Fatah takes battle with Hamas to mosques

Fatah takes battle with Hamas to mosques

 Loyalists of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas are taking their fight with Hamas to the mosques of the West Bank to stop what they call Islamist brainwashing and recruiting.

Palestinian security officers have stepped up surveillance of places of worship across the territory and preachers caught spouting Hamas propaganda will be sacked, said one security official speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Fatah-dominated security services — whose colleagues in the Gaza Strip were decisively defeated by Hamas three months ago — accuse the Islamist movement of recruiting supporters and stockpiling weapons in mosques.

Hamas denies the charges and says that Fatah will widen the gulf between the two main Palestinian political parties if it wages a “political” clampdown on men of the cloth in the more than 1,500 West Bank mosques.

Jamal Bawatneh, religious affairs minister in the Abbas-appointed government based in the West Bank, has warned that any imam or preacher “promoting political, personal or partisan ideas will be sacked or replaced”.

Placing advertisements in newspapers, the Palestinian civil service is looking to recruit “qualified staff” to fill vacant preaching jobs.

Bawatneh says his government has already budgeted for 800 such jobs.

Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement founded out of the Muslim Brotherhood, has built up grassroots support for its fight against Israel through welfare programmes and by tapping into growing adherence to religion.

Fatah, on the other hand, is fiercely secular and the security official freely admitted that Hamas, which mobilises a large number of imams, “is much more capable than Fatah of using the mosques for political ends”.

According to the central bureau of statistics, there are 2,228 mosques in the Palestinian territories, 1,547 of them in the West Bank.

Thanks to the imams and preachers, Hamas “controls” most mosques in the West Bank, the security official believes.

Even in Abbas”s base of Ramallah, Hamas controls “more than 70 percent” of the mosques, he said.

“Worshippers are a captive market because Hamas doesn”t have to invite them to prayers, particularly those on Friday. It”s enough for Hamas to appoint a skilled preacher to deliver its message and reach voters,” the official said.

The Palestinian intelligence services attribute Hamas”s landslide victory in January 2006 parliamentary elections in large part to its control of mosques.

But other analysts have pointed to widespread corruption within Fatah which had previously monopolised power.

Hamas member of parliament Hatem Qafisheh warned the Palestinian Authority against sacking preachers it regarded as pro-Islamist.