Hamas brutally assaults Shi'ite worshippers in Gaza

Jerusalem, Israel - Armed Hamas men broke into a gathering of some 30 Shi'ite worshippers in the Gaza Strip last Friday and brutally attacked them, Haaretz has learned.

The assault was part of a broader crackdown on Shi'ite organizations, including charities, that has been sparked in part by Hamas' fear of growing Iranian influence in Gaza.

The worshippers had gathered in a house in the Sheikh Zayyad neighborhood, between Beit Lahia and Jabalya, to mark Arbaeen, the end of the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, founder of Shia Islam, who was killed in 680 C.E.

Hamas militants arrested 14 of the men and beat up the rest. They continued beating the worshippers even after taking some to a hospital and others to a Hamas detention facility.

One Gazan, Rafik Hamad, told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that a senior security official called him at about 10 P.M. on Friday to tell him that his brother was under arrest at the Sheikh Zayyad police station. At the station, he found his brother suffering from fractures in his arms and legs and other serious injuries.

Hamad accused the Hamas government of persecuting Shi'ite believers.

"The police said my brother was a heretic and asked me to keep him at home and not let him out," he said.

The Hamas-run government is convinced that Iran is expanding its influence in Gaza by means of Islamic Jihad.

Gazan sources told Haaretz that Islamic Jihad now contains a group of converts to Shia Islam. The group is led by Iyad al-Hosni, also a convert, who was ousted from Islamic Jihad but recently reinstated, probably under Iranian pressure: Islamic Jihad's leadership visited Iran two months ago, and afterward, al-Hosni was appointed a senior officer in its military wing.

Some of the men arrested on Friday issued a statement on Sunday urging Iran to stop funding Hamas due to its persecution of Shi'ites.

Tehran has already reduced its support for Hamas, among other things because Hamas has refused to support embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Becoming Shi'ite is a growing trend in the Gaza Strip: Hundreds of Sunnis, both Islamic Jihad activists and ordinary people, are known to have converted.