Rise Of Islamist Group Stokes Unease In West Bank

Palestinian security forces in riot gear block a street in Ramallah. i i

Palestinian security forces in riot gear block a street in Ramallah where the group Hizb ut Tahrir was planning to stage a rally. Peter Kenyon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Kenyon/NPR
Palestinian security forces in riot gear block a street in Ramallah.

Palestinian security forces in riot gear block a street in Ramallah where the group Hizb ut Tahrir was planning to stage a rally.

Peter Kenyon/NPR

Residents of the West Bank city of Ramallah say life these days is relatively good for a city surrounded by Israeli troops. With Israeli checkpoints relaxed, the drive from Jerusalem can take as little as 15 minutes, as opposed to the hours it often took just a few years ago.

But last Saturday, downtown Ramallah regained some of the air of tension that marked the Israeli-Palestinian violence of the recent past — only this time, Israeli soldiers had nothing to do with it.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most people are familiar with the Palestinian Authority, led by the Fatah movement and President Mahmoud Abbas, and with Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic movement that controls Gaza. But in the past two years a third movement has reappeared: a shadowy group that officially rejects violence but whose Islamist ideology makes Hamas' pale in comparison.

Hizb ut Tahrir, a pan-Islamist movement founded in the 1950s in Jerusalem, has since spread to dozens of countries, with significant outposts in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

The group had planned a rally in Ramallah on Saturday to celebrate the movement's message that neither Fatah nor Hamas holds the answer for Palestinians. The group believes in restoring the Islamic caliphate, the religious government that dates back to the early years of the Muslim faith, and thereby spreading the influence of Islamic law around the world.

A Radical Ideology

Hustling through the crowded downtown streets Saturday, a nervous, well-dressed young man ducked into the Palestine Cafe to avoid being arrested by Palestinian security forces loyal to Abbas. He gave his name as Osama al-Ansari, a supporter of Hizb ut Tahrir from the West Bank city of Hebron.

Ansari, in town for the rally, said he was not surprised that the Palestinian Authority security forces turned out in force to derail it.

"The coming of the caliphate threatens the Palestinian Authority regime," he says, "and threatens the American interests in the area, and therefore they are harassing us because a caliphate will not provide for the existence of the Palestinian Authority."

In short, Hizb ut Tahrir does not recognize the authority of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. The group also does not accept democracy or the very concept of the modern nation-state. In contrast to al-Qaida, the group officially rejects violence, and it condemned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But various counterterrorism agencies have argued that Hizb ut Tahrir's radical ideology can be linked to a number of coup attempts and terrorist attacks.

Analysts note that while Hizb ut Tahrir is tolerated in Western countries, it has been banned by several Mideast regimes, and they wonder what the group's future is in the Palestinian territories.

Khalil Shaheen, senior editor at Al-Ayyam newspaper in Ramallah, says the Palestinian Authority originally ignored the growth of Hizb ut Tahrir because it wanted to divide the support of religious Palestinians who were flocking to Hamas. But now, he says, the Palestinian Authority is suffering a case of unintended consequences.

"It seems that everything is going out of control for the Palestinian Authority," he says. "The Tahrir party is getting more popular in the West Bank and is trying to fill the vacuum that took place after the weakness of Fatah itself."

Security Crackdown

At the schoolyard where Hizb ut Tahrir's celebration was supposed to take place, curious Palestinians lined the sidewalks, watching the show of force put on by the Palestinian Authority. Row after row of men in full riot gear stood at attention, while senior officers posed for pictures in front of them.

Akram Rijoub, head of preventive security for Ramallah, said the rally was prevented because Hizb ut Tahrir refused to hold it indoors. "The people that are holding such a celebration might not control their members, and might face confrontations from the other side," he said.

But Hizb ut Tahrir supporter al-Ansari said security crackdowns can't stop his movement's momentum.

"We are huge and we are found everywhere. We are an international party that ... spreads all the way to Malaysia and Jakarta. Banning of a celebration like today will only make us even more powerful," he said before slipping out of the cafe and back to Hebron.

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