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From Bad to Worse in the Gaza Strip

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Violent clashes between Hamas and a small group of Islamist extremists -the Jund Ansar Allah - turned the spotlight on the emergence of a new generation of Palestinian terrorism. Unlike Islamist groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose agenda is religiously connoted but nationalist at its core, the new groups are influenced by al-Qaeda's ideology of global jihad. The appearance of such groups has severe implications and should be a wake up call for the International Community and Israel.

The clashes erupted after the Friday prayer on the 14th of August around and inside a mosque in a refugee camp in Rafah. Reports vary between 24 and 28 persons killed and over 100 injured. The organization's leader, the cleric Abdel-Latif Moussa died in the shootout. Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Followers of God) is one of several small groups in the Gaza Strip that adopted al-Qaida's ideology of global jihad and is accusing Hamas of being too liberal, betraying 'real' Islam by embracing democracy and delaying the establishment of an Islamic state based solely on Sharia. This year Jund Ansar Allah came to public attention by attacking several Internet cafes and a wedding celebration, as well as through an unsuccessful but spectacular horseback raid of an Israeli border post.

This development is to a considerable extend the fault of the International Community and Israel, as they were not able to adopt a constructive approach towards Palestinian mainstream Islamism, represented by Hamas. Since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the Middle East Quartet and Israel tried to isolate Hamas in favor of Fatah, actually at the expense of Palestinian democracy. Even after the following bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, they pursued their approach with the West-Bank-First-Strategy.

The rationale behind this strategy is to reduce Hamas' support by the Palestinian population in favor of Fatah which is considered to be more secular and peaceful. As the West Bank fails to become a model of democracy and development as hoped, and the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is desperate after two years of siege and the January war, it is not surprising, that this strategy does not work at all. Moreover, everybody with the slightest interest in a peace process in the region should be alarmed by the emergence of groups embracing al-Qaeda's ideology. Unlike Hamas, which is of course radical and extremist but has a rational agenda and has shown ability and flexibility for moderation in the past, these groups could not be integrated in any future peace process. Considering this it becomes obvious that it is high time for a new approach.

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First of all the siege of the Gaza Strip must come to an end. If humanitarian reasons are not considered an argument, than at least preventing a further radicalization of groups such as Jund Ansar Allah should be. Secondly the International Community as well as Israel have to change their strategies face to Hamas. They need to find ways to engage with Hamas and provide it with the perspective of being a legitimate political party in a future Palestinian state.

Certainly this should not be given to Hamas as a present, but has to be embedded in a mid-term process connected to a number of benchmarks, such as the release of Corporal Shalit, the halt of rocket attacks, serious reconciliation talks with Fatah and so on. This might be a long and bumpy road, but it is the only alternative to an ongoing spiral of violence.

The scenario of a growing al-Qaida style jihadism in Palestine, maybe even with the involvement of international jihadist tourists, is a nightmare for both the Israelis and the Palestinians and shows once more that the situation in Palestine can always go from bad to worse. The International Community and Israel should react now, lift the siege and correct their approach towards Hamas.

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Jan Kuenzl is a freelance analyst and writer based in Berlin/Germany. He works on International Relations, Security Policy and the Middle East.

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