Palestinians back caliphate over politics
By Carolynne Wheeler in Kfar Aqab, West Bank
Last Updated: 1:16am BST 27/08/2007
By day, they are the middle class, putting in days as mild-mannered teachers, factory supervisors and office clerks.
Tens of thousands of Palestinian supporters of the Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir movement demonstrate at a rally in Ramallah
But by night, the growing number of supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic fundamentalists who reject modern democracy in favour of a pan-Islamic religious caliphate, are gathering in the West Bank to recruit the thousands who have grown disillusioned with the vicious stand-off between the secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas.
“Any person living in Palestine now realises political parties, especially the Islamic ones, have not achieved anything for the individual,” said Sheikh Abu Abdullah, a thin-framed man with a wiry beard.
His is the commanding voice behind weekly Hizb lessons at the al-Faruq mosque in the middle-class suburb of Kfar Aqab, past a crowded Israeli checkpoint where east Jerusalem melds into Ramallah.
About 50 men, young and old, stayed after evening prayers this week to listen to the sheikh’s lesson entreating them to follow the Koran and stop infidels from profiting at the expense of the poor – one of an estimated hundreds or thousands of mosques in the West Bank and east Jerusalem where Hizb ut-Tahrir now teaches every week.
Though difficult to estimate their membership, a rally earlier this month in Ramallah drew at least 10,000 and, by some estimates, up to 40,000 people; their posters are plastered on every wall in the city centre.
“Any talk about a return to the caliphate, any talk about a return to religious values is something that is attractive to people,” said Majid Abu Malah, 55, an Arabic-language teacher who attends regularly.
He, like many others, says he has given up on both Hamas and Fatah, and will not vote in the next election. “I believe in what [Hizb ut-Tahrir] gives.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir, founded in Jerusalem in 1953 but largely dormant until recent years, is banned in dozens of countries, though it is legal and has a strong presence in Britain.
Its platform calls for the eventual overthrowing of Arab-world governments to be replaced by a caliphate, which would also encompass Israel.
The organisation argues that it does not advocate violence; however, it has been accused of inciting racism and hatred, and is known for activities such as demonstrations against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed last year.
In neighbouring Israel, intelligence experts say the Israeli security services are presently more occupied with Hamas and other violent Islamist groups, but consider it a growing menace.
“It’s a major threat,” said Eitan Azani, a colonel in Israel’s army reserve and deputy director of the country’s Institute of Counter-Terrorism, of the organisation.
He gave warning that its recruiting tactics and teachings of strict Islamic law can lead eager followers into involvement with violent offshoots.
“This is the factory that produces, at the end of the day, the jihadis that operate in global terrorism,” Col Azani said.
Inside the West Bank, the rise of the Islamist group is being met with increasing concern from secular Palestinians still hoping for democracy and a two-state solution with Israel, as well as from Hamas which is seeing its support eroded by the group.
This month’s rally met with roadblocks and harassment from Palestinian security services, while imams have been placed under the control of a government ministry and warned to keep politics out of their mosques.
Calls for early elections have raised fears that Islamist movements will once again carry the legislature – or that so few people will vote that the elections will be meaningless.
“The only thing that is obvious is that Hizb ut-Tahrir is on the rise,” said Hani al-Masri, a journalist and political commentator involved in a new secular political movement. “If we do not get new trends, new parties, in the Palestinian arena, a group like Hizb ut-Tahrir will definitely benefit from this vacuum.”