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Hamas quashes armed Shiite movement Sabireen in Gaza

Hamas makes the lion's share of civilian and military decisions in the Gaza Strip, while small movements such as Harakat al-Sabireen are forced to bow to Hamas' power, which is also supported by the Sunni community.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Hamas government’s internal security in the Gaza Strip has released Hisham Salem, secretary general of the armed Harakat al-Sabireen (Movement of Those Who Endure with Patience) in Gaza, after a 17-day detention.

Salem, arrested on Feb. 26, was released on March 10 after members of his movement agreed to hand over their weapons, a Sabireen leader currently residing in Iran told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. The source added that Hamas opposes Sabireen responding with counter missile strikes to the sporadic Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Hamas is hoping to stabilize the truce between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

“Sabireen members failed to abide by Hamas’ orders to maintain the alleged truce with the [Israeli] occupation and to preserve [Hamas'] authority in Gaza. We [Sabireen] fired a number of rockets in response to the occupation killing demonstrators on the Gaza border during the marches of return. This is why we were subject to ongoing arrests and attacks until we handed over our weapons, and we were prevented from carrying out any activity in the Strip,” he said.

The Sabireen source pointed out that Hamas warned Sabireen members against continuing to work in Gaza or taking up arms again after their weapons were confiscated for three consecutive days on March 6, 7 and 8 before Salem’s release.

“We simply ceded our weapons,” the leader added, noting, “We didn't receive any offers to keep on with our work or to integrate us into any other armed faction. Hamas told us that our work was done and that we had to stop."

Although Sabireen adopts Iran’s sectarian approach in Gaza, Tehran did not intervene to prevent Hamas from arresting more than 70 Sabireen members and confiscating their weapons. The source said this was because Palestinian factions close to Iran “ratted the movement out” and accused it of theft.

The Hamas government in Gaza had already banned Sabireen and its activities in Gaza in 2015.

A Sabireen member who was arrested by Hamas’ internal security told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that he and the others were beaten in prison. Some of the prison staff would address them as “the Shiites," he said. Palestinian Muslims are primarily Sunni. He notes, however, that Hamas receives funds and weapons from Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shia.

The conflict between Sabireen and Hamas dates back to the former's founding in 2014 in Gaza. Salem had been a member of the Sunni Palestine Islamic Jihad (also known as PIJ) before defecting and forming Sabireen. Hamas believed the Sabireen movement sought to spread Shiism in Gaza. 

Sabireen has denied any affiliation with Shiism in various press interviews. However, Iran — which had been funding the PIJ — was unhappy with that group's neutrality toward regional conflicts, such as the Yemeni war, and so shifted much of its financial support instead to Sabireen, whose positions were consistent with Iran's sectarian stances.

Hamas has refused to release any information on blocking Sabireen and confiscating its weapons and has not issued any statements on the subject. “The issue is resolved, and we will not discuss it in the media,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor.

Ibrahim al-Madhoun, director of the Palestine Institute for Strategic Studies and a political analyst close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor that the Sunni public in Gaza never accepted Sabireen, as Shiism influences the group to a large extent.

The Sabireen movement includes about 300 members, but there is no information on the number of its followers among the general public.

Madhoun added, “Since the marches of return began, Sabireen has engaged in military action in the absence of national consensus, although the resistance in Gaza is in control of the Palestinian arena militarily. This is why the fact that Sabireen members had weapons without having the consensus [with other factions] was threatening the calm the resistance had imposed in Gaza.”

Even after Hamas had banned Sabireen in June 2015, the latter claimed responsibility for planting explosive devices that harmed an Israeli military patrol that December.

Madhoun pointed out that Sabireen might resume its action in Gaza if it reaches an understanding with Hamas.

“Sabireen had already been banned but resumed activity eventually, and it could happen again," he said.

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