The Palestinian Authority security forces are investigating whether Iran
, Hizbullah or al-Qaida
are behind a new Shi'ite group that has been operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the past few days.
Called the Higher Shi'ite Council, the group is headed by Muhammad Ghawanmeh, a former Islamic Jihad official from the West Bank. Ghawanmeh was close to Islamic Jihad secretary-general Fathi Shikaki, who was reportedly assassinated in Malta in 1996 by Mossad agents.
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, upon learning of the new Shi'ite group, expressed deep concern and called for an investigation to establish who is behind the initiative.
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.
Leaflets distributed by Hamas and Fatah militias on Sunday threatened to thwart the attempt by a Shi'ite group to establish power bases in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We already have too many groups and militias in Palestine," said one leaflet. "There's no room for another one, especially a Shi'ite council."
According to a Hamas official in Gaza City, the reports about the presence of a Shi'ite group is "very disturbing and could have catastrophic repercussions on the Palestinians." Ghawanmeh, a Sunni, said he became a believer in the Shi'ite sect after spending some 20 years in an Israeli prison with Lebanese Shi'ite prisoners. He claimed that his council had many followers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that they had all abandoned the Sunni sect.
Ghawanmeh explained that the new group would work toward enhancing relations with Iran, Hizbullah and the Shi'ites in Iraq. "Our objective is to unite the Muslim world," he added. "Our Shi'ite brothers in Egypt have already established their own group there and we are all working together."
In response to a question about the timing of the establishment of the new Shi'ite council, Ghawanmeh denied that his group was planning to challenge Hamas. He said the timing was related to growing threats against Iran and Hizbullah by the US and Israel.
He admitted that his group was in touch with Iran, but denied receiving financial aid from the Teheran government.
He also admitted that his group was linked to "Shi'ite elements" in Lebanon, but did not mention Hizbullah by name.
Some PA officials said they did not rule out the possibility that the new group was linked to al-Qaida, but Ghawanmeh has sought to distance himself from the Osama bin Laden and his followers.
"I disagree with al-Qaida on many issues," he said. "I'm opposed to the killing of innocent people and the destruction of mosques in Iraq." He said his immediate plan was to build a Shi'ite mosque in Ramallah.