Hezbollah has long provided Palestinian armed factions with training and with logistical and financial support. Hezbollah former military commander Imad Mughniyeh began his career as Yasser Arafat’s bodyguard. Because of his relationships with the Palestinian leadership, Mughniyeh would go on to become Hezbollah’s—and, by extension, Iran’s—most significant point of contact with various Palestinian factions. Many of the groups, such as Hamas’s Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, credited Mughniyeh with their warfighting expertise.
On Hezbollah’s orders, Mughniyeh also worked to upgrade the Palestinian armed factions’ tactical warfare capabilities, created specialized units—including infantry, engineering, sniper, anti-tank, and rocket units—and organized their fighting formations for war against Israel.
Iran—through Hezbollah—has clearly made Palestinian factions more belligerent and lethal. The following six sections detail Iranian military assistance to different Palestinian groups.
Over the last 20 years, Fatah’s military relationship with Iran has consisted primarily of backchannel communications and weapons smuggling through Hezbollah so that Fatah could maintain plausible deniability before Western audiences.
Hezbollah and Iran used Imad Mughniyeh for backdoor communications with Yasser Arafat after they officially broke relations upon the signing of the Oslo Accords. Mughniyeh was particularly interested in Arafat’s ability to import thousands of gunmen and their light weapons into the West Bank and Gaza. According to al-Akhbar, Mughniyeh also began laying the groundwork for the Second Intifada years before its outbreak in 2000. He set about establishing contacts with Fatah’s leadership in Tunisia and the Palestinian territories to establish a plan of action to carry out attacks against Israel.
Mughniyeh also moved to unify the ranks of the Palestinian factions under the auspices of Hezbollah. In 1998, Israel allowed all PLO member organizations to enter Gaza to participate in a Palestinian National Council session. Mughniyeh seized this opportunity to bring Fatah members who worked with Hezbollah into Gaza as well. At the time, and with Arafat’s approval, Fatah fighters were linked up with Hezbollah in Lebanon, especially those factions that supported continuing the armed struggle against Israel.
That same year, Mughniyeh soon began transferring arms from Lebanon to the territories, smuggling small amounts of rifles in Arafat’s car and presidential plane, and also via the Jordanian border overland into the West Bank. Mughniyeh also discovered a sea current from the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza that he used to move barrels laden with weapons to the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah also increased the amount and variety of weapons sent to the Palestinian factions, including explosive devices and detonators transferred from Lebanon and Syria.
Weeks after Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000, Arafat wrote to Mughniyeh, expressing his desire to ignite another Intifada in the West Bank. Arafat had earlier instructed Fatah’s cadres to “work quietly and calmly [with Hezbollah]” and that he “[didn’t] want your activities discovered.”To give Arafat plausible deniability, he did not want to be told details of Fatah’s cooperation with Hezbollah. Arafat also instructed close Fatah officials to move to Tunisia to ease their communication with Hezbollah. He also instructed Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to cooperate with Mughniyeh, who in turn sent a group of “resistance fighters” to work with the Brigades. Al-Aqsa operatives admit that Hezbollah began making offers of assistance to them from early in the Intifada, and recruited several of the Brigades’ operatives.
Mughniyeh also established Unit 1800 within Hezbollah, tasked with executing attacks against Israeli targets abroad, as well as providing logistical, media, cultural, and economic support to the intifada. Unit 1800 in turn spawned Hezbollah’s “Special Research Apparatus”—Mughniyeh’s own fiefdom within Hezbollah—which recruited Hebrew-speaking Palestinians to spy on the Israelis. According to Israeli military intelligence, Mughniyeh and his Hezbollah apparatus were Iran’s main conduit for recruiting Palestinians for training in Lebanon or Iran.
According to Shin Bet estimates, Hezbollah was involved in 21 percent of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel in 2004 and in 2005 Hezbollah funded 90 percent of the attacks carried out by Fatah’s Tanzim faction. According to one Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades operative in Nablus, Hezbollah provided his local group with $8,000 a month to purchase weapons and ammunition.
Israel tried repeatedly to disrupt Hezbollah’s funding to the Palestinians, starting a few months after Ariel Sharon became prime minister in 2001. Sharon met with Major General Meir Dagan and asked him to set up a new counter terror body within the prime minister’s office, code-named “Harpoon,” to disrupt Iranian and Hezbollah funding to Arafat and other Palestinian factions.
The “Karine A” incident is perhaps the most notorious of Iran and Hezbollah’s attempts to arm the Palestinians during the Second Intifada. Fouad Shoubaki, the head of the PA General Security’s financial directorate and a close Arafat confidante, organized the ship’s voyage, with Mughniyeh and Hezbollah facilitating the effort.
According to pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar, Adel Mughrabi, the primary purchasing agent in the Palestinian Arms Procurement Apparatus, contacted Hezbollah and the Iranians in October 2000 to aid the PA in carrying out a huge weapons-smuggling operation. According to the Israelis, in exchange for these weapons, the PA would have allowed the IRGC to establish a foothold in Gaza and the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority purchased the Karine-A in Lebanon in late August 2001. It sailed from Lebanon to Sudan, where it spent 12 days. From there, the ship sailed to Hodeida in Yemen, where some of its cargo was offloaded. It was then loaded with weapons hidden in 180 tons of rice and other goods totaling $3 billion, and set off for Dubai. It finally reached Iran’s port of Kish on December 11, 2001. There, it was loaded with weapons for which Hezbollah intermediaries paid Iran $15 million. Hezbollah members prepared the weapons to be smuggled to the PA but Israel intercepted the Karine A ship in the Red Sea.
In addition to weapons smuggling, Mughniyeh tried to ease Israeli pressure on the Palestinian factions and Arafat during the intifada. He sought to provoke the Israelis to cross the Lebanese border, including by aiding a March 12, 2002 Palestinian Islamic Jihad attack launched from Lebanon on the northern Israeli town of Shlomi, killing five Israeli civilians and one soldier.
Ties between Fatah and Iran have deteriorated in recent years, particularly following the death of Arafat and Mughniyeh. Mahmoud Abbas’s more moderate leadership of Fatah and the PA and Iran’s continued support of Fatah rivals like Hamas have also weakened the relationship.
In late 2017, Redwan al-Akhras, a member of Fatah’s Legislative Council, accused Iran of being the source of the tensions between Hamas and Fatah, saying Tehran had “interests in ensuring the failure of [ongoing] reconciliation [talks between the two groups].”Later, Azzam al-Ahmad—the head of Fatah’s reconciliation talks with Hamas, and a member of Fatah’s Central Council—blamed Iran and its proxy Palestinian Islamic Jihad for intra-Palestinian disunity, calling Tehran “the number one sponsor of division.” He even said, “[I]t seems that one of the conditions of the resumption of Iranian aid [to Hamas] is the continuation of the division.”
As late as June 2018, Fatah’s official spokesman, Osama al-Qawasmi, said Iran “had not given a single cent to the Palestinian people.” He added, “Not a single Palestinian has seen or heard of Iranian support at all. We have not seen or heard of Iran trying to build a school, university, or hospital, or any development project. If some Iranians think that their support for a particular party constitutes support for the Palestinian people, that’s a big mistake. Iran, by supporting Hamas, is not supporting the Palestinian people at all.”
Iran and Hezbollah’s efforts to create more radical splinters within Fatah paid off in September 2000, with the founding of the so-called Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) by Jamal Ataya Abu Samhadana. The PRC was a coalition of armed factions opposed to Arafat and Fatah’s perceived conciliatory approach towards Israel. The PRC is the third-strongest Palestinian faction in Gaza, behind Hamas and PIJ, and has repeatedly tried and failed to gain a foothold in the West Bank. Reports indicate Hezbollah has given the PRC funding and arms—specifically missiles, rockets, and bomb-manufacturing capabilities.
The PRC does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and opposes any diplomatic talks or political and security arrangements with Israel. Echoing Hezbollah, the PRC sees comprehensive resistance as the only method to liberate all of historical Palestine.
Abu Samhadana led the PRC until his assassination by Israel in 2006. PRC’s inaugural cadres were primarily former Fatah and Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades operatives, but also included former Hamas, PIJ, and PFLP militants. Its military arm is the “Al-Nasser Salahuddin Brigades (NSB).”
Yasser Arafat initially gave limited support to the PRC’s armed activities to use them as a political pressure point against the Israelis, but he PA soon cut off funding. Abu Samhadana initiated contact with Hezbollah’s leadership in Lebanon, which agreed to provide military assistance to the NSB, including improvised explosive devices and anti-armor missiles. Abu Samhadana drew inspiration from Hezbollah and wanted to emulate in the Palestinian territories the group’s successes against Israel in south Lebanon.
The NSB cooperated with Hezbollah’s cadres in charge of supporting the intifada. Hezbollah helped the NSB develop its missile and bomb-manufacturing capabilities, and later supplied the NSB with Russian-made Grad rockets, which the NSB fired on Beersheba in 2004 and 2005. By 2002, with Hezbollah-provided expertise, the NSB began producing weapons in Gaza.
The PRC began its militant activities during the Second Intifada, carrying out mortar and rocket attacks against Israel’s Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza and Israeli communities in the Negev. The PRC also specialized in roadside bombings and carried out IED attacks against Israeli tanks and armored vehicles. The PRC is also suspected of responsibility for an October 2003 roadside bomb attack in Gaza against a U.S. diplomatic convoy, killing three American security guards. The PRC also participated—together with Hamas’ Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades—in a 2006 attack during which the groups captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The NSB also abducted and murdered Israeli student Eliahu Asheri in 2006, hours after Shalit’s kidnapping.
In recent years, tensions have grown between the PRC/NSB Hezbollah and Iran over Tehran’s regional adventurism. In a 2016 video, a masked NSB gunman condemned “polytheist Iran” for “rallying its fighters from the corners of the Earth” to kill Sunnis in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
A year prior, however, PRC spokesman Abu Mujahid condemned Israel’s assassination of Jihad Mughniyeh and other Hezbollah operatives in Quneitra in an interview with pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar. Abu Mujahid stated that the PRC had been in constant contact “with our brothers in the Islamic Resistance (Hezbollah) and the brothers in the Islamic Republic of Iran, during, and after” the 50-day war between Israel and Gaza’s militant factions during the summer of 2014. He added that Hezbollah and Iran continued providing “both military and material support” to the PRC during that time.
More recently, on November 13, 2018, Abu Mujahid thanked “our allies in Hezbollah and Iran” for their help in the wake of a heightened round of violence between Israel and armed Palestinian factions in Gaza.
Hamas has been Iran’s most important Palestinian partner for over two decades. Hamas’ military ties with Tehran have involved intelligence sharing, provision of arms, organizing, and training—all through Hezbollah. The Iranian regime has also publicly and vociferously supported Hamas’ armed struggle against Israel.
Hezbollah cemented its relationship with Hamas in 1992 after Israel expelled 400 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants to Lebanon, where they honed their military skills at what they called “Hezbollah University.” Hezbollah established a camp for them at Marj al-Zuhur and provided them with extensive military training, with the assistance of Iranian intelligence and the direct involvement of the IRGC’s Ali Reza Askar. The training included instruction in carrying out suicide bombings and making car bombs and other explosive devices. The most prominent graduate of Hezbollah University was Hamas’ master bomb-maker, Yahya Ayyash, aka “the Engineer.”
In December of 1993, the exiled Palestinians returned to the West Bank and Gaza, and in less than a year they carried out a string of attacks that killed almost 100 Israelis. These returnees formed a network Hezbollah activated to cripple Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives. From his hiding place in the Gaza Strip, Ayyash directed numerous suicide bombings until Israel assassinated him in 1996. Hezbollah and Iran’s connections with Hamas allowed them to control the tempo of violence between the Israel and the Palestinians.
During the late 1990s, Khaled Mashaal coordinated Hamas’ ties with IRGC intelligence. Despite strident overtures from Hezbollah and Tehran, however, Hamas otherwise kept its distance from Iran at the insistence of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s co-founder and spiritual leader. After Yassin’s assassination in 2004, though, Hamas began accepting other aid from Iran and Hezbollah, including funds and logistical support.
Hezbollah’s efforts to support Palestinian armed groups continued after the Second Intifada. According to al-Akhbar, Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh visited Gaza after Israel’s 2005 Disengagement, meeting with ‘resistance’ leaders, inspecting rocket production facilities and launch pads, and establishing contact with Hamas’ tunnel operatives. After Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel, Mughniyeh, with Iran’s approval, returned to Gaza and spent months there training Palestinian factions in rocket warfare.
Relations between Hamas and Iran cooled for several years in the early 2010s after the onset of the Syrian civil war, during which the Iranian and Syrian regimes fought Sunni opposition groups. Despite that dynamic, Iran was indispensable in building up Hamas’ military capabilities during the group’s 2014 war with Israel, and a Hamas delegation then visited Tehran to repair ties. At the time, Musa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of Hamas’ politburo, downplayed the rift, saying “bilateral relations between us and the Islamic Republic of Iran are back on track.”
The Iranians likewise gave that impression, admitting to arming Hamas during the war and stressing the group’s importance in Iran’s fight against Israel. Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s senior foreign policy advisor, confirmed that Iran has supplied most of Hamas’ weapons and steadily built-up the group’s arms-manufacturing capacity—a claim seconded by Hamas' own leadership. Hamas and Hezbollah also restored ties and after Yahya al-Sinwar assumed political command of Hamas and became commander of its Qassam Brigades, relations seem to have returned to their state before the Syrian civil war.
Right before his 2017 election as Hamas’ deputy political chief, Saleh al-Arouri—described by pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen as the “sponsor of reconciliation with Iran and Hezbollah”—visited Iran and met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The discussions reportedly centered on “reconciliation [between Hamas and Iran] and the developments of the struggle against [Israel].”After his election, al-Arouri visited Iran again with a Hamas delegation and met with senior regime officials.
Hamas now appears to have adopted a neutral stance on Sunni-Shiite regional conflicts and focuses on the common ground in combating Israel. During his visit to Iran, al-Arouri—noting the group’s good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran—declared Hamas’ neutrality on all the conflicts dividing the Sunni and Shiite world, including the Syrian civil war. Al-Arouri added, “Palestinian factions which have involved themselves in these conflicts in the past have harmed the Palestinian cause.” He stressed, however, that Hamas’ “strategic relationship” with Iran and Hezbollah was based on a shared commitment to resistance.
Another Palestinian group courted by Iran is Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Iran’s has provided comparably more direct military assistance to PIJ, arming, training, funding, and organizing PIJ operatives, and even directly appointing the group’s leadership.
PIJ was founded by Fathi al-Shaqaqi, while he was a medical student at Egypt’s Zakazik University, and a small group of other Palestinian students. Though they adopted the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, upon their return to the Palestinian territories, they quickly allied with Iran and sought inspiration from its Islamic Revolution. In 1981, they began setting up a network of cells in Gaza. Members of these units were enthusiastic supporters of Khomeini, strengthening the group’s pro-Iranian orientation.
In 1988, Israel expelled Shaqaqi to Lebanon, where the IRGC’s intelligence branch took him under its wing, arranging a work permit and job for him in Damascus and funding him. Having failed to co-opt Hamas due to Yassin’s resistance, Iran viewed Shaqaqi and PIJ as its next best option.
With Iran’s support, PIJ established itself in Damascus and built up its network in the Palestinian territories. Iran also established training bases for PIJ (and Hamas) in Sudan, beginning in the late 1980s. Hezbollah also stepped in to train the nucleus of the al-Quds Brigades, PIJ’s military wing, including Mohammad al-Sheikh Khalil, one of the Brigades’ founders.
PIJ began launching terrorist attacks soon thereafter, including a well-organized February 1990 assault on a bus of Israeli tourists near Cairo; a stabbing attack in the Israeli city of Bat Yam on May 1992; and a 1994 suicide bombing of an Israeli military checkpoint in the Gaza Strip.
After Israel assassinated Shaqaqi in 1995, Iran appointed Ramadan Shalah to replace him. Under Shalah’s leadership, PIJ’s influence waned and it became a full-fledged Iranian puppet.
During the pivotal 2000 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David, Iran decided to resuscitate PIJ from its operational nadir. On the eve of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon that year, Shalah met with Iran’s ambassador in Damascus, who demanded that PIJ carry out attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories, without claiming responsibility. Through Shalah, Iran funneled large sums of funds to PIJ operatives in the West Bank.
Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh also moved to establish ties with Shalah. After Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from south Lebanon, Mughniyeh took Shalah on a tour of the Lebanese-Israeli border, vowing to him that “by God, we will expel [the Israelis]” from all of historical Palestine.
Shalah even credited Mughniyeh with being the first person to smuggle weapons into Gaza from outside the Palestinian territories, and PIJ became a conduit for Hezbollah’s weapons-smuggling activities to the Palestinians. In October 2006, Syrian opposition sources claimed Hezbollah had coordinated an operation with Syrian intelligence to smuggle weapons to Palestinian factions via Jordan. The sources claimed that the operation was arranged by Mughniyeh’s then-deputy Talal Hamiyeh; then-head of Syrian military intelligence Major General Assef Shawkat; and PIJ’s Ziad al-Nakhala (who would be elected as the group’s secretary-general in 2018). The IRGC’s then commander, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, funded and directly oversaw the operation. This came to light shortly after Jordanian officials discovered a similar operation, in 2006, to smuggle weapons to Hamas in Jordan for use in terror attacks against Jordanian officials.
Iran and Hezbollah also built ties with smaller Palestinian groups. In the 1980s, Hezbollah developed a relationship with the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The two executed a joint operation on April 26, 1988, deploying a guerilla unit into Israeli-held territory near Mount Hermon and killing an Israeli infantry battalion commander and tracker.
In some cases, Iran used breakaway factions within existing Palestinian organized groups as its terror proxies. One such faction was the PFLP–General Command (PFLP-GC), a PFLP splinter group based in Lebanon. On July 3, 1987, the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all aboard. In response, Iran used Jibril’s PFLP-GC to strike at American targets in Europe and the U.S., even attempting to murder Sharon Rogers, the wife of Vincennes captain William C. Rogers, by blowing up her car in San Diego on March 10, 1989.
Abolghassem Mesbahi, a former Iranian intelligence official who defected to Germany, claimed that the Pam Am 103 Lockerbie bombing—generally blamed on Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi—was actually ordered by Ayatollah Khomeini “to copy exactly what happened to the Iranian Airbus” and carried out by the PFLP-GC. In Mesbahi’s telling, the Iranians recruited Jibril because of his previous experience of bombing aircraft. Jibril, in turn, assigned the task to Hafez Dalkamoni, who at the time of the bombing had been suspected of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing. Iran has denied any involvement in the bombing, however, and official investigations into the attack squarely blame the Qaddafi regime.
In addition to using local Palestinian groups to spread its influence within Palestinian society, Iran established its own proxy, al-Sabireen. The State Department officially designated Al-Sabireen as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) on December 19, 2017. Al-Sabireen’s rise is generally and erroneously dated to 2014, when the organization announced its existence after the death of one of its operatives—Nizar Said Issa, initially thought to belong to PIJ—in an accidental explosion. However, the organization itself claims to have been active for years beforehand. Indeed, Al-Bakiyat El-Salehat Society Palestine (ABSSP) – its charitable arm – was established in the Gaza Strip in 2004, with Hisham Salem as its chairman.
In addition to operating in the Palestinian territories, Iran tries to spread its influence in the Palestinian diaspora, particularly in Lebanon, with the goal of radicalizing Palestinians and—in some cases—using them for propaganda purposes against Arab countries.
Iran uses direct and direct means to sway diaspora Palestinians. Tehran’s embassy in Beirut, for example, operates as the Islamic Republic’s conduit into the Palestinian diaspora in Lebanon. Iran also operates indirectly in the midst of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon via proxies. One of these is the “Council of Palestine Scholars in Lebanon,” which has an explicitly pro-Iranian and Khomeinist orientation. The Council is hostile to traditional Sunni Arab states, accusing them of “abandoning and selling out Palestine,” and condemning them for carrying out wars in Yemen and elsewhere in order to harm “the project of Resistance.” It parrots Iranian and Hezbollah propaganda on Palestine verbatim seemingly as part of the unified message Iran is imposing on Palestinian factions like Hamas. Another Iranian proxy is the Alliance of Palestinian Factions, led by Hassan Zeidan, which also has an explicitly pro-Iranian orientation.