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Middle East Issues





Palestinian Ferment; Islamist Al-Sabireen Worries Islamist Hamas


Origins

Harakat as-Sabeeren Nasran il-Filastin (The Movement for the Patient Ones for the Liberation of Palestine or Movement of Those Who Endure), also known as Hesn (fortification) or al-Sabireen, is a Palestinian terror group that operates in the Gaza Strip. It is not, as of this writing, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. According to an al-Sabireen profile for the Gatestone Institute by Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh (“Iran's New Palestinian Terror Group: Al-Sabireen,” Oct. 28, 2015), al-Sabireen was established following tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and its beneficiaries Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), both of which are U.S.-designated terrorist movements. The disagreement arose over the latter two's refusal to publicly support Iran's ally, dictator Bashar al-Assad, in Syria's bloody civil war.

The precise date of the group's origins are less than clear. In his October 2015 report, Toameh refers to al-Sabireen as a “new Palestinian terror group.” However, earlier references to the organization can be found.

A June 18, 2014 report in The Long War Journal, by Jonathan Schanzer and Grant Rumley of D.C.-based think tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that a “new splinter,” al-Sabireen, had emerged. Schanzer and Rumley identified what they consider to be a possible reason for al-Sabireen's emergence: those disaffected by a Palestinian Authority unity deal for governing that was struck between Hamas and the Fatah movement in June 2014. The FDD analysts also noted:

“The first clues of the group's existence came in late May, in the northern Gaza refugee camp of Jabaliya, when a funeral was held for Nizar Saeed Issa. The details surrounding Issa's death are fuzzy, but it was reported that he died after suffering injuries related to an unspecified explosion.”

“Issa's death garnered a substantial amount of support on social media platforms such as Facebook. That is when flags and photos bearing his image appeared alongside the newly created symbol of Hesn. The symbol is the same wielded by the [Iran's] Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Hezbollah. Iran has not claimed ownership of this group. It appears clear, however, that Hesn is yet another proxy group in Iran's violent orbit.”

In his report for the Washington D.C.-based online newspaper, Al-Monitor, contributor Fadi Shafei, a Palestinian writer in the Gaza Strip, said that the al-Sabireen was established on May 25, 2014 (“What is Harakt al-Sabireen and why is Hamas trying to block their expansion?” March 18, 2016). Shafei interviewed an al-Sabireen member, Mohammad Harb, who told him that “al-Sabireen was first announced as a reformative current [of Palestinian Islamic Jihad] in 2010.” According to Harb, the group split off after its demands for PIJ to return to the pro-Khomenei ideology of its founder, Fathi Shakaki, were spurned.

An article in Foreign Affairs by Ehud Yaari, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, stated that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “financed and provided media exposure” to al-Sabireen (“Replacing Hamas: Iran's New Proxy Militia in Gaza,” Sept. 28, 2015). Yaari noted that the “Palestinian Operations department of Lebanon's Hezbollah”—a U.S.-designated terror group and Iranian proxy—assisted the IRGC in supporting al-Sabireen.
 
No charity from Hamas 

Yaari pointed out that Al-Sabireen may have grown out of a charity named al-Baqiyat as-Salihat (“the enduring good deeds”) created by Hisham Salem and his supporters in the spring of 2014. Yet, The Jerusalem Post has written that al-Baqiyat as-Salihat was established in Gaza in 2004 (“Hamas conflict with Iran-backed group at its acme after closure of charity organization,” March 14, 2016). However, as Salem seems to have been in prison around the same time in 2004 and shortly after (detailed below), the discrepancy may be explained by his taking over or running the charity by 2014.

Perhaps concerned with a potential rival to power in Gaza, Hamas closed down al-Baqiyat as-Salihat in March 2016 due to “the organization's engagement in political activities.” Salem decried the decision, claiming that the “charity” was engaged in “humanitarian projects that aid the groups who suffered the greatest damage in the Zionist wars.” The al-Sabireen head went on to claim that Hamas's decision was “not legal and it will not prevent us from continuing to serve our people…Hamas ordered the dissolution of the association since we have decided to break the silence, raise our voice and talk about the five-year-long Hamas harassment.”

Hamas' closing down the “charity” may be an outgrowth of an earlier July 6, 2015 decision by the group to ban and dissolve al-Sabireen after it claimed to find evidence of its potential rival's involvement in acts against “the ideology and methodology of the people of Gaza (“What is Harakt al-Sabireen and why is Hamas trying to block their expansion?” Al-Monitor).” In his Al-Monitor interview, al-Sabireen member Mohammed Harb claimed to have been detained by Hamas and “interrogated about my relationship” with the group.

Ideology

Yaari posited that the group's name, al-Sabireen, may have been chosen to “associate the organization in people's minds with the late Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat, whose favorite slogan was a Koranic verse promising that ‘Allah is with those patiently endure.' Indeed, the Koran heavily emphasizes the virtue of endurance, or ‘sabr,' and the rewards promised to those who wait.” However, as Yaari noted, “the value of endurance is also very prominent in Shiite theological literature,” and thus, while perhaps seeking to invoke the Arafat's memory, the Iranian-funded group may also be reminding the largely Sunni Muslim Gazan Arabs of al-Sabireen's Shiite backers.

Toameh reported that Salem “has been accused by many Palestinians of helping Iran spread Shiite Islam inside the Gaza Strip.”

Al-Sabireen has reportedly adopted Shiite rituals such as the Day of Ashura and the group is known to distribute Shiite literature and hold seminars on Shiite theology. Salem is also known to have declared that “the road to liberation of Palestine [the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state] goes through Karbala.” This reference to the Shiite holy city is commonly made by Iran. Further proof of the group's Shiite ties can be discerned from Salem's statement that the struggle against Israel requires “a modern Immam Husayn [ibn Ali].” Ibn Ali was the Shiite leader who was killed by Sunni Muslim in 680 AD.

Hamas also closed Salem's “charity” for a period in 2011, reportedly for “spreading Shiism (“Ex-Islamic Jihad leader launches new armed group in Gaza,” Al-Monitor, June 10, 2014).”

Salem seems to obfuscate when it comes to the group's Shiite leanings; he denies them when speaking to Arabic press and denies that the group is an offshoot of PIJ. This may be pragmatism on his part, with Salem perhaps knowing that a Palestinian Arab group espousing Shiite ideology in the Sunni Muslim-dominant Palestinian Arab areas, is unlikely to gain support. As Jonathan Schanzer noted in his 2008 book Hamas vs. Fatah (St. Martins Press), PIJ was routinely “called out” by both Hamas and Fatah for its ties to Iran—even being accused of spreading Shiite Islam. Fatah, the movement that controls the PA, has leveled similar charges against Hamas at times.

In a Jan. 13, 2016 interview with the Palestinian Ma'an news agency, Salem, the group's leader, admitted that the group is funded by the Iranian government but denied it was a “Shiite movement.” According to The Times of Israel, Salem “stressed that his group was non-sectarian, non-religious…” In what may have been an attempt to counter rumors of the group's Shiite leanings, Salem told the Ma'an news: “Regarding the funding from Iran—Islamic Jihad, Hamas and many other groups also get funding from them” (“Iran-backed jihadi group claims it's operating in West Bank, Jerusalem,” The Times of Israel, Jan. 14, 2016).

In the same interview, Salem stated that he supported Iran in the ongoing Saudi Arabian-Iranian “Cold War” that is being fought, often via proxies, in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere. Al-Sabireen members have been seen attending pro-Hezbollah rallies in the Gaza Strip, alongside Hamas representatives.
 
An 'affinity' for Hezbollah

Al-Sabireen has made clear its “affinity” for Hezbollah according to Jihad Intel, an intelligence gathering project of Philadelphia-based think tank, Middle East Forum (“Harakat al-Sabireen,” Jihad Intel). Jihad Intel noted that al-Sabireen has offered “effusive praise and offering of condolences to Hezbollah for its fighters killed in an Israeli airstrike in Quneitra, Syria, condemned the Saudi intervention in the Yemenese civil war and called on “Palestinians to work with the ‘Syrian state' (i.e. the Assad regime) to drive the Islamic State [the U.S.-designated terror group also known as ISIS] out of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.”

According to an article by Adam Kredo of the online newspaper, Washington Free Beacon, al-Sabireen's charter “condones violent jihad and promotes attacks on the ‘racist Zionist body' and ‘America the great Satan.'” Kredo cited both al-Sabireen's official Arabic-language website and interviews with Middle East analysts and U.S. State Department officials (“New Iranian-backed Terror Group Makes Inroads in West Bank, Gaza,” Jan. 19, 2016).
 
Al-Sabireen maintains an active Facebook page, on which among other things, it has accused the United States of “producing terrorists.” YouTube videos also have emerged that show Salem talking about the battle of Karbala and the death of Imam Hussein—both foundational events for Shiites (“Ex-Islamic Jihad leader launches new armed group in Gaza,” Al-Monitor, June 10, 2014).

Leadership

Hisham Salem, a former commander of PIJ in the Gaza Strip, leads al-Sabireen. Salem survived an assassination attempt when unidentified persons stabbed him in the neck on Oct. 9, 2015. Toameh reports that the attack occurred “shortly after he gave a newspaper interview in the northern Gaza Strip. Although no group has claimed responsibility, it is widely believed that the assailants belong to either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

On Feb. 19, 2016 a bombing occurred near Salem's home. Al-Sabireen immediately alleged that Israel was responsible, but provided no evidence (“What is Harakt al-Sabireen and why is Hamas trying to block their expansion?” Al-Monitor, March 18, 2016). It should be remembered that the bombing occurred around the same time as Hamas dissolved al-Sabireen's “charity, ” and a little more than six months after Hamas' Interior Ministry declared it persona non grata. Given Hamas' record of assassinating critics and potential rivals, it is not unthinkable that it may have been involved.

In his Foreign Affairs article, Washington Institute's Yaari wrote that Salem is in his early 50s and was once a “little-known former mid-level commander” of the PIJ. Salem lives in Beit Lahia, a town in the Gaza Strip. The al-Sabireen leader “comes from a large family of refugees that were originally from the al Habaria village, which is now part of Southern Israel.”

Salem was arrested by Israeli security forces in April 1990 for his involvement in planting explosives targeting Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. He was imprisoned for 20 months, but his involvement with PIJ continued unabated; he was later put on Israel's most wanted list. According to Yaari, the IDF targeted Salem in a 2002 bombing of his house, killing the terrorist's father.

Salem has also claimed that he was held for four and a-half years in PA prisons before 2006 and has stated that he was arrested twice by Hamas. On one of these occasions, in March 2013, al-Sharq al-Awsat, an Arabic London daily newspaper owned by a member of the Saudi royal family, wrote, “The internal security apparatus of the government arrested Salem, who is known to have good relations with the Shiites of Iran and Hezbollah (“Ex-Islamic Jihad leader launches new armed group in Gaza,” Al-Monitor, June 10, 2014).”

Al-Sabireen's second in command is Mohmmad Abu Nadl. Washington Free Beacon's Kredo noted that Nadl “frequently writes on al-Sabireen's official website and praises Palestine as integral to the Arab world.”

Structure

According to journalist Toameh, “most of the al-Sabireen terrorists” are “disgruntled” former members of PIJ who left over unpaid salaries. Sheikh Abdallah al-Shami, an ousted Islamic Jihad official, is also reportedly a member (“Ex-Islamic Jihad leader launches new armed group in Gaza,” Al-Monitor, June 10, 2014).”

In a January 21, 2016 editorial on Iranian proxies, The Jerusalem Post asserted that al-Sabireen is “also wooing Fatah members. Scores of militiamen once belonging to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction in the Gaza Strip have allied themselves with Al-Sabireen. Most were attracted by the money” (“Iran's long arm”).

In his September 2015 Foreign Affairs article, Yaari wrote that al-Sabireen's “main activities at the moment include gathering several other small militias under its wing. Salem is actively cultivating an alliance with Amr Abu Shariah, head of the Mujahideen Battalions, and with Zakaria Doghmush, leader of the Popular Resistance. He is also collaborating with the battalions of Abd al-Qader al-Husseini, Abu al-Rish, al-Aqsa, and a number of others. His plan is to convene all these rather small factions under a joint military council that he will chair. He is apparently promising these groups Iranians funds in return for their loyalty.” Thus, al-Sabireen's future and ability to expand are tethered to support from Tehran.

As CAMERA pointed out in October 2015, the group is reported to have as many as 400 members in the Gaza Strip (“Journalist Profiles New Iranian-backed Palestinian Terror Group,” Oct. 29, 2015). Al-Sabireen has a particularly strong presence in northern and central Gaza and in the al-Shujaiyya neighborhood (“What is Harakt al-Sabireen and why is Hamas trying to block their expansion?” Al-Monitor). Heavy fighting occurred in al-Shujaiyya during the 2014 Israeli-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

Salem told Al-Monitor that al-Sabireen has a shura council [an unelected assembly or advisers] and an “armed military wing” (“Ex-Islamic Jihad leader launches new armed group in Gaza,” June 10, 2014).”

In Foreign Affairs, Yaari wrote:

“Al Sabirin appears to have encountered serious difficulties in its efforts to become a significant player in the Gaza Strip. Its Shiite leanings in devoutly Sunni Gaza deter many young would-be followers from joining the group. Hamas is also restricting al Sabirin's freedom of movement in the area, blocking members from holding public gatherings and prohibiting any mention of them in the local press.”

“Hamas is aware that Salem has successfully attracted disgruntled cadres from the PIJ (mainly because the PIJ is in arrears over member salaries), and it is certainly not disappointed to see its rival weakened. But at the same time Hamas is wary of Salem growing too powerful. In the first week of July, there were reports by Gazan journalists that Hamas was planning to ban all of al Sabirin's activities, even though Salem immediately denied these rumors. It is fair to say that Hamas tolerates al Sabirin—provided it doesn't violently provoke the Salafis aligned with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which considers Shiites apostates, and as long as Salem refrains from challenging Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip and its current policy prohibiting the launch of rockets into Israel. Salem has been careful so far not to cross these red lines.”
 
Expanding?

The Times of Israel reported that on Jan. 13, 2016 the group claimed to have expanded from the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank and Jerusalem (“Iran-backed jihadi group claims it's operating in West Bank, Jerusalem”). Salem told the Palestinian Ma'an news agency, “Within this framework we have members in the West Bank and Jerusalem who will soon receive financial and military support from us.” The Jerusalem Post reported on Feb. 3, 2016 that Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces arrested al-Sabireen members in Bethlehem who were “planning to establish a foothold in the West Bank and carry out attacks against Israel (“Report: Palestinian Authority arrests 5 pro-Iran operatives in West Bank”).”

FDD's Rumley told The Free Beacon in January 2015, “ It's unclear exactly what Sabireen's operational capabilities are right now, but we know that they've pulled recruits from a more established terror group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that they've lost at least two fighters in two separate Israeli strikes, so they're on Israel's radar.”

Symbols

Al-Sabireen's flag resembles that of Iranian proxy, the Lebanese-based terror group Hezbollah. Both feature an outstretched arm gripping a Kalashnikov assault rifle. However, whereas Hezbollah's flag is yellow with the rifle and arm in green, al-Sabireen's flag is orange with the rifle, fist and lettering in black. Videos and images of al-Sabireen terrorists seem to indicate that orange is a color chosen to denote the group; its members can be seen wearing bandanas and arm bands in orange (see for example, “New Iranian-backed Terror Group Makes Inroads in West Bank, Gaza,” Jan. 19, 2016, Washington Free Beacon). Jihad Intel noted that al-Sabireen's use of Hezbollah and Iranian imagery makes it stand apart from “other Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and the Salafi jihadis of Gaza…”

Perhaps seeking to downplay connections to Shiite Iran, Salem told Al-Monitor's Rasha Abou Jalal, a Palestinian Arab from Gaza, that similarities between Hezbollah and al-Sabireen are “an unintended consequence. All the banners of the Palestinian factions are similar in terms of their content and symbols (“Ex-Islamic Jihad leader launches new armed group in Gaza,” June 10, 2014).”

Financing

Al-Sabireen is largely financed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Lebanese-headquartered proxy, Hezbollah. According to FDD's Rumley, al-Sabireen “is believed to receive $10 million a year from Iran via funds that are smuggled through a large network of tunnels built by terrorists to facilitate illicit travel beneath the Gaza Strip.” Rumley based this January 2015 assessment on estimates “disseminated in the Arab language press.”

In his Gatestone article, Toameh said that al-Sabireen members receive a monthly salary that ranges from $250-300 for lower level members, with more senior operatives receiving as much as $700.

In October 2015, Ahmed Shariff al-Sarhi, a high level al-Sabireen member, was shot and killed by IDF snipers near the border with Gaza. Al-Sarhi was reportedly responsible for several shooting attacks targeting Israel and was trying to hit IDF forces with a new Steyr HS .50 long range sniper rifle when he was killed. That model of rifle is an expensive “anti-materiel sniper rifle” that is meant for shooting large, even armoured, targets. Iran is thought to have provided similar weapons to Shiite militias targeting U.S. troops in Iraq (“Iraqi insurgents using Austrian rifles from Iran,” Feb. 13, 2007, The Guardian).

Tehran is also thought to have supplied al-Sabireen with Grad and Fajr missiles that can reach Tel Aviv, from the Gaza Strip—a distance of about 35 miles. Like the Steyr sniper rifles, this would denote a higher level of funding and perhaps commitment from Iran. That these weapons are similar to those employed by Hezbollah and Shiite militias operating in Iraq, may indicate that Iran feels it has a similar level of influence over al-Sabireen.

Funds also seem to be spent by the terror group on propaganda aimed at building its “brand” as a terrorist group and gaining more renown. Al-Sabireen has spent “relatively significant sums to commemorate, though a documentary, one of its members, Musaa al-Kheir Salah Sakkafi, whom they consider a martyr. He was killed during Israel's Protective Edge operation in July 2014 after a rocket he was trying to fire into Israel exploded during launch (“Replacing Hamas: Iran's New Proxy Militia in Gaza,” Foreign Affairs, Sept. 28, 2015.”)


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