A key ideological pillar of the Islamic Republic of Iran is its struggle to “liberate” the Muslim lands of Palestine and the holy city of Jerusalem from what it disparagingly refers to as the illegitimate “Zionist Regime.” To help achieve these ends, Iran has supported Palestinian terrorist groups despite the Sunni-Shi’a divide between them. While Iran’s intent vis-à-vis the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not to plant the seeds of a Khomeinist theocracy, its activities in the Palestinian territories are oriented toward empowering radical actors in order to create instability to harm Israel and “moderate” Palestinian leadership open to accommodation with Israel. In this manner, Iran seeks to create local power bases in the Palestinian Territories, burnishing its anti-Israel credentials and removing obstacles to its bid for regional hegemony.
Iran has been the leading sponsor of Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which was founded in 1979, inspired by the success of the Islamic Revolution. Iranian funding of PIJ has been in place since 1987. During the early 1990s, much of PIJ organizational and operations-based support came from the Iranian sub-group Hezbollah. The PIJ is extremely open about Iran being its main supporter: “All of the weapons in Gaza are provided by Iran… the largest share of this financial and military support is coming from Iran.” It should be noted that while Iran is PIJ’s main supporter, PIJ is neither an arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolution nor a vehicle for spreading Iran-style Shiism in the Palestinian territories, although it has faced such accusations as a means of discrediting the organization among the Palestinian populace. Still, PIJ’s leadership has expressed admiration for Iran’s Islamic Revolution for reviving the overall cause of radical Islamism and jihadism, and the group has adopted a conciliatory posture toward Shiites, viewing them as members of the community of Muslim believers, unlike other Sunni jihadist organizations which consider Shiism to be heretical.
Iran has also exerted considerable influence over Hamas, the Sunni Islamist terror group in control of the Gaza Strip. In 1993 Iran, pledged $30 million in annual support for Hamas’ anti-Israel operations. Hamas had consistently enjoyed this financial support, in addition to military training, until disagreements over Iran’s role in Syria created a rift between the two parties. However, Iranian favor has once again returned to Hamas to the tune of “tens of millions of dollars.” Israeli media reported in August 2019 that Iran expressed a willingness to increase its funding of Hamas to $30 million per month in exchange for intelligence on Israel’s missile stockpiles.
Iran is now also building a loyalist, “Hezbollah-style terror group” in the Gaza Strip. Known as Al-Sabirin, the organization’s funding is drawn from the coffers of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and disbursed by the IRGC. Through Al-Sabirin, Iran is also seeking to make inroads into the West Bank. Hezbollah itself has stepped up its activities in the West Bank in recent years. In January 2016, Israeli security forces dismantled a five-man terror cell in the West Bank city of Tulkarem recruited by Hezbollah’s Unit 133, which is tasked with recruitment and planning attacks in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The cell – recruited and trained by Hassan Nasrallah’s son, Jawad – was instructed to gather intelligence on IDF training facilities for attack, and to prepare a bomb for use in a suicide operation against Israeli civilians. In July 2019, Shin Bet announced that it had thwarted another cell—an Iranian espionage network—based in Syria, which was recruiting operatives in the West Bank and Gaza via social media.
The emergence of these cells within the Palestinian territories appears indicative of a longer-term Iranian strategy. In the short term, Iran is content to support and ally with extremist groups with shared anti-Israel aims, such as Hamas and PIJ, to fulfill broad geopolitical objectives. Al-Sabirin’s name, which translates to “the patient ones,” attests to a desire to anchor proxies loyal to Iran and who share its ideological predilections in the Palestinian territories further down the road if conditions on the ground are conducive. In fact, there have been signs of increased coordination within Iran’s broader Axis of Resistance in furtherance of this project. In 2019, Iran’s supreme leader reportedly proposed PIJ form a joint operations room in Gaza with Hezbollah and Iraqi militias.
In May 2021, Israeli-Palestinian tensions boiled over into an overt conflict, with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad indiscriminately firing rockets into Israeli population centers and Israel responding with airstrikes on the Gaza strip. The destruction wrought by the war provided Iran with an opportunity to stoke anti-Israel sentiment and attempt to gain the deference, if not the loyalty, of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. In the aftermath of the conflict, Iran transferred briefcases of cash to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to be used to recruit and indoctrinate youth. Moreover, the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) allocated 100000 dollars of medical equipment to the Gazans and planned on sending more, according to Tehran Times. “Iran’s emergency services are ready to send medical teams in order to help the Gazans wounded in the wake of Israel’s brutal attacks,” said the head of IRCS. Iran also benefits from loudly announcing and propagandizing its support for the Palestinians to the Arab World.
At the height of the 2021 Gaza conflict, Iran’s then Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi spoke out in support of the “heroic resistance of Palestine once again forc[ing] the Zionist to retreat.” Iran coordinates its messaging with Gazans through the IRTVU, which is an IRGC-run umbrella organization encompassing the media outlets of Iranian-backed proxies with the aim of “present[ing] a uniform propaganda front among Resistance Axis media outlets…in connection with promoting the Palestinian issue, Jerusalem and the holiness of the al Aqsa mosque.” The IRTVU set up the UCMT to train propaganda activists in Gaza, and it held online media training courses for 1975 online students via Zoom. The propaganda from Gazan activists and the Iranian leadership probably helped build sympathy and support for their policies across the Middle East. Hamas propagandized itself as the victim of Israeli aggression, though it kicked off the conflict by firing rockets into Israel. Pro-Palestinian sentiment flooded social media and culminated in street protests throughout the Arab world, including in countries that agreed to normalize relations with Israel.