Hamas launches crackdown on radical Salafist groups in Gaza, drawing threats of retaliation

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The ruling Hamas militant group launched a crackdown Tuesday on radical Salafi groups following a series of unclaimed bombings in the Gaza Strip, arresting dozens of people and setting up military-type checkpoints.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza for the past eight years, considers the more radical Salafists, who identify ideologically with the Islamic State group, a threat. The Salafists, believed to number several hundred, seek the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and accuse Hamas of being too soft on Israel and failing to adequately impose religious law.

On Monday morning, a bomb damaged a wall at a security site run by Hamas' armed wing. There were no casualties, but after a series of similar blasts on Hamas security posts in recent weeks, suspicion fell on the Salafists.

Monday afternoon, local media showed images of masked Hamas security officers surrounding the house of a wanted Salafist in Gaza City. Later, police said they foiled an attempted car bombing elsewhere.

Eyad Bozoum, spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said the situation was under control.

"Some slight violations take place from time to time and the security services follow them," he said.

Salafist activists told The Associated Press that Hamas authorities have rounded up several dozen members in recent weeks. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared Hamas reprisals.

Hamas also deployed masked gunmen in Salafi strongholds in the central and southern Gaza Strip, set up checkpoints and destroyed a makeshift mosque that it says was used by Salafists to launch attacks.

In a statement published this week, a group calling itself "Supporters of the Islamic State in Bait al-Maqdes" gave Hamas until Thursday to release all detained Salafists.

"If they (Hamas) decline, all options are open to respond," it said.

Tensions between the Islamic rivals have ebbed and flowed for years. The current round started in April after Hamas arrested a prominent Salafi cleric who praised the Islamic State group in a sermon.

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