Gaza Strip – Islamic radicals from an al-Qaida-inspired group battled Hamas security in the Gaza Strip Friday in shootouts that killed at least 13 people.
The fighting began when Hamas forces surrounded a mosque in the southern Gaza town of Rafah where about 100 members of Jund Ansar Allah, or the Soldiers of the Companions of God, were holed up, including some armed with suicide belts and rifles, according to residents of the area.
The confrontation was triggered when the leader of the group defied Gaza’s Hamas rulers by declaring in a Friday prayer sermon that the territory was an Islamic emirate.
Jund Ansar Allah and a number of other small, shadowy radical groups seek to enforce an even stricter version of Islamic law in Gaza and have criticized Hamas for not doing so. They are also upset that the Hamas regime has honored a cease-fire with Israel for the past seven months.
Hamas has said it seeks to set an example and does not impose its views on others. It also says its violent struggle is against Israel, not the Western world. The more radical groups’ calls for global Jihad undermines Hamas’ attempt to appear more moderate to Western eyes.
The hard-line groups are perhaps the most serious opposition Hamas has faced since it seized control of Gaza and ousted its rivals in the Fatah movement in a five-day, bloody civil war in June 2007.
The leader of Jund Ansar Allah, Abdel-Latif Moussa, warned Hamas forces against trying to enter the mosque compound.
“If Hamas does that, it will be their end,” he said.
Shortly afterward, a gunbattle broke out between the militants inside the mosque and Hamas forces surrounding it. Hamas officers then raided the mosque.
The group’s leader had already fled the mosque, and Hamas forces surrounded his house later and waged another gunbattle with his men.
A large explosion was heard from Moussa’s home late Friday, and the house partially collapsed, witnesses and security officials reported. It was unclear whether the explosion was set off by Hamas forces or militants with explosives holed up inside. Hamas has closed off the area and ambulances have been unable to access the scene of the fighting.
At least 13 people were killed in both gunbattles, including a senior Hamas official and an 11-year-old girl, according to Gaza health official Moaiya Hassanain. Over 150 people were wounded, including 29 in serious condition, many of whom were civilians caught in the crossfire, Hassanain said.
Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu said the Hamas leadership was engaging in an operation against “outlaws” and called on Moussa’s followers to surrender to the authorities.
Jund Ansar Allah first came to public attention in June after it claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to attack Israel from Gaza on horseback.
The group claims inspiration from al-Qaida, but no ties have been confirmed.
In July, three Muslim extremists from the group holed themselves up in a building in southern Gaza, surrendering to Hamas police only after a lengthy standoff.
It is unclear how many members Jund Ansar Allah or other similar extremist groups have in Gaza.