Monday, March 06, 2006

Palestinian Shi'ites

The Jerusalem Post reports on Palestinian concerns about a new Shi'ite group that has appeared in the Occupied Territories. Muhammad Ghawanmeh, the group's founder, is a former Islamic Jihad leader, and says his ultimate goal is Muslim unity, while his immediate goal is to build a Shi'ite mosque in Ramallah. Hamas, however, is concerned:
"PA and Hamas officials told The Jerusalem Post that Iran or Hizbullah were most likely behind the group. 'The timing of the establishment of the new group is very suspicious,' said a top Hamas official here. 'It appears that some parties are trying to replace Hamas or compete with it.'

"A PA security official said he did not understand how a Shi'ite group could operate in the West Bank and Gaza Strip 'where we don't have even one Shi'ite.' All the Muslims living in the PA-controlled areas are Sunnis.

"Many Palestinians expressed fear on Sunday that the presence of a Shi'ite group in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could lead to a similar situation as in Iraq, where Shi'ites and Sunnis appear to be on the verge of civil war.

"The security official said both Iran and Hizbullah were now trying to establish new contacts in the Palestinian territories because of Hamas's preoccupation with running the affairs of the Palestinians after its victory in the January 25 parliamentary election. Their fear, he added, is that Hamas would be forced, under international pressure, to halt its terrorist attacks after taking control over the Palestinian Authority."

I really doubt the fears expressed by these officials. For one thing, Iran should have little interest in creating a rival to Hamas, of which it is a major supporter anyway. Seriously, this is the first sign I've seen which suggests any problems in their relations. Secondly, Angry Arab claims there are Palestinian Shi'ites, and claims otherwise probably represent nothing more than the common tendency of Sunnis and Shi'ites to underestimate the each others' numbers.

That Shi'ites are in some way catspaws of Iran is a common prejudice against them in the Arab world, and these Palestinian concerns are probably no different. I'm also intrigued by Angry Arab's comment that this new group seems to be interested in winning converts, which may trouble Hamas in some way - I don't know enough about their religious ideas to say for sure. Furthermore, any new movement which might make a claim for foreign funding has the potential to set up a new patronage network which challenges the existing power holders, Fatah as well as Hamas. Until I see stronger evidence to the contrary, I'm inclined to take this group as just another Palestinian faction.


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