Gaza’s Salafis under scrutiny

Jared Malsin writes:

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were shocked the week before last when an Italian activist and journalist, Vittorio Arrigoni, was kidnapped and then murdered by a self-proclaimed Salafi jihadi group. Arrigoni, a bighearted man who I met several times during a recent two-month stay in Gaza, was well known around the Strip as a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause. “I come from a partisan family,” he once told an interviewer. His grandparents had fought and died while fighting fascism in Italy. “For this reason,” he said, “probably, in my DNA, there are particles that push me to struggle.”

In a YouTube video Arrigoni’s captors demanded that Gaza’s Hamas government release Salafi prisoners from its jails within 30 hours or they would execute their hostage. With police closing in, the captors apparently decided not to wait for their own deadline and killed him the same day. Last Tuesday, Hamas-affiliated police and security forces surrounded three suspects in a house in the Nuseirat refugee camp. Nuseirat is where the Salafi group Tawhid wa Al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) is based. As documented in a video, Hamas authorities brought Hisham Sa’idini, the leader of Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, whose release the kidnappers demanded, from prison in an attempt to negotiate their surrender. Police also summoned the mother of one of the suspects, a Jordanian citizen, to aid in the negotiating process. According to Hamas officials, the standoff ended in a shootout in which the Jordanian threw a grenade at his two accomplices then shot himself.

In the initial days after the murder, Hamas officials insinuated that the perpetrators of this inexplicable crime were Israeli agents, although they were reluctant to make this statement unequivocally when speaking on the record. Of course, no evidence has emerged publicly to support this conspiracy theory. Others, particularly in right-wing Israeli and U.S. circles, seized on Arrigoni’s murder in order to depict the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian society at large, as a monolithic den of fanatics. It ought to go without saying that this is not the case. Gaza’s people, who belong to a wide and overlapping spectrum of religious and political views, universally condemned the murder. Similarly, all political parties, including Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, and even Salafi leaders, denounced the killing.

Beyond the tragic events of the story itself, however, Arrigoni’s death highlights a complex political context, a web of power relations among various actors in Gaza including Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, the Salafis, other Palestinian factions, and the international community. At the root of these dynamics is the Israeli and Western policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas. The crippling four-year-long blockade of Gaza has created the conditions of human misery and desperation in which a handful of people have turned to extremism. A new report from International Crisis Group states that the blockade has amounted to “an assist provided to Salafi-Jihadis, who benefit from…Gaza’s lack of exposure to the outside world.”

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