But amid an unprecedented deterioration of security conditions in the Gaza Strip and a slide toward lawlessness, those agendas may have merged and blurred. Israeli officials have suggested for several months that they have indications that Al Qaeda groups have infiltrated the Gaza Strip through the Egyptian border.

More likely, say many Palestinians, is that Islamic groups here have taken inspiration from Al Qaeda's ideology and are trying to impose such a vision on the conflict. Not just the Palestinian conflict with Israel, that is, but the conflict among Palestinians themselves.

A troubling case in point: a shooting attack this week on an elementary school that was in the middle of holding a performance. The school in Rafah, one of the more unstable locales of the coastal strip, is run by the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA), one of the few arms of international aid that maintains a major presence in Gaza despite the exodus of almost all foreign nationals.

A group of Palestinian Salafis, Islamists connected to the fundamentalist Salafi school in Saudi Arabia, was angry that the show featured a "mixed event" of boys and girls – aged 6 to 12 – performing together. The Salafi group opened fire, killing one guard of a Palestinian parliament member from Fatah and wounding seven others, including three children.

A more modern-minded member of the Palestinian parliament said the protesters wanted to take Palestinians "back to the dark ages."

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