Clashes between Hamas fighters and an al-Qaeda affiliated group have left 22 dead and 120 wounded in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah.
Hamas fighters surrounded the Ibn-Taymiyah mosque and the residence of its preacher Abdul-Latif Moussa on Friday after the imam and his followers declared Gaza an “Islamic emirate”.
Around 100 members of the extremist group, known as Jund Ansar Allah, were inside the mosque when Hamas started firing rocket-propelled grenades.
Of the 22 killed two were members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades and the rest were Jund Ansar Allah militants, who had taken up position outside the mosque armed with AK-47 assault rifles. One child was also killed.
More than 20 of the injured are also believed to be in critical conditions.
Hamas police forces raided Moussa’s house, but it was unclear whether the radial cleric was killed, detained or forced to flee. The group has threatened to take bloody revenge on Hamas if he is harmed.
With clashes continuing into the night, Hamas sealed off the area, as the masked Salafi militants refused to surrender. Reports are that Moussa’s followers have sworn to fight to the death rather than hand over the mosque.
The group has accused the democratically elected Palestinian government of Hamas, which currently runs Gaza, of not being religious enough, demanding that the movement impose strict Islamic law in the strip.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, however, has dismissed Moussa’s comments and his declaration of an “Islamic emirate”.
“These declarations are aimed towards incitement against the Gaza Strip and an attempt at recruiting an international alliance against the Gaza Strip,” said Haniya while delivering a Friday prayers sermon.
“And we warn those who are behind these Israeli Zionist declarations: the Gaza Strip only contains its people,” he added.
Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nono has also announced that his government “would never let security chaos return to the Gaza Strip” at the hands of a group that is “outside of national and Islamic consensus.”
“[Jund Ansar Allah gunmen] should immediately hand themselves over to the government’s security forces and be disarmed… No one is above the law and the general discipline,” Nano told a news conference, vowing that Hamas would chase them down otherwise.
Nono said that Moussa and his group were responsible for the fighting in Rafah, adding that the radical militants had good ties with the security apparatuses of Fattah the rival Palestinian faction that controls the West Bank.
Following a major 2007 fallout between the two factions, Fattah leader and acting Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas deposed the Hamas government and replaced it with an appointed administration, which lost its legitimacy a month later as no elections were held.