By JPOST.COM STAFF
Five people were killed and at least 50 wounded in gunfights between Hamas forces and Islamist extremists from a Palestinian group calling itself Jund Ansar Allah, when the latter defied the Hamas rulers of Gaza on Friday by declaring an "Islamic emirate" in the territory and staging a defiant display of arms, Channel 2 reported Friday evening.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
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Though the "Warriors of God" rallied only a few hundred men for their event at a Gaza mosque, it was the latest challenge to Hamas's nationalist brand of Palestinian Islam by groups espousing a pan-Arab militancy aligned with al-Qaida, Reuters reported.
The Palestinian news agency WAFA said members of Jund Ansar Allah were engaged in armed clashes with Hamas in the southern town of Rafah.
Speaking before weekly prayers, Abdel-Latif Moussa - known to followers by the al-Qaida-style nom de guerre Abu al-Nour al-Maqdessi - announced the start of theocratic rule in the Palestinian territories, starting at Rafah, and vowed to implement Islamic laws.
"We declare the birth of the Islamic Emirate," declared Maqdessi, a heavily-bearded, middle-aged cleric in a red robe who was guarded by four black-clad, masked men with assault rifles. One wore what appeared to be an explosive suicide belt.
An audience of several hundred men filled the mosque with cheers and shouts. Al-Qaida uses the historical term "emirate" to mean clerical rule across the Islamic world.
Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government which rules the Gaza Strip, denied in his Friday sermon that there were any non-Palestinian gunmen in the territory, as alleged by Israel which charges that veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken up residence.
"Such groups do not exist on the soil of the Gaza Strip ... there are no fighters in Gaza except Gazan fighters," Haniyeh was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Such "Zionist propaganda" from Israel was simply an attempt to turn the world against Hamas, Haniyeh said.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri called Maqdessi's speech "wrong thinking" and in a clear reference to al-Qaida added that his group "has no affiliation with foreign groups." Hamas's Interior Ministry was more direct, calling Maqdessi "crazy."
Maqdessi's group announced its existence in Gaza two months ago, after three of its members were killed in a border raid on an Israeli base in which gunmen rode on horseback.
Outside the mosque on Friday, nearly 100 masked fighters of the group in Pakistani-style dress, wearing their hair long in a style believed to imitate the prophet Mohammad, carried automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Men of Hamas's armed wing and security forces took positions nearby. The group accuses Hamas of oppressing them, including making arrests and confiscating weapons.
Hamas, an extremist terror group described by its leaders as a moderate movement, is seen by independent analysts as giving priority to Palestinian nationalist goals over international religious aims typical of al-Qaida's network. Observers detect different strains within Hamas ranks, some pulling towards relative pragmatism and others trying to enforce a radical Islamist agenda.
Hamas refuses to renounce violence against Israel but has condemned al-Qaida bombings in other countries. It has made little public attempt to impose fundamentalist law or strict dress codes, but it is encountering more frequent challenges from groups who want more traditionalist Islam in Gaza.
Human rights groups last month criticized an order by a Hamas-appointed judge that women lawyers cover their hair, and a campaign by its religious affairs ministry to encourage the public to follow Islamic instructions.
Maqdessi warned Hamas trying to take over the mosque where he leads prayers for his followers: "If they approach the mosque they should know their days will be cut short," the cleric said.
Maqdessi said his group would not initiate attacks against Hamas but "whoever sheds our blood, his blood will be shed".
He urged "everyone who has a weapon" to join the group and carry out decisions to be issued by the armed wing in coming weekly sermons. The group believes democracy is prohibited by Islam because it follows earthly law instead of God's word.
"Who are you afraid of? America? Britain? France? The European Union? You should fear only God," Maqdessi said in a warning to Hamas leaders seeking dialogue with the West.
Israel unilaterally ended its presence in the Gaza Strip in 2005 and withdrew its forces. Islamist radicals began to surface in Gaza following the takeover of the coastal strip by Hamas in 2007, when it routed the forces of the secular Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
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