The inception of the Iranian nuclear deal has given Tehran new life, and a fresh opportunity to branch out across the Middle East. Already running what remains of Souria al-Assad through Revolutionary Guard commanders and a patchwork of Iraqi and Syrian Alawite/Shi’a militias, Iranian influence has since extended to Yemen. Iran is heavily involved in the Houthis’ war effort, to the extent that some of the Houthis’ own brethren accuse them of being converts to the Iranian brand of Twelver Shi’ism.
In Iraq, the collapse of the Iraqi army and the loss of a third of the country to a disproportionately small number of Da’esh fighters granted Iran the opportunity to take control of the country by stepping in to “aid” the Iraqi government. Not by rebuilding the faltering army, but by deliberately neglecting it and strengthening their own patchwork of militias (with full US support) that now out-gun the state.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah already effectively runs the government and outgunned security forces on behalf of Iran; the country’s next premier looks destined to be Assad’s childhood friend Suleiman Franjieh. The army has already made a notorious name for itself by proving inept at any serious operations, save burning down refugee tents.
Even in Bahrain, where Iranian influence has been solidly rejected by most of the majority Shia population despite the brutality of the security forces and Iranian attempts to co-opt them, militant groups like Saraya al-Karar emerged. Groups bearing emblems near-identical to Hezbollah’s, with attack videos accompanied by the voice of the viciously sectarian ballad Ali Barakat, now languishing in a Lebanese jail.
A Maverick Statelet?
But one of the most relatively impenetrable fortresses of independent militancy in the region has remained tiny, besieged Gaza. With a population of some 1.9 million people crowded into a space of land with a width of 3.7 meters, you could be forgiven for imagining that an impoverished, starving and thoroughly angry population would be a rampant recruiting ground for pro-Iranian militias.
However, this is anything but the case. Hamas has controlled the Gaza strip since ousting Fatah in 2007 and has energetically retained control since, despite two wars with Israel and rumblings among the population. Until the early 2000s, Saudi Arabia was the main source of financial aid, providing some 50% of funds.
When Hamas broke with Saudi Arabia in 2004, Iran took over as the main source of funding; going from only 10% in the 1980s to $30 million dollars from 1993-2006, and then rocking to “hundreds of millions” of Euros from 2006 onwards.
Hamas leaders openly cavorted in Tehran in front of giant pictures of Khomenei and backed Iran with all the rhetoric they could spare. Since Hamas was once incredibly close to Iran, it would seem inevitable on the surface that Iran would have a firm sphere of influence in Gaza.
Winds of Change
However in 2011 Hamas refused to support Syria’s Assad (a key Iranian ally) when the Syrian revolution erupted, angering Iran’s regime, which saw Hamas as more proxy than partner and expected it to follow the ‘official’ line as Hezbollah did. In June 2011 Iranian funds were cut off over the disagreement, leaving it unable to pay some 40,000 employees. Hamas has quite frankly described the relationship with Iran as “bad“.
Hamas official Ahmed Yousef even lambasted Iran directly as a nation that “talked about oppressed people and dictatorial regimes” only to “stand behind a dictator like Assad who is killing his own people”. This was despite additional funds also being lost when the Muslim Brotherhood stopped donating money in an attempt to finance other Arab revolutions elsewhere. Hamas has continued to largely reject Iranian advances since.
Even the far more malleable Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation has been too shy to publicly support Iran’s line or act as its proxy. Islamic Jihad has a much longer history with Iran than Hamas; before the group was even founded, the late leader Fathi Shaqaqi was writing books praising Khomenei. In 1988 Khomenei gave official support to his group, and they received training and support from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In 1990 the group moved its offices to Damascus and has retained a presence in Syria since, despite the Syrian conflict and the Iranian split with Hamas. Videos released by the group’s media wing even continue to display the Arabic watermark al-A’lam al-Harbi (“media war”) which is used by Iraqi Shi’a militias, Assad regime forces and Saudi Shi’a militants in the aftermath of Nimr al-Nimr’s execution.
For the group to retain its presence some coordination is obviously required with the regime. But the relationship probably goes much further; the group even vowed to respond to Israeli bombings of Assad’s forces. The group may have become another Iranian proxy, albeit less publicly. Israel claims that the group was responsible for an August 2015 attack against Israel from the regime-controlled portion of the Golan, directed by Saeed Izaddhi of the elite Quds Force.
However even Islamic Jihad has found it too awkward for comfort to openly come out in support of Assad; in 2011 they even openly complained when the Assad regime arrested Shaqaqi’s son in the long-suffering Yarmouk refugee camp.
A Change of Strategy
It was around 2014 that Iran seems to have given up on co-opting Sunni groups into releasing statements in support of genocidal regimes that would prove suicidal to their popularity; the Palestinian factions have learned well from the Hezbollah fiasco.
The Iranian response has been to revert to the pragmatism that emerged in the years following the Iranian revolution; having realised that its appeals to Muslims across the world to stand by Khamenei’s “Islamic” government were viewed with deep suspicion by the Muslim (Sunni) majority, the regime openly began to pander to their Shi’a minority focused around the Shi’a Crescent (slyly referred to as the “resistance axis”).
Iran’s strategy in Gaza is a prime example of Iranian cynicism; if you can’t find a Shi’a-malleable majority, create a minority instead! That is precisely what the regime has sought to achieve by setting up its latest Palestinian proxy; Harakat al-Sabireen.
Pronounced Harakat as-Sabireen (translating as “Movement of the Patient Ones”), the movement was founded in May 2014 by a former Islamic Jihad leader Hisham Salem who broke away from the group. Salem was twice arrested by Hamas and twice quietly released, presumably due to Iranian pressure.
Inspired by Tehran, Or Directed?
The group claims it operates from an Islamic platform and is dedicated to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It apparently receives some $10 million from Iran annually. Unsurprisingly, the group goes out of its way to emphasise how crucial support for Bashar al-Assad and the “resistance axis” is.
Officially, the group denies that it is an Iranian proxy or a Shi’a movement, ostensibly claiming to be another pan-Islamic group that appeals to both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims (just as Islamic Jihad does). However, the group has released several videos with a visibly Shia theme, showing Salem himself discussing events such as the battle of Karbala and the death of Imam Hussain with explicit Twelver Shi’a undertones.
The group hangs gigantic portraits of Khamenei in its headquarters, supports his ideology of velayat e-fiqh, and uses a logo identical to that of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; a fist clutching a rifle alongside various designs and Shi’a slogans.
Tellingly, Hezbollah and all the Iranian-controlled Shi’a militias use similar emblems, from Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (“Movement of the Party of God’s Nobles” and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”) to Iraq’s al-Hashd ash-Sha’abi (“Popular Mobilisation Forces”). Below is a comparison of the Hezbollah and Sabireen logos.
Local Palestinian civilians have been accusing the group of trying to promote Shi’ism in the Gaza strip for some time. Damningly, Islamic Jihad claims that Salem was expelled from the group (as opposed to leaving) for beginning to promote “sectarian strife” in the Gaza strip. The guiding hand of Tehran and lucrative financial support feels omnipresent.
Salem purposefully fails to divulge his own religious views, describing himself as leaving PIJ due to “differences in views”, and believing in “Islamic Unity”. The IRGC symbols are a “coincidence” yet the “historic Iranian support” to Palestinians is significant.
When asked why the videos on his YouTube page are all Shi’a-themed, Salem claims that he was merely coincidentally talking about “two incidents” – two incidents that happen to be hugely divisive for both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and have been used by Shi’a militias to justify atrocities against Sunnis as “revenge“.
In step with the Iranian regime’s hostile anti-American rhetoric, the group describes the US as “producing terrorists”; a frequent piece of conspiratorial rhetoric that regularly appears in Iranian controlled media outlets, claiming Da’esh is a US invention designed to undermine the glorious “Islamic Republic”. Slamming Saudi Arabia as the cause of “sectarian strife”, a common Khomeneist theme, is also a hobby.
This mirrors baseless statements of other Iranian proxy groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah, which once accused the US of dropping supplies to Da’esh and ludicrously claimed to have shot down two British planes doing the same, as well as ostentatiously cavorting on the Saudi borders with heavy weapons after the execution of Nimr al-Nimr. The Houthi slogan of “Death to America” also comes to mind.
Interestingly, Harakat al-Sabireen ambiguously pledged its intention to wage war against the Israeli occupation “everywhere”. The Iranian regime regularly portrays the deployment of IRGC controlled militias to Syria under the pretext of “fighting Israel”. It seems as if the group has deliberately refused to limit its operations to one part of the region; should it ever appear in Syria it would be able to claim that the involvement was part of the fight against “Zionists“.
The primary attraction of the group appears to not be ideology, but money and disillusionment with the larger and more popular Palestinian resistance factions. One of the group’s main leaders is Sheikh Abdallah al-Shami, a former senior PIJ figure who was also expelled. Al-Monitor’s source claims “dozens” of former Islamic Jihad members who were either sacked or grew disillusioned have joined.
The pro-Israel crethiplethi site claims that the group is recruiting former and current members of Mahmoud Abbas’ forces. Known for love of money rather than for idealism, Abbas’ men are easy prey for the movement; “scores” have joined. Palestinians attracted by the lucrative salaries have also signed up; $250-$300 a month for foot soldiers and $700+ for commanders. Not much by western standards, but a fortune in the impoverished Gaza strip, and a welcome cash hand-out for the corrupt.
Iranian weapons are also flowing into the mix; the group has received Iranian Steyr HS.50 sniper rifles, Fajr missiles, and more. Salem has promised to demonstrate his group’s “size, equipment and potential”.
A Game-Changing Organisation?
Despite the rhetoric of the group, the impressive array of support given by Iran, and the influx of fighters from all manner of much larger Palestinian groups, the Sabireen movement is largely an irrelevant force on the ground.
The group is completely unable to appeal to the majority of the Palestinian population despite having cells in both Gaza and the West Bank; Twelver Shi’ism is not a popular topic throughout Palestine, especially given the deep sympathy felt by the general Palestinian population for the Syrians, Iraqis and other peoples oppressed by Iranian backed or controlled regimes.
Added to this fact, Palestine has no native Shi’a population; attempting to build up a popular Shi’a militia that resembles a mirror image of Hezbollah or any number of notorious Iranian “special groups” is bound to result in disgust from the majority. In turn this outcry will result in Hamas curtailing the group’s activities.
It already seems to be attempting to confine the group. Before the group was even created, Salem’s “charity” organisation al-Baqiyat al-Salihat (heavily financed by Iran) was shut down by Hamas in April 2011 for promoting conversion to Shi’ism. In July 2015 it was even reported that Hamas had banned the group, although this seems inaccurate.
As a force on the ground, even Hamas seems to have realised that the group currently has little worth. Hamas official Atef Adwan refused to “overdramatize the matter”, simply because the group has too few members and very little outreach; it poses no threat to what he called the “giant organizations that fill the scene.”
It is no surprise that Sabireen will gain some members in Gaza, and some people may pretend to convert to Iran’s extreme interpretation of Twelver Shi’ism (after all, people have mouths to feed) but this will remain an insignificant number of Gazans. Careerists are also in no shortage.
Iranian officials must know that such a shamelessly sectarian group must have no ability to gain popular support; in fact, they seem to have designed it to do anything but. The group seems to have been created to be as conspicuously divisive as possible; its bark is meant to be much more important than its bite (which so far has been restricted to one or two ineffective attacks and reconnaissance missions against IDF forces).
The group seems to be a bogeyman designed to scare Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups; a reminder to them that if they don’t follow Iran’s line, Iran is already in the process of creating a group that will. A group that may not be big enough to confront Israel, but could well sow sedition among Hamas’ enclaves and make their territory ungovernable. A group that will recruit malcontents and mercenaries that know their organisations from the inside, and could easily use it to help Iran to undermine them.
In short, for now Harakat al-Sabireen should be seen as a public relations exercise; an attempt by the Iranian regime to create the literal Shi’a bogeyman next door to frighten Sunni groups and gain a foothold in Gaza through the spread of chaos, sectarianism and strife. Conditions in which Iranian influence is strongest.
As Phillip Smyth pointed out, the same was once said about Lebanon’s Amal Movement (which has grown immensely), so the possibility of growth cannot be ruled out. But Palestine’s demographics are simply against the movement; short of a large minority of Palestinians converting to Shi’ism, the group will remain obscure. But worth watching nonetheless, and more than capable of being a potent force to wield against other factions.