Shiite Militancy Makes Inroads in Sunni Gaza

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 24

Dr. Fathi Shaqaqi, founder of the Islamic Jihad Organization in Palestine.

Recent years have witnessed an increase in Iranian activity in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Gaza. These activities have had military, political, economic, and religious effects in the region. This article will present the Gaza Strip as an example of Shiite Iran’s increased religious influence in the area. Though Gaza’s population is over 99% Sunni Muslim and tends to be generally hostile to Shiites, Iran’s missionary activity presents a challenge to the Hamas government.

The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah marked a turning point in the attitudes of Sunni Muslims in Gaza toward Shiites. Many people expressed admiration of Hezbollah and its Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah.  The Hezbollah leader’s political legitimacy grew in the Arab world, with many Sunnis preferring to ignore the fact he is a Shiite cleric. Over time, this admiration led a number of people to convert to Shi’ism despite the disapproval of Sunni schools of jurisprudence.  Moreover, some converts began to display their Shi’ism proudly.

Feelings of pride in a long-awaited Arab victory over Israel were mixed with an uncertain attitude toward the Shi’a fighters who had achieved it. In Egypt there were reports of preachers being assaulted after praying for Hezbollah and describing their victory as “a triumph for all Muslims,” while some Egyptian publications warned of the “real danger” that Egypt and other Sunni countries might experience mass conversions to Shi’ism (al-Ahram Weekly, October 19-25, 2006).

The phenomenon of Iranian penetration into the Gaza Strip began in the 1980s when Dr. Fathi Shaqaqi established the Islamic Jihad Organization in Palestine (IJOP – Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami fi Filastin). A pro-Iranian orientation became the hallmark of the IJOP, which is thought to receive the majority of its funding from Iran.  The financial aid comes in the form of "charities" operating in the Gaza Strip such as al-Ahsan and the Fathi Shaqaqi Forum. [1]

The main role of such organizations is to secretly transfer money, organize festivals to mark the Iranian revolution, distribute food, provide scholarships to study in Iran and transport the wounded for treatment in Iran via Jordan.  Although none of these groups talk openly about converting Palestinians to Shi’ism, this is actually one of their main purposes.

The phenomenon began in the early 1980s with the infiltration of Iranian influence into the Gaza Strip and West Bank.  At first, the number of people who converted to Shiism was negligible. But after the Hezbollah-Israel war of 2006, the phenomenon began to expand as hundreds of Palestinians proudly announced their conversion to Shiism. These converts engage in a variety of activities, such as establishing a political movement, setting up websites and building Hussainia, an activity completely contrary to the Sunni faith as normally practiced in Gaza. [2]

A senior Hamas official, Dr. Khalil al-Hayya, has acknowledged Iran’s “political and material support” for Hamas, but added that the movement welcomes support of “the resistance of our people from any party, one the one condition that such support does not have any political price. We do not accept any interference in our politics” (al-Qassam, January 23, 2010).

Despite its Sunni orientation, the Hamas government in Gaza is getting support from Iran in the form of funding and weapons. [3] Consequently, the government finds itself in a very serious conflict concerning these converts and their activities in Gaza.   On the one hand, if Hamas plays a strong hand against Sunni converts to Shiism and their activities, Iran will consider such a position as anti-Iranian. On the other hand, if Hamas does nothing, it risks contradicting its customary interpretation of Sunni Islam with the danger it might provoke harsh reactions from conservative Sunni countries.

Therefore, Hamas is trying to deal with the problem in a discreet way. Ahmed Yousef, political adviser to Gaza’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, recently said that there are no Shiites in Gaza, but only a sense of empathy and solidarity with Iran and Hezbollah (AFP, April 6).

Under the surface, however, Hamas is trying to fight this phenomenon by closing organizations suspected to be Shiite centers and arresting people suspected of preaching in favor of conversion to Shiism.  In early April a Hamas security unit entered the office of the al-Baqiyat al-Salihat Islamic Society in North Gaza, ordered the staff out and shut it down. The security team then did the same to the Fathi Shaqaqi Forum office (alaahd.com, April 7; Mezan.org, April 7).

Years of charitable activities in Gaza supported by Iran have led indirectly to sympathy for the Shiite concept and identification with Hezbollah and the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (Revolutionary Guards). This penetration has had a strong effect on the Palestinian population in Gaza. Although conversion to Shiism  is not occurring in large numbers, this phenomenon  concerns  many Sunni Muslims around the  world at a time when Sunni-Shiite tensions are on the rise, and is  particularly troubling  to  the Hamas government,  which  cannot  "bite the hand that feeds it ".

Notes:

1. http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/js2426.aspx  
2. A Hussainia is a congregation hall for Shiite ritual ceremonies, especially those associated with the Remembrance of Muharram.
3. U.S. Department of State: Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2008/122436.htm