By Ilene Prusher | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Jerusalem - Over the past few months, a slew of Internet cafes and video stores have been attacked and forced to close.
Earlier this week, Islamists opened fire on an elementary school, killing one bodyguard and wounding seven, while the most senior United Nations official in Gaza was visiting the institution.
And now, nearly two months since the kidnapping of a British BBC journalist in Gaza, a group calling itself the Army of Islamhas released a video claiming responsibility for the abduction, demanding the release of all Muslim prisoners in the United Kingdom.
The startling events point in a direction that, until recently, many Palestinians thought was far from their reality: the appearance of groups driven by a fundamentalist, anti-Western agenda aligned with that of Al Qaeda.
Most Palestinians say they don't think Al Qaeda, with its global agenda that attracts Muslim militants from around the world, has any real foothold in Gaza. Palestinian Islamists - including in the ruling Hamas - have usually distanced themselves from Al Qaeda in favor of reminding all who ask that their goal is not waging war against the West in general, but in fighting against the Israeli occupation in particular.
But amid an unprecedented deterioration of security conditions in the Gaza Strip and a slide toward lawlessness, those agendas may have merged and blurred. Israeli officials have suggested for several months that they have indications that Al Qaeda groups have infiltrated the Gaza Strip through the Egyptian border.
More likely, say many Palestinians, is that Islamic groups here have taken inspiration from Al Qaeda's ideology and are trying to impose such a vision on the conflict. Not just the Palestinian conflict with Israel, that is, but the conflict among Palestinians themselves.
A troubling case in point: a shooting attack this week on an elementary school that was in the middle of holding a performance. The school in Rafah, one of the more unstable locales of the coastal strip, is run by the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA), one of the few arms of international aid that maintains a major presence in Gaza despite the exodus of almost all foreign nationals.
A group of Palestinian Salafis, Islamists connected to the fundamentalist Salafi school in Saudi Arabia, was angry that the show featured a "mixed event" of boys and girls - aged 6 to 12 - performing together. The Salafi group opened fire, killing one guard of a Palestinian parliament member from Fatah and wounding seven others, including three children.
A more modern-minded member of the Palestinian parliament said the protesters wanted to take Palestinians "back to the dark ages."
Since BBC journalist Alan Johnston's kidnapping in March, few foreign journalists have ventured into Gaza, with embassies and press associations sending out grave warnings that more attempts at abductions are to be expected.
Palestinian analysts doubt the indications this week that Mr. Johnston's abductors are Al Qaeda operatives with a global Jihad in mind. Gazan security officials say they know that Johnston is being held by the Dogmoush clan, which is demanding a large tract of land in Gaza - a piece of one of the evacuated settlements that Israel left to the Palestinian Authority in August 2005.
According to this analysis, the clan leaders want to extort promises for land from the Palestinian Authority, meanwhile biding time by cloaking the issue in global jihadist themes.
"There is no proof or indication that there is a relationship between the so-called Army of Islam and Al Qaeda as some people think, despite the fact that their behavior appears that way," said Rashid Abu Shabak, senior Palestinian security chief in Gaza, in an interview with the Sharq al-Awsat newspaper.
"These requests of the Army of Islam are illogical, and the aim of this latest request is just to give the kidnapping some kind of international character, while in truth it is only a process aimed at gaining money," Mr. Abu Shabak said.
Israeli observers take a different view. They say websites tied to Al Qaeda have claimed to have cells operating in both the West Bank and Gaza, says Professor Raphael Israeli, who studies Islamic fundamentalist movements at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Moreover, he says, Iran has been vocal in its assistance in helping to train militants.
"The Iranians have stated clearly that Lebanese Hizbullah advisers have infiltrated into the Gaza Strip as soon as the debacle in the Lebanese war was over, and they are teaching the Hamas to adopt the same tactics used against Israel because they see they were effective," Mr. Israel says.
"Of course, Iran is not Al Qaeda, but we also know from separate and independent statements on the internet that they have their own cells not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank, in places such as Jenin and Nablus."
He says that given the lack of security exercised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas these groups can act more or less unhindered. As an example, he links the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas last June, with the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Lebanese Hizbullah only a few weeks later.
"The inevitable conclusion is that there was some coordination between these parties," he says. "Whether Al Qaeda is a partner in the execution of [the kidnapping] is hardly relevant."
What is more relevant, for Palestinians at least, is that Islamist ideology has come to play a role in the political pressures and worsening violence coursing through the Gaza Strip. In the past half year, more than 70 establishments seen as representing "infidel" culture have been attacked, including Internet cafes, video shops, an American school, and a Christian center that distributed Bibles. The list also includes pharmacies rumored to sell illicit drugs.
One of those targeted was the Internet cafe owned by Ala Alshawa. The 20-something entrepreneur woke up to an explosion several months ago. He decided to borrow $4,000 to repair his shop.
"The problem is we don't know who is who and what they want. They use Islamic names, but they are very far from Islam and the real Islamic values," says Mr. Alshawa.
Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza contributed to this report