- Associated Press - Thursday, December 2, 2010

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | Gaza’s Hamas prime minister was adamant: There is no al Qaeda presence in the Palestinian territory, rebuffing what he said were Israeli allegations possibly meant to justify military action against the strip.

At the same time, a new homegrown crop of zealots - even if only inspired by the global terror network - is increasingly turning into a problem for Gaza’s ruling Islamic militants.

Dismissing Hamas as too tame, Muslim firebrands have challenged the group’s informal truce with Israel - in place since a bruising offensive against Gaza two years ago - by sporadically firing rockets at Israeli border communities. Israel says they also planned to try to cross into neighboring Egypt to use it as a springboard for attacks against Israelis and foreigners.

Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, speaking at a rare news conference for foreign reporters Wednesday, suggested that claims of an al Qaeda foothold are part of an Israeli attempt to further discredit the group already shunned by much of the world and to perhaps justify action against the territory in the framework of the global war against terror.

“There is no such thing as al Qaeda in Gaza,” Mr. Haniyeh insisted. “The Palestinian resistance does not work outside the borders of Palestine.”

Hamas remains firmly in control of Gaza after seizing it in a violent takeover in 2007. Its radical challengers, known as Jihadi Salafis, are estimated to number a few hundred armed men in several small groups.

These groups preach global jihad, or holy war, and adhere to a form of Islam even more conservative than that of Hamas. While al Qaeda’s battle is mainly against the West, Hamas says its sole target is Israel.

Jihadi Salafis, as they are known, have organized into small, shadowy armed groups that have clashed with Hamas forces.

Perhaps even more worrisome for Hamas, the jihadi group claims a growing appeal among Gazans who live in a pressure cooker of isolation and poverty. That has raised fears the Salafis could serve as a bridgehead for their ideological twin, al Qaeda, from which they take their call for global holy war.

Hamas insists it dismantled the groups after a mosque shootout last summer that left 26 dead.

But after months of lying low, Jihadi Salafis became active again. Besides resuming rocket fire on Israel in recent weeks, they blew up the car of a Hamas chief outside his southern Gaza home. The chief was not in the car and was not hurt, but the group that took responsibility said the blast was a warning.

“We will not stop targeting the figures of this perverted, crooked [Hamas] government, breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations,” said the group, the Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades. “What will come next will be harder and more horrible.”

Going by names like “Rolling Thunder” and “Army of God,” they oppose Hamas for refraining from imposing Islamic law in Gaza and for largely sticking to a tactical truce with Israel in the past two years.

The Salafis are a potential magnet for Gazans dissatisfied with their rulers. And Hamas could find itself the target of crushing retaliation if Salafis ever manage to carry out a major attack.

Israel says the threat is very real. And Egyptian officials say in the first week of November, they arrested 25 sympathizers of the Army of Islam.

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