Palestinian Territories/Gaza

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei embracing Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Tehran in 2012.

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 like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), 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 a leading sponsor of Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and PIJ, building up their capabilities and enabling them to threaten and attack Israel. Without Iranian financial largess and material support (not to mention the extensive financing the group receives from Qatar, other foreign powers, and allegedly even U.N. coffers), Hamas would not have been able to carry out its devastating October 7, 2023 terrorist attack against Israel. The air, land, and sea assault that claimed over 1,200 lives including dozens of Americans, was likely known to the regime. Evidence shows that in the months and weeks leading up to the multifront attack, Hamas sought training in Tehran, which included university-level education in physics and explosives and tactical combat instruction. Additionally, several well-documented meetings in Beirut with Quds Force commanders, including its top commander Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, and senior Hezbollah and Hamas leadership, are suspected to have been operational planning meetings for escalation by the Axis of Resistance against Israel.

Iran has also been the leading sponsor of Gaza-based 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.”

Given its major support to Hamas, Iran exerts considerable influence over Hamas, the Sunni Islamist terror group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since it took over after winning elections in 2006. In 1993, Iran pledged $30 million in annual support for Hamas’ anti-Israel operations. Hamas received consistent funding from Tehran in addition to military training until disagreements over Iran’s role in Syria created a rift between the two parties, leading Iran to temporarily curtail its support for the group. However, Iranian favor once again returned to Hamas to the tune of “tens of millions of dollars” and has since then expanded to over $100 million annually. Other estimates indicate that yearly funding may be as high as $350 million. This money has been used to build hundreds of miles of tunnels, costing billions of dollars, which have been used for sheltering leadership under civilian areas and infrastructure, storing and producing weaponry. In August 2019, Israeli media reported that Iran offered 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 was part of an effort to restore Tehran’s image in the Arab and Sunni world, which was damaged due to its brutality in propping up the Assad regime and helping him quell a democratic protest movement after the 2011 Arab Spring. Iran deployed the IRGC-Quds Force and later the IRGC Ground Force, the Basij, and the Artesh, and several IRGC-directed Axis of Resistance militias, including Hezbollah, and Pakistani and Afghani recruits, to ensure that Assad was not overthrown.

In an effort to repair the reputational damage from backing the brutal Syrian dictator, Iran sought to take back the mantle of anti-Zionist resistance and again sought to shore up relations with the Gaza-based terrorist organization. Restoring ties with Tehran has helped Hamas weather 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’ relations with the Assad regime and Hezbollah also fractured over the Syrian Civil War. At Iran’s behest, however, the Assad regime and Hezbollah have mended ties with Hamas in an effort to rebuild the Axis of Resistance and coordinate its activities against the U.S. and its regional ally Israel. 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, who was assassinated in a presumed Israeli strike in southern Lebanon in early January 2024, led a Hamas delegation to Tehran in October 2017 that met with former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani assured Arouri 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 alerted the U.N. Security Council that it had obtained intelligence showing Hamas was working with Hezbollah to establish missile factories and training camps for thousands of Palestinian fighters in southern Lebanon. Some of those factories were dedicated to the production of precision-guided munitions to upgrade Hamas’ rocket arsenal. Iran has been involved in enhancing the targeting capabilities of its proxies and partners, not only in Lebanon but at weapons manufacturing sites in Syria tied to the Assad regime.

Hamas and Hezbollah mended ties and subsequently increased their cooperation and coordination based on their shared objective to threaten and destroy Israel. That is where the popularized Hamas slogan “From the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea” comes from; it is a call for violence against Israel and its erasure from the map. Claiming the mantel of anti-Zionist resistance, Iran has fueled hate-filled, violent, anti-Semitic ideologies in Gaza and beyond, effectively laying the groundwork for a future armed struggle with Israel that would encompass fighting on multiple fronts with Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Iranian proxies all joining the fray, as we are seeing unfold today. 

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 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.”

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.” Haniyeh had acted as the elected prime minister of Gaza between 2007 and 2014 and today holds the title of chairman of Hamas’ politburo. He is residing in Qatar along with other senior Hamas officials like Khaled Mashaal and Moussa Abu Marzouk.

Yahya Sinwar has taken over leadership of Gaza, and he is thought to be based in southern Gaza, possibly in the Hamas stronghold and his hometown Khan Younis. Mohammed Deif is Hamas’ top-ranking official in its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He is also thought to be holed up in a deep underground tunnel below Gaza.

In February 2020, Israel seized $4 million in funds that it alleged were transferred from Iran to Hamas to help the group build weapons and pay its operatives. Iran’s influence, however, 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 increasingly sophisticated and powerful munitions to Hamas and technology including UAVs being delivered 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.

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 U.S. Department of State 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 has also stepped up its activities in the West Bank. 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 wages proxy warfare in the Palestinian Territories, backing the most recalcitrant and violent 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, namely the U.S.-sponsored Abraham Accords, to accept Israel’s existence and normalize its position in the Middle East. After Israel and the UAE announced a deal to restore 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.” Further afield in Africa, Iran has sought to impose costs on the moderate Sunni Arab state Morocco for its decision to join the Abraham Accords.

Hostilities Escalate

In May 2021, during clashes between Israel and Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, Hamas and PIJ exhibited significantly improved rocket capabilities and tactics. Both organizations employed swarming tactics to overwhelm Iron Dome air defense batteries, firing simultaneous barrages of hundreds of rockets at a time. In one case, PIJ’s Quds Brigade admitted it fired volleys of rockets directly at an Iron Dome battery near Nir Yitzhak, near Israel’s border with Gaza, to disable it and facilitate the group’s other rocket attacks on Israeli cities.

Both militant groups deployed more advanced weaponry. PIJ employed Badr-3 missiles in attacks on Israeli cities, for which a group spokesman thanked “the Resistance Axis, headed by the Islamic Republic of Iran,” for helping the group develop the missile. Hamas spokesmen have been more circumspect about the source of their improved capabilities. However, their arsenal in this round of fighting included a rocket dubbed the “Ayyash 250”—a rocket named after the group’s late chief bomb engineer, Yahya Ayyash, who was dispatched in an operation by Shin Bet in January 1996. The rocket, as its name suggests, has a range of 250 km, and was fired by the group for the first time on May 13, 2021, in the direction of Ramon Airport, in Israel’s southernmost city of Eilat. The rocket missed its target, but caused flights from the airport to be temporarily canceled. On May 13, Hamas’ Qassam Brigades also deployed several loitering munitions, colloquially known as (including by the group), “suicide drones,” dubbed the “Shihab.”

Rocket and incendiary attacks from the Gaza Strip have occurred regularly since the May 2021 fighting. Starting in April 2022, Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip accelerated their attacks against Israel. On August 5, 2022, Palestinian militant groups launched over 400 rockets into Israel, a significant escalation that underscored the growing size of the terrorist groups’ arsenals and their readiness to use their rockets.

Again on May 10, 2023, Palestinian militant groups launched over 500 rockets toward Israel, days after Israel carried out airstrikes against PIJ targets that killed three of its leaders. The increasingly large rocket salvos, designed to overwhelm Israel’s air defense systems, were largely unsuccessful. The Iron Dome battery intercepted most of the rockets. Israel retaliated, striking over 150 PIJ targets in the Gaza Strip. On May 11, 2023, a rocket fire attributed to Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the central Israeli town of Rehovot caused one death and seven injuries. According to a source from PIJ, the Iranian-made Boraq 85 rocket, a relatively new weapon system fielded by PIJ, was the culprit.

In April 2023, rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, Syria, and Lebanon were coordinated against Israel. Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani met with senior leaders in Hamas, PIJ, and Hezbollah in Lebanon to coordinate the Axis of Resistance as if it were a formal military alliance, where each terrorist group would join in the fighting if one member of the group is attacked. In one meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and his late deputy Saleh al-Arouri and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Qaani finalized a decision to launch rockets from southern Lebanon, culminating in the largest such attack since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. These planning meetings and subsequent attacks were precursors to the October 7, 2023 assault against Israel, which Hamas and its patrons in Tehran refer to as ‘Al-Aqsa Flood,’ the worst attack against Jews since the Holocaust.

Hamas and PIJ conducted a sophisticated and lethal major terrorist attack against Israel on October 7, 2023, the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Israel was surprise attacked by hostile Arab foreign powers. Hamas fighters infiltrated into Israeli territory after blowing holes in and breaching the Gaza Strip border fence. They proceeded to commit heinous acts of terror and violence, including murder, rape, and kidnapping, against Israeli and foreign women, children, and the elderly, resulting in the deadliest and most brutal attack in the history of the Israeli state. Israel, in turn, unleashed a fierce aerial and ground offensive in Gaza, while attempting to prevent other terrorist groups from escalating on other fronts, including in the West Bank, Lebanon, and Syria.

The regime in Iran has in fact intensified its efforts to arm, finance, and recruit militants in the West Bank, particularly in the Jenin and Nablus areas. Numerous new militant groups, such as the Jenin Brigade, the Balata Brigade, and the Lions’ Den, have emerged in the West Bank. PIJ also reportedly has a dominant presence in the West Bank and leads recruitment campaigns with financial aid from Iran. Recent personnel, structural, and doctrinal changes to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the broader military infrastructure in Iran, as part of Ayatollah Khamenei’s “Second Phase of the Islamic Revolution” project, also reveal the IRGC preparing and moving towards for confrontation with Israel.

Billboards in Gaza in 2012 thanking Iran for their military support in fighting Israel, particularly their supply of longer-range rockets to target Israeli cities.


Country Code