Sunday, March 05, 2006

Competition for Hamas? From Shi'ites?

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.

Hamas officials, 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.

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