Tensions were renewed between Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza on Aug. 20, after an armed clash between the two groups at a disputed mosque.
The armed clash was between the Hamas government’s security services and gunmen from Islamic Jihad's Al-Quds Brigades, three of whom were injured. The clash was a result of a dispute inside the Islamic Jihad-affiliated al-Tawhid mosque in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip.
This latest confrontation comes less than two months after a fighter with the rank of major in the Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, was shot dead in Gaza by a police officer who stormed his house.
Near the plain mosque — which is without paint or a minaret — Al-Monitor met with Abu Youssef (a pseudonym), 45, who said there was a heavy exchange of fire between gunmen, one of whom went to the mosque’s roof while others were shooting from the western side of the mosque. The clash happened after a dispute over the sermon delivered by the mosque’s imam, 27-year-old Qassam al-Za’anin.
The neighbors told Al-Monitor that the imam, who received his undergraduate degree in Islamic law in Yemen, is well-liked and outspoken and makes bold religious speeches.
“The main reason for the clash was Hamas’ objections to Za’anin’s Eid al-Fitr sermon, in which he criticized the continuous power outages and the fact that the country is being led by one party, resulting in the people living in an external and internal blockade. ... It was a strong sermon, after which the people rushed to greet him,” Abu Youssef said.
Abu Youssef, who was surrounded by his sons and relatives as he spoke, said that small skirmishes occurred a week after the sermon, “but the day following these skirmishes, at the evening prayers, there was an armed clash. We were terrified and we hid in the room in the house that is the furthest from the mosque.”
Abu Youssef’s sister-in-law backed the mosque’s administration and said, “It was very generous with the people of the area. In the month of Ramadan, it gave food several times to families suffering from poor economic conditions.”
Al-Monitor met with the mother of one of the wounded who was surrounded inside the mosque from 8 p.m. until midnight on the day of the clashes. The mother transported her son to the hospital afterward.
“The attack on the mosque was due to a quantity of food aid provided by an Iranian association during Ramadan. The attackers wanted to seize [the aid]. ... There was also an objection to the imam’s Eid al-Fitr sermon. I heard the security men — who had beaten my son and arrested the young people who had gathered that day to help those in the mosque — say that the imam is giving sermons that incite against the government. ... My son’s health has improved. But he doesn’t leave home, and he is meeting no one because of the bruises and wounds all over his body,” she said.
Abu Youssef has lived near the mosque since it opened eight years ago. He pointed to the mosque’s broken windows and said, “After the shooting and terror that caused psychological trauma to the children, the wounded remained inside the mosque until midnight. Then, there were quick contacts between the leaders of the two movements to evacuate the wounded.”
The mother of the wounded man added, “The coordination between the leaders succeeded in getting my injured son and his two friends out of the mosque to the Kamal Adwan Hospital, where they received immediate treatment. ... There was no attempt by Hamas to take control of the mosque, which is still under control of Islamic Jihad. But what happened was an injustice that could happen again, especially because some are accusing the mosque of spreading Shiite principles.”
Al-Monitor sought a response from the director of the Interior Ministry’s Information Office, Iyad al-Bazm, but he declined to comment. Interior Ministry’s spokesman Islam Shahwan also declined to be interviewed.
On the other hand, Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab told Al-Monitor, “The dispute, which happened in the al-Tawhid mosque, was primarily between a group of young people, some of whom belong to Hamas and others affiliated with Islamic Jihad, and there were some who didn’t belong to any organization. ... The dispute had a tribal character. The organizations [Hamas and Islamic Jihad] were dragged into the [dispute] because most people have political affiliations. The dispute was quickly contained and had no repercussions nor side problems.” He asserted that disputes between humans is something normal, but what is not normal is to complicate matters, give them a partisan aspect and blow them out of proportion.
“What happened was shameful and should not have happened. The leaders intervened to resolve the problem and reconcile the parties, especially after the small circles failed to resolve the matter,” Shehab said in a phone interview with Al-Monitor.
About whether the cause of the dispute was the Eid al-Fitr sermon, he said, “[Complaining] about electricity and poor [government] services is something that is present in the street, and no one can silence the people.” Commenting on the issue of the Iranian aid, he said, “Islamic Jihad is not a charity but a resistance movement. And in fact, aid has been provided by an Iranian institution to the charities, but Islamic Jihad has nothing to do with that.”
The tension between the members of the two movements moved from the street to social media. Some have threatened the mosque’s administration, accusing it of spreading Shiism. One Hamas supporter wrote on Facebook on Aug. 18, “Defeating Fatah took three days. But defeating Islamic Jihad will take a day and a half. So prepare yourselves, dear Jihad members.” The post was soon deleted, but not before Al-Monitor obtained a screenshot.
An Islamic Jihad spokesman commented to Al-Monitor on the social media aspect: “The Facebook polemic exaggerated the dispute. We know how to [stay polite] in a disagreement, but some fools exacerbated the situation by writing things that are unbearable and that are merely stupid.”
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse and a journalist from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.