On January 31, the U.S. Department of State designated the Gaza-based Palestinian organization Harakat al-Sabireen Nasiran li-Filasteen (HISN-Movement of the Patient Ones for Palestinian Victory) as a terrorist organization (U.S. Department of State, January 31). HISN is a controversial organization that is believed to be supported directly by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and as result of the reported IRGC support, this Palestinian organization has gained a significant degree of notoriety and infamy within the Arab world (al-Arabiyya [Dubai], February 2; al-Jazeera [Doha], March 15, 2016). The U.S. State Department designation of HISN as a terrorist organization comes at a time when Israeli national security leaders and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are raising concerns that heightened tensions between Israel and Iran could lead to a larger regional war as result of IRGC activities in the “three G’s”—Gaza, the Galilee (northern Israel/southern Lebanon) and the Golan Heights (Haaretz [Jerusalem], March 1; al-Monitor, February 22; Reuters, January 2). Hisham Ashour Salem (a.k.a. Abu Muhammad) is the general secretary of the HISN movement (YouTube, July 1, 2016; YouTube, May 26, 2015).
Hisham Ashour Salem, 47, is a native of the city of Bayt Lahiya. The city, situated in the northern region of Gaza approximately one kilometer (km) from the border with Israel, has been historically fought over by the IDF and Palestinian forces (al-Siyasi [Gaza], February 19, 2016; al-Ayyam [Gaza], October 11, 2015; Haaretz [Jerusalem], September 27, 2012). Salem reportedly established HISN in Bayt Lahiya, where the organization maintains its largest base of support, and where Palestinian opponents of HISN allege that Salem oversaw Basayat al-Salahat, which they assert is an Iranian-backed foundation that sought to conduct Shia proselytizing efforts targeting the local population through social services (al-Masdar [Beirut], March 16, 2016; Sasa Post [Gaza], October 26, 2015; al-Khaleej [Dubai], July 7, 2015). Salem also reportedly taught Islamic education at a private girl’s secondary school in the city of Jabaliyya, 5 km south of Bayt Lahiya (Sasa Post [Gaza], October 26, 2015).
Prior to forming HISN, Salem was a commander within the al-Jihad al-Islami al-Filasteeniya (PIJ-Palestinian Islamic Jihad) movement. His first arrest by the Israelis reportedly occurred in 1991, on the suspicion that the youthful Hisham Salem was a PIJ activist (Sasa Post [Gaza], October 26, 2015). Salem was also reportedly a ranking official in PIJ and a veteran of several operations launched by PIJ against Israeli forces. These activities with PIJ made Salem a person of interest and a high value target for the Israelis before HISN was formed (Sasa Post [Gaza], October 26, 2015; al-Ayyam [Gaza], October 11, 2015). Salem’s father was killed in an Israeli air strike on Bayt Lahiya in 2002, which is believed to have been targeting Hashim Salem (al-Sabireen [Bayt Lahiya], October 29, 2016). Following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, he was arrested by the Israelis on several occasions, and after the announcement of HISN in 2014, he was the target of several assassination attempts, including one that severely wounded him (al-Akhbar [Beirut], December 3, 2016; al-Yaum [Riyadh] February 5, 2016; al-Sabireen [Bayt Lahiya], October 18, 2015). Palestinian sources assert that he is one of the most wanted man in Gaza, and Salem has been arrested by Palestinian authorities in Gaza on multiple occasions (al-Akhbar [Beirut], December 3, 2016; YouTube, October 9, 2015; Mashreq News [Gaza], March 27, 2013).
The Formation of HISN
The existence of HISN was announced in July 2014, after an HISN fighter was killed during fighting with Israeli forces, although some sources in Gaza believe that HISN may have been in development since at least 2011 (al-Jazeera [Doha], July 9, 2015). Salem reportedly left PIJ in 2013, a year before HISN was announced. According to Salem’s own account, one of the motivating factors for the creation of HISN was in response to the November 2012 truce between HAMAS and Israel following more than a week of fierce fighting that killed more than 160 Gazans. According to reports, he sought to create a resistance movement against Israel and to reunite all of the territory of what was once Mandate Era Palestine under the control of the Palestinian people in rejection of the Oslo Accords (YouTube, June 5, 2015; al-Watan Voice [Gaza], June 1, 2014; New York Times, November 23, 2012). The U.S. State Department detailed operations planned or carried out by HISN against Israel, as well as its anti-Americanism, as reasons for listing the group as a terrorist organization (U.S. Department of State, January 31).
Estimates of HISN’s strength vary widely. Some Arab sources estimate that HISN has approximately 3,000 fighters, which would make it an organization on a scale similar to some of the larger, IRGC-backed Iraqi Shia militia groups in the Hashd Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Units) (Sky News Arabia [Abu Dhabi], February 1). Other estimates of HISN’s strength in manpower place it at one-tenth the size of the early estimates—approximately 400 fighters—which would make HISN at best a second-tier actor in Gaza’s array of armed groups (Sasa Post [Gaza], October 26, 2015). Shortly after Salem announced the existence of HISN, the organization attracted vocal opposition, both within Palestine and from the wider Arab world, mainly as a result of HISN’s alleged close association with the IRGC. Palestinian opponents of both Salem and HISN emphasized that he was a PIJ defector who broke with his parent organization because he wanted to spread Shiism in Gaza. Opponents also assert that HISN was a vehicle for Iran to create a new, pliable Palestinian branch of Hezbollah, and to undermine organizations such as HAMAS, which act more as partners than proxies of the IRGC (Arabi 21 [Gaza], April 14, 2016; Ramallah News, May 17, 2015).
Opponents of HISN cite Salem’s frequent arrests by the HAMAS-controlled security services in Gaza, the $10-$12 million in cash and weapons that HISN allegedly received from the IRGC, pamphlets and programs distributed by the social wing of HISN, and reports that Salem’s children and his wife’s family reside in Tehran for their safety, as evidence that HISN is an IRGC proxy (Asharq al-Awsat, December 16, 2016; YouTube, November 23, 2016; Arabi 21 [Gaza], July 6, 2015). Furthermore, HISN’s logo, which features the IRGC and its various Hezbollah affiliates’ trademark arm clutching an AK-47, and the circular calloused mark on Salem’s forehead—some Arab and Palestinian observers believe this mark identifies a devout Shia who uses the turbah (Shia prayer stone)—are taken as signs of Salem’s conversion to Shiism and desire to propagate the sect in Gaza (for examples of the logo and turbah mark, see: al-Sabireen [Bayt Lahiya], February 10). Some of Salem’s own statements in support of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic, and the Iranian-led Resistance Axis, including for the Houthis in Yemen, are taken by his opponents as a sure sign of HISN’s proxy status to the IRGC (YouTube, January 28; al-Kawthar TV [Tehran], December 12, 2017; al-Alam [Tehran], September 28, 2016).
Salem, for his part, is generally careful to position HISN within the Palestinian nationalist resistance movement—as opposed to placing his group in the vanguard of the IRGC’s global Islamic Revolution. Likewise, he is careful to make deferential and respectful statements toward HAMAS and PIJ, and to emphasize that HISN admires Iran because he views Iran, starting with the Ayatollah Khomeini, to be at the forefront of the struggle to liberate Palestine (al-Akhbar [Beirut], December 3, 2016; YouTube, September 28, 2016; YouTube, June 5, 2015). Despite the charges that Salem is the IRGC’s man in Gaza, and that HISN is Iran’s favorite vehicle for influence in Palestine, the IRGC continues to maintain HAMAS and PIJ as its partners in order to apply strategic pressure on Israel via stronger Palestinian organizations than HISN (Reuters, January 2). HAMAS and PIJ may also be constrained in their ability to act too forcefully against Salem and HISN, in order to manage their relationships with Iran and maintain or renew the IRGC’s support for them (al-Masdar [Beirut], May 3, 2016; al-Bawabwa, February 19).
Salem, despite his reported connections to the IRGC, remains a relatively minor figure within the security and socio-political structure that governs and administers Gaza. He is also a commander who faces frequent and credible threats against his life, and as a result of the heightened and prolonged tensions caused by a possible Israeli-Iranian war that would include Gaza as a theater of conflict, these threats against him are not likely to subside. If Salem did in fact convert to Shia Islam, and his movement is in fact a vehicle for the IRGC to build a socio-political and military organization independent of HAMAS and PIJ in Gaza, including a local base of support for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s wilayat al-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent) governance, the threats against him from competing Palestinian actors could also increase. However, the demographic base of support—a sizable and powerful Twelver Shia community, or a sectarian community that could develop a movement that would accept the wilayat al-faqih system that would facilitate the IRGC’s influence operations—does not exist in Gaza. Salem would therefore be expected to build not a Shia-based constituency for the IRGC, but a resistance narrative-based constituency, which to date is how he has approached his rhetoric and HISN’s relationships with HAMAS and PIJ.
Salem’s future power in Gaza, and his physical and not just his political survival, is likely to depend on the degree to which the IRGC is invested in protecting him and the HISN movement for the IRGC’s future use. Although both HAMAS and the PIJ are currently the IRGC’s partners, there have been periods of tension in the IRGC’s relationship with both organizations that could make cultivating a direct proxy in Gaza, such as potentially HISN led by Hashim Salem, useful. This has been the approach that the IRGC has utilized in Iraq, developing a number of partner and proxy organizations in order not to be dependent on just one, and this could also be the approach the IRGC takes, on a smaller scale, toward Gaza.