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 armed, trained, and funded –often working indirectly through Hezbollah – Palestinian terrorist groups, despite the Sunni-Shi’a divide between them.
Iran’s primary goal in supporting various militant Palestinian factions is to foment continuous armed struggle against Israel, weakening a key regional foe and enhancing Iran’s image among Muslim and Arab publics. Arming the Palestinians enables Tehran to play one faction against another, allowing Iran to maintain leverage over the various Palestinian groups and thereby the Palestinian nationalist movement as a whole, bringing them into line with the regime’s foreign policy objectives.
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.”
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’s rapprochement with Hamas is part of an effort to restore Tehran’s image in the Arab and Sunni world, damaged due to its brutality in propping up the Assad regime, through taking back the mantle of anti-Zionist resistance. Restoring ties with Tehran has helped Hamas whether diplomatic isolation as well. In recent years, Hamas has faced a hostile Egyptian government on its Gaza border and fallen out of financial favor with Gulf monarchies, which have quietly aligned their regional policy with Israel and backed more moderate Palestinian forces in response to the Iranian threat.
Hamas had also suffered fractured relations with the Assad regime and Hezbollah, the other primary actors in the Iran-led “resistance axis,” over the Syrian civil war. At Iran’s behest, the Assad regime and Hezbollah have mended ties with Hamas in an effort to rebuild the axis. The effort to reintegrate Hamas into the Iranian sphere of influence furthers Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions and gives Iran an ongoing outlet to focus on “resistance” activities against Israel.
Hamas’s second in command, Saleh al-Arouri, led a Hamas delegation to Tehran in October 2017 that met with Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who assured them that “Iran’s support to the resistance is the main priority now.” Arouri, who vacated his safe haven in Qatar and set up shop in Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold, subsequently met with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on November 1 2017. According to media reports of the meeting, both sides stressed their willingness to place their “misunderstandings” over Syria in the past and form a united resistance front against Israel.
In June 2018, Israel complained to the U.N. Security Council that it had intelligence showing that Hamas was working with Hezbollah to establish missile factories and training camps for thousands of Palestinian fighters in southern Lebanon. Hamas and Hezbollah’s growing cooperation lays the groundwork for a future struggle with Israel that may encompass fighting on multiple fronts with Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Iranian proxies all joining the fray. In August 2019, a Hamas official warned, “If the Israeli enemy launches aggression against the Gaza Strip, and we estimate that it is a confined battle that will not develop into a war to break us, we will face it alone. But if the enemy [Israel] tries to break the resistance, the rest of the axis will join the battle,” referring to Hezbollah and Iran’s foreign legion of proxy militias.
In September 2019, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh wrote a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei thanking him for Tehran’s “extensive” support and for “Iran’s readiness to equip the resistance for whatever it needs to discharge its duty.”
In February 2020, Israel seized $4 million in funds that it alleged were transferred from Iran to Hamas to help the group build its weapons infrastructure and pay its operatives.
Iran’s influence extends far beyond financial support, particularly in Gaza. Iran has supplied and trained groups like Hamas and the PIJ in the use of longer-range rockets. In 2002 Israeli forces intercepted the Gaza-bound Karine A vessel in a raid in the Red Sea, which was loaded with 50 tons of advanced weaponry from Iran. Iran has supplied ever increasingly sophisticated and powerful munitions to Hamas with technology including UAVs being delivered to these groups via Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran has supplied Hamas with IEDs, anti-tank munitions, and provides training for up to 6 months in modern tactical warfare for Hamas operatives.
In May 2019, Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar thanked Iran for providing the group with increasingly sophisticated and long-range rocketry. Following a weekend in which Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired 700 rockets into Israeli territory, Sinwar stated, “Iran provided us with rockets, and we surprised the world when our resistance targeted Beersheba. Had it not been for Iran, the resistance in Palestine would not have possessed its current capabilities.”
Iran is now also building a loyalist, “Hezbollah-style terror group” in the Gaza Strip. Known as Al-Sabirin, the organization is funded directly by Tehran. Through Al-Sabirin, Iran is also seeking to make inroads into the West Bank. On January 31, 2018 the State Department designated Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Harakat al-Sabireen, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs), noting that they are “sponsored and directed by Iran.”
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 an 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.
Due to its implacable opposition to Israel’s existence, Iran has waged proxy warfare in the Palestinian Territories, backing the most recalcitrant elements of Palestinian society, including terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran’s bid to hijack the Palestinian national movement serves to undermine efforts for a peaceable, negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In January 2020, following the Trump Administration’s unveiling of the “Deal of the Century,” the IRGC called for resistance against the peace plan and praised the Palestinians for “standing alone” against it.
Iran has also stood against regional initiatives to accept Israel’s existence and normalize its position in the Middle East. After Israel and the UAE announced a deal establishing full diplomatic relations in August 2020, Iran condemned the normalization of ties and vowed that the UAE’s decision would strengthen the forces of the “resistance axis” in the region. Iran similarly condemned Bahrain in September 2020 after it decided to normalize ties with Israel, saying, "The rulers of Bahrain will from now on be partners to the crimes of the Zionist regime as a constant threat to the security of the region and the world of Islam.”