Out of the Palestinian unity deal forged between Hamas and Fatah earlier this month, a new splinter has formed. Hesn is a shadowy Iran-backed jihadist faction in the Gaza Strip. The group’s name is an acronym for Harakat as-Sabeereen Nasran li-Filastin, or “The Movement of the Patient Ones for the Liberation of Palestine.”
Hesn (or hosn) means “fortification” or “bulwark.” The implication is that the traditional Palestinian factions have gone weak in the knees. And for these Iran-backed fighters, one can understand why they believe this is so. The Fatah faction, since Mahmoud Abbas took over in 2005, has disavowed violence against Israel. Hamas, after the fall of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt last year, has been severely weakened – both economically and politically – which has curbed its appetite for violence. And now, after the formation of the unity government, even the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is vacillating between an outright campaign of violence and supporting the current fragile calm in the name of Palestinian nationalism.
Vacuums don’t last long in the Middle East. Hesn’s emergence is a case in point. But it’s too soon to tell whether the group will have an impact.
For one thing, Hesn has not been around for very long. The first clues of the group’s existence came in late May, in the northern Gaza refugee camp of Jabaliya, when a funeral was held for a Nizar Saeed Issa. The details surrounding Issa’s death are fuzzy, but it was reported that he died after suffering injuries related to an unspecified explosion.
Issa’s death garnered a substantial amount of support on social media platforms such as Facebook. That is when flags and photos bearing his image appeared alongside the newly created symbol of Hesn. The symbol is the same wielded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Hezbollah. Iran has not claimed ownership of this group. It appears clear, however, that Hesn is yet another proxy group in Iran’s violent orbit.
After Issa’s death, sources indicated that Hisham al Salem is the group’s current leader. Formerly a commander of the military wing of PIJ, the Quds Force Brigades, al Salem has now confirmed to a Gaza journalist from Al Monitor that he was “one of the prominent leaders” of Hesn, and that he had formed the predominantly Shiite group as a way to continue the resistance against Israel during the pause in violence, however informal and tenuous, prompted by the reconciliation agreement.
Al Salem has figured prominently in the Shiite movement in Gaza for years. His name came up a few years ago as the chairman of a now-defunct Shiite charity called al-Baqiyat al Salihat society, based in Jabaliya, the same city where Issa was killed. The charity was purportedly a vehicle to spread Shiite Islam on behalf of Iran in Gaza’s nearly homogenous Sunni society. Amid its deteriorating ties with Iran over the Syrian civil war, the Hamas government in Gaza dismantled the Iranian-backed organization in 2011.
In the Al Monitor interview, al Salem was quick to downplay his alleged sectarian leanings, stressing that he sees “no reason to separate as Sunnis and Shiites.” Al Salem has made a name for himself in Gaza as an outspoken advocate for Shiism, however, which has led to friction with PIJ figures, who accuse him of spreading ‘sectarian strife.’
Perhaps for these reasons, Hesn now appears to be in the crosshairs of Hamas. The Facebook page for Hesn featuring the group’s logo and links to Shiite forums is now defunct, ostensibly taken down by an adversary or removed for the group’s protection.
But this does not mean that the group has dissolved. Al Salem claims the group has a shura council and an armed wing, although he did not reveal their numbers. Al Salem also did not elaborate on their overall mission in his interview with Al Monitor, apart from saying that the objective is “resistance.”
While the group remains murky, its very existence is a sign that Iran is not prepared to allow for quiet in the Palestinian territories, even as Hamas and Fatah seek time and space to solidify their fragile unity arrangement. This serves only to underscore Iran’s goals in the Palestinian arena. Instead of heeding the will of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians who support the efforts to re-forge a unified national identity after years of fracturing, Iran appears intent to push the Palestinians into conflict with Israel – or even themselves.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (Washington, DC). Grant Rumley is an analyst currently based in Jerusalem.