July 1st, 2016
by Avi Melamed
The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, Harakat al-Jihād al-Islāmi fi Filastīn, most widely known as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is a Sunni Islamic group, established in the late 1970’s. The PIJ is a Palestinian organization inspired by Jihadi Islamist Militant ideology. The goal of Jihadi Islamist Militant ideology is to create, through violence, one global entity which will apply Islamic religious law, Shariah, in its strictest version. The PIJ advocates for the destruction of Israel by violent means. They are designated as a terror organization by the U.S. State Department.
During the 1980’s, 1990’and the 2000’s, the military wing of the PIJ, Saraya Alquds (The Companies of Jerusalem), which defines itself as the “Military Wing of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine,” initiated dozens of terror attacks, including suicide bombings against Israeli soft targets, which killed dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers. Most of the attacks were launched from the West Bank.
Due to Israeli military activity targeting major PIJ military leaders, the PIJ’s terror infrastructure in the West Bank has been substantially damaged.
In the Gaza Strip, the PIJ’s military power is growing and strengthening. After Hamas (who rules the Gaza Strip since June 2007) the PIJ is the second most powerful military factor in the Gaza Strip.
The PIJ is massively armed and supported by Iran and the Assad government in Syria.
The PIJ is an important member of the radical militant Iranian-Assad axis known as the Axis of Resistance.
In the beginning of 2015 tensions began to surface between Iran and the PIJ when senior leaders of the PIJ in the Gaza Strip urged the organization’s senior leadership to re-evaluate the nature of PIJ’s relationship with Iran.
This dissension within the ranks of PIJ stemmed from two major reasons:
First, the growing and escalating Iranian-Arab power struggle in different parts of the Middle East poses a dilemma for the PIJ. In exchange for Iran’s support of the PIJ, Iran demands complete loyalty. On the other hand, the Arab Sunni world expects the PIJ to completely detach itself from the Iranians. (To understand the origins and essence of the Iran-Arab power struggle, how it is playing out in the region today, and future directions and ramifications please read my new book Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth).
The second reason is the catastrophic damage caused to the Gaza Strip following the fifty-day war with Israel (July-August 2014). Palestinian and Arab public opinion accused Hamas – the ruling entity in Gaza and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – of causing the people of Gaza constant and endless suffering in their desire to support Iran and promote the Shi’ite Mullah regime’s interest.
Some argue that there is an additional reason for the PIJ-Iranian tension. And that is the establishment in May 2014 of an additional Iranian proxy in the Gaza Strip – the Harakat as-Sabeeren* Nasran li-Filastin group, an organization composed mostly of former PIJ members.
Harakat as-Sabeeren Nasran li-Filastin in the Gaza Strip:
The meaning of the name, as-Sabeeren Nasran li-Filastin, is “Those who hold on patiently for the triumph of Palestine“.
Its leader is Hisham Salem, AKA Abu Mohammad, a Palestinian from the northern Gaza Strip, and a former PIJ member.
In fact, the core of group’s personnel are previous members of the PIJ.
PIJ is primarily located and operates in the central and northern areas of the Gaza Strip.
According to unconfirmed information, as-Sabeeren receives a monthly budget of one million dollars from Iran, and has some 400 militants who each receive a monthly salary varying between 250 and 700 USD. Reportedly, the group is armed by Iran, including – according to unconfirmed information – advanced weapons. The reliability of the sources of this information is unknown, therefore these reports should be view very cautiously.
As-Sabeeren Structure and Military Operations
According to unconfirmed information, as-Sabeeren has a civilian / political branch and a military wing.
As-Sabeeren’s leader, Hisham Salem, is presented as the Secretary General of the organization, the most senior executive position in organization. His boss is the Shurah – the highest leadership secret council, which oversees and guides PIJ’s activities.
According to unconfirmed information, the Military Supreme Leader of the group is a person named Abdulrahman Al-A’jouri, a 30 year-old former senior member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
PIJ apparently also has regional military commanders. Israel reportedly killed Ahmed Al-Sirahi, described as as-Sabeeren’s Regional Military Commander of Central Gaza.
According to unconfirmed information, Palestinians from the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, trained by Hezbollah, joined the as-Sabeeren group and some have participated in attacks conducted against Israeli targets in the Golan Heights. (On the Yarmuk Palestinian camp in Damascus read my article Yarmuk Movie: Kill the Messenger).
As-Sabeeren has also claimed responsibility for a few attacks on Israeli military targets along the Gaza border.
The group also announced that some of the Palestinians killed in Jerusalem and the West Bank during the recent wave of violence (which Palestinians call the “Knives Uprising”) were members of as-Sabeeren.
Ideological and political characteristics of As-Sabeeren:
Like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as-Sabeeren calls for the elimination of Israel through violence.
The group formally defines and identifies itself as part of the Camp of the Armed Resistance – al-Muqawama**. And, as such, the group pledges to cooperate with the Lebanese Hezbollah – Iran’s major proxy whose entire raison d’etre is predicated on al-Muqawama – leading a violent and unrelenting war against Israel until it is destroyed.
The as-Sabeeren flag and logo are clearly inspired by Hezbollah’s flag and logo.
As-Sabeeren completely aligns itself with the Iranian Shi’ite Mullah Regime, and supports their positions across the board. For example, as-Sabeeren echoes the Iranian official position, accusing Saudi Arabia of pursuing an aggressive policy. As-Sabeeren also supports Iran’s involvement in the war in Yemen.
As-Sabeeren’s support for Iran generates anger and criticism among Palestinians who are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Arabs.
The Sunnis also accuse as-Sabeeren of proselytizing in an attempt to convert Sunni Palestinians to Shi’ite orthodoxy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The group’s leader, Hisham Salem, has reportedly adopted Shi’ite orthodoxy. And according to information evaluated as reliable, as-Sabeeren distributes guidebooks entitled “Hussein” (Hussein Bin ‘Ali is the most revered Shi’ite historical figure) to Palestinians pilgrims on their way to Mecca.
As-Sabeeren is involved in social and charity efforts in the Gaza Strip. It runs summer camps and provides basic commodities and household supplies for the needy in Gaza. These activities are implemented through a non-profit in the Gaza Strip known as Al Baqiyat Al Salihat (a phrase mentioned in Chapter 18 – The Cave; Verse 46 in the Quran) which translated means – good deeds and the fruit thereof, endure forever. Al Baqiyat al Salihat is funded by an Iranian entity known as Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (for more on them read my article “A True Story about Package and The Middle East” published in August 2013).
As-Sabeeren’s relationships with other Palestinian factors in the Gaza Strip are complex.
The group claims it has close ties and a productive dialogue with all other factors – mostly Hamas and the PIJ. The common denominator is of course, their hostility towards Israel. Supporting this claim was an official statement by a spokesman of the Palestinian Authority which formally accused Hamas of supporting as-Sabeeren.
However, accumulating information suggests the picture is not as harmonious as as-Sabareen claims.
Hamas, to a certain degree tolerates the group’s activities – but it closely monitors and restricts its actions. For example, Hamas reportedly officially banned the activity of al Baqiyat al Salihat in March 2016. On the other hand, the Salafi Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are openly hostile towards as-Sabeeren, because of its Shi’ite-Iranian affiliation.
Allegedly, in October 2015, there was an assassination plot inside the Gaza Strip against as-Sabeeren’s leader, Hisham Salemhim, which he survived. In February 2016, a bomb was detonated close to his house. Though the group attribute these incidents to Israel, it is likely these incidents were warning messages from Palestinian factors to as-Sabeeren and its leader.
In May 2016, Ramadan Shalah, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was granted a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, ‘Ali Khamenei. This was a sign that the tension between Iran and PIJ had subsided. However, the Mullah regime of Iran does not provide any free meals. In return for Iran’s forgiveness, Shalah expressed PIJ’s support for Iran’s regional policy, arguing that defending Iran is defending Islam. He condemned the Arab world for attacking Iran. That meeting, according to unconfirmed information, also paved the way for the return of the as-Sabeeren group back to the PIJ, its mother movement.
Some argue that the establishment of the as-Sabeeren group is the outcome of tensions between Iran and Harakat al-Jihād al-Islāmi fi Filastīn- the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (PIJ)
However, that argument is questionable.
First of all, as-Sabeeren was established in May 2014 whereas, as I mentioned above, to the best of my knowledge, the tension between Iran and PIJ did not evolve until the beginning of 2015.
In addition, according to unconfirmed information, the background for the establishment of as-Sabeeren was a personal power struggle within the PIJ. The exact circumstances and reasons which led to this development are unknown.
It’s possible that the existence of as-Sabeeren, and their presence in the Gaza Strip, may have some limited role in fueling the tensions between Iran and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, yet it is clearly not the main reason. As I outlined above, the main reason for the tension between Iran and the PIJ is the Iranian-Arab power struggle and the resulting conflicts in the region.
With its limited capacity – financial as well as military – as-Sabeeren is no match for Hamas or the PIJ. This weakness, compounded by the fact that the Palestinians resent as-Sabeeren because of its blind support for Iran and because of their efforts to convert the Sunnis in the Gaza Strip to Shi’ism, as-Sabeeren Linaser Filastin, as a local power, has a negligible role and impact in the Gaza Strip.
Iran who sponsors the group is likely aware of this. And therefore it is likely that the major reason for Iran’s sponsorship of as-Sabeeren is not because of the group’s military capacity, but rather for the following two reasons:
One, as-Sabeeren’s dedication to pursue spread Shi’ism in the Gaza Strip. For the Iranian Mullah regime, exporting the Islamic Revolution through the spread of Shi’ite orthodoxy throughout the Muslim Sunni world is a high priority.
Two, the Iranian Mullah regime never puts all its eggs in one basket, they like to retain multi-channel capabilities to assure their influence.
As for Hamas, they will likely tolerate as-Sabeeren’s activity – on Hamas’ terms. Because to a certain extent, their presence serves Hamas.
The first reason as-Sabeeren’s presence serves Hamas is because of the complex relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Even though the two organizations closely cooperate in the fight against Israel, the political and ideological tensions between the two are ever-present. The PIJ is the only factor in the Gaza Strip which can potentially threaten Hamas’ rule.
So the fact that the Palestinians don’t like as-Sabeeren because of its Shi’ite and Iranian affiliation and the fact that as-Sabeeren is primarily comprised of former PIJ members is in itself good for Hamas, because Palestinian public opinion will equate the PIJ with as-Sabeeren. So the presence and activity of as-Sabeeren somewhat damages the Palestinian Islamic Jihad politically – and that serves Hamas.
The second reason is that Hamas is looking for ways to rehabilitate its damaged relationship with Iran, which was once its major sponsor. The war in Syria, in which hundreds of thousands of Syrians – as well as thousands of Palestinians (who are primarily Sunni) – were killed by the Iran-Assad axis, as well as the growing tension between the Arab and Muslim Sunni world and Iran, caused Hamas which is Sunni (Hamas formally defines itself as the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest Sunni movement in the world) to distance itself in 2012 from the Iran-Assad axis, including evacuating its offices and headquarter which were located in Damascus. In return, Iran retaliated. Though Iran has continued to arm Hamas’ military wing, the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, since 2012 the Mullah regime has cut off the money it gave to Hamas for administration and civil objectives in the Gaza Strip – the money Hamas had to run the government, pay salaries, provide social services, etc.
The lack of funds coming from Iran has caused a continual and evolving crisis for Hamas. Hamas has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to repair its relationship with Iran.
Because of the relationship between Iran and the PIJ and Iran and as-Sabeeren, prohibiting as-Sabeeren’s activities would clearly be counterproductive to Hamas’ interest when one of its goals is to repair its relationship with Iran so the funds will flow again.
And the third reason that as-Sabareen’s presence to a certain extent serves Hamas, is because the Salafi factors in Gaza, which represent the radical Sunni orthodoxy, who present a considerable, yet not a substantial threat to Hamas, are overtly hostile to the as-Sabeeren group. Therefore, as long as the Salafi factors in Gaza focus their attention on as-Sabeeren, it serves Hamas.
Following the reconciliation between Iran and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in May 2016, it is likely that Iran will keep as-Sabeeren around as a potential additional channel of influence in spite of the fact that Iran is fully aware that as-Sabeeren ‘s influence is limited in the Gaza Strip. Thus, it is likely that Iran will continue to offer some sort of narrow support to the group.
It is likely that as-Sabeeren will promote itself to other political factors and to the Palestinian public as part of the Palestinian armed resistance. However, they will be careful to not cross Hamas or the PIJ. They will also probably increase their involvement in social and economic activities aimed to support the needy in Gaza. At the same time, it is possible that they will try to minimize their profile as a Shi’ite affiliated group looking to spread Shi’ite orthodoxy in the Gaza Strip.
On the military side, it is likely that the group will have Hamas’ green light to conduct small-scale attacks against Israel – like sniper shootings, or targeting Israeli military vehicles or heavy machinery Israel uses to expose tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
However, in the current and foreseeable future, with Gaza’s political and military fabric, Harakat as-Sabeeren Nasran il-Filastin will remain negligible in capacity and impact.
The as-Sabeereen group must be viewed in the context of the widening Iranian-Arad power struggle in the Middle East. The Gaza Strip is one of the eight active arenas of that escalating power struggle. As-Sabeereen group is one of the many pawns on the Iranian-Arab Chess board.
To learn more about the Iranian-Arab power struggle the eight active arenas to watch, please purchase my book Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth.
* also spelled Al-Sabireen
**Al-Muqawama is a yearning for an alternate world order in the spirit of radical Islam, eradication of Western influence in the region, and most importantly, an unrelenting struggle against Israel until it is annihilated.
Avi Melamed who serves as the Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute is an expert on the Current Affairs in the Arab and Muslim World Arab and their impact on Israel and the Middle East.
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