RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Faced with eroding popular support and disenchantment among young Palestinians looking for alternatives, Hamas is moving forcefully to crush Islamic extremists with possible ties to al Qaida that threaten its hold on power in the Gaza Strip.
That became clear last weekend during a punishing battle at a Rafah mosque that ended with the death of a charismatic, al Qaida-admiring sheik and about 20 of his armed followers.
"Hamas saw this as a sort of threat," said Waleed al Modallal, a political science professor and the dean of the southern Gaza Strip branch of Islamic University in Khan Younis. "They were embarrassed."
No one has a full picture of how many al Qaida admirers might be organizing in Gaza. Hamas, however, now sees a need to quash these groups as economic and social stagnation caused by Israel's continued isolation of Gaza create an incubator for extremists presenting a more radical alternative to Hamas.
"This is a recipe for extremism to flourish," said Hamdi Shaqura, a researcher at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City. "People swallow and vomit the same message."
The seeds for last weekend's deadly battle at the Rafah mosque were planted years ago, when Abdel Latif Moussa, a popular Islamic teacher, was booted from a southern Gaza Strip mosque in 2003 for openly praising al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, his former students said.
Moussa moved a few miles south to Rafah, where young Palestinians were especially drawn to his message.
"He was very charismatic," said Ibrahim, a 23-year-old fundamentalist Muslim scholar who used to regularly attend Moussa's speeches in Khan Younis and spoke to McClatchy on the condition that his last name be omitted because Hamas has been warning those close to the sheik to keep quiet.
Moussa continued to attract supporters with his fundamentalist message that even drew praise from relatives of a Hamas commander shot dead by the sheik's followers during the weekend battle.
"He was an honest man, he was popular and loved," said Abdullah Shamali, the 60-year-old brother of Hamas militant leader Mohammed Shamali, who Hamas leaders said was killed while trying to broker a deal before the battle broke out. "But his speeches started to change in the last two or three months."
Moussa's militant supporters emerged in early June when they strapped explosives onto horses and unsuccessfully tried to attack an Israeli border patrol.
A few weeks later, Hamas accused the new group, Jund Ansar Allah (Warriors of God), of bombing a wedding party for a relative of Mohammed Dahlan, a key figure in the Fatah political party, Hamas' rival.
In an apparent bid to silence Moussa, Hamas was reportedly preparing to take over the Rafah mosque.
Then Hamas leaders got word last week that Moussa was preparing to openly challenge Hamas by unilaterally declaring the establishment of an "Islamic emirate" in Rafah, the Palestinian border town best known for the network of smuggler tunnels that links it to Egypt.
Moussa rebuffed Hamas mediation and stepped into the crowded mosque last Friday with a phalanx of young, armed militants.
Hamas responded with unforgiving force. The Rafah mosque was transformed into a concrete shell peppered by thousands of bullet holes and mortar strikes.
The fighting spilled over into Saturday and reached its climax when Moussa's militant deputy, identified as Khaled Banat, used a suicide belt to kill himself and the sheik as Hamas fighters closed in, said Ihab Ghussein, a spokesman for Hamas' Gaza Interior Ministry.
Banat has emerged as a shadowy central figure in the showdown. Several Moussa supporters said Banat was a onetime aide in Damascus to Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal, who became disenchanted with the group.
Some said Banat came to Gaza through a smuggler's tunnel to help train Hamas militants and then joined forces with Moussa. Others claimed that Banat was already pursuing his own agenda when he entered Gaza.
Moussa's supporters have now been forced into hiding. Several said they'd been warned by Hamas not to talk to the media.
Allies from other extremist groups have vowed to strike back at Hamas and warned Palestinians to steer clear of Gaza military compounds and mosques favored by Hamas leaders.
This isn't the first time that Hamas has confronted al Qaida aspirants in Gaza.
One of the first things Hamas did after seizing full military control of Gaza in 2007 was to confront the Army of Islam, an al Qaida-inspired group that had kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston.
Hamas threatened to crush the Army of Islam, led by a opportunistic Gaza City militant named Mumtaz Dagmoush, unless it set Johnston free.
The Army of Islam quickly released Johnson after more than 100 days in captivity. Since then, no Westerners have faced serious kidnapping threats in Gaza.
Still, the 1.4 million Gaza residents growing increasingly frustrated with a series of challenges they've faced since Israel pulled all Jewish settlers out of Gaza in 2005.
Israel's military battered Gaza in 2006 after Hamas-led militants, joined by Army of Islam militants, captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit's release remains a central demand before Israel eases its economic blockade of Gaza.
Israel tightened the economic blockade after Hamas seized military control of Gaza in 2007 by routing forces loyal to pro-Western Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Unemployment has spiked and the economy's been crippled.
Hamas militants were cowed last winter by Israel's three-week military offensive, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes.
And Hamas and Abbas show few signs of reuniting to form a coalition government originally formed in 2006 after Hamas won electoral control of the Palestinian Authority parliament.
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