A radical Islamist sheikh was among 22 people killed and 120 hurt when Hamas police stormed a Gaza mosque after the defiant declaration of an Islamic emirate in the Palestinian enclave, emergency services said on Saturday.
The shooting erupted on Friday afternoon following weekly prayers in Rafah on the Egyptian border, and continued until dawn on Saturday.
”Clashes … between Hamas and an extremist group in the southern Gaza Strip left 22 people dead and at least 120 wounded,” a spokesperson for the Palestinian emergency services told Agence France-Presse.
Among the dead was Abdul Latif Musa, identified by an internet statement from Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Partisans of God) as its leader.
Musa aide Abu Abdullah as-Suri was also killed.
An Agence France-Presse photographer earlier reported that police had dynamited Musa’s house, but it could not be established whether the Islamist was there at the time.
Also killed was Mohammed al-Shamali, the Hamas military chief for southern Gaza, and five policemen. Another 10 police were wounded.
An Egyptian security official said a three-year-old boy was critically wounded by a stray bullet from the fighting across the border. The boy was said to be recovering on Saturday.
Friday’s clash was one of the most violent incidents in Gaza since Israel’s 22-day onslaught on the impoverished territory over the new year.
Witnesses said that following prayers, Musa announced to assembled worshippers the formation of the ”emirate”, defying the authority of Hamas which has ruled Gaza’s 1,5-million people for the past two years.
”We are today proclaiming the creation of an Islamist Emirate in the Gaza Strip,” Musa said.
Rafah is the Gaza stronghold of the so-called Salafist movement, of which Jund Ansar Allah is said to be a part and which is ideologically close to al-Qaeda.
The Hamas Interior Ministry warned on Friday evening that those violating the law would be pursued and arrested.
”Everyone outside the law and carrying arms in order to spread chaos will be pursued and arrested,” a ministry statement said.
At the same time, Hamas premier Ismail Haniya denied that the group exists.
”No such groups exist on the ground in Gaza,” he said at prayers in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. Instead he blamed the ”Israeli media for spreading this information with a view to turning the world against Gaza”.
Hamas seized power in Gaza in June 2007 after a week of vicious fighting with forces of the secular Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
Itself Islamist, Hamas is regarded by the United States and Israel as a terrorist group and Israel maintains a blockade on the territory.
US-based monitoring service Site Intelligence said Jund Ansar Allah announced its allegiance to the ”Islamic Emirate in the Heart of Beit al-Maqdis [Jerusalem]” in a message posted on its website and jihadist forums on Friday.
A translation of the statement declared that Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi (Abdul Latif Musa) was the leader.
”The soldiers of tawhid [unification] will not rest … until the entirety of Muslim lands are liberated and until our imprisoned Aqsa [mosque in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem] is purified from the desecration of the accursed Jews,” the statement said.
Jund Ansar Allah seeks the strict enforcement of Islamic Sharia law and accuses Hamas of being too liberal, witnesses in Gaza said. It is said to have threatened to burn internet cafes and to seek greater modesty on Gaza beaches. — AFP