Israelis Claim Iran Setting up New Military Forces in West Bank

Israeli security recently dismantled a cell in the West Bank, claiming it works in the interests of Iran – an announcement some Palestinians questioned in light of the ongoing regional developments.

The Israeli Shin Bet announced Jan. 3 the dismantling and arrest of an espionage cell working for Iran in the West Bank city of Hebron. The cell’s leader, Muhammed Maharma from Hebron, was paid $8,000 by Iran to recruit suicide bombers and gunmen to carry out attacks against Israelis, according to the Shin Bet. Consequently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an official statement published by Haaretz on the same day that Iran was trying to harm Israel by organizing terrorist activities.

Many questions were raised about Israel accusing Iran of operating in the Palestinian arena. One can’t help but wonder whether Israel has accurate information about the Iranian intervention, question the timing of these accusations and doubt the nature of Iran’s growing influence among the Palestinians. Maj. Gen. Wasef Erekat, a Palestinian military expert in the West Bank and former artillery unit commander of the PLO, told Al-Monitor:

“Iranian support in the Palestinian arena is focused on providing funds and weapons to military cells without forming military groups directly affiliated with it, which is why finding an Iran-affiliated cell is unlikely. Iran is not interested in creating military bodies outside the organizations it [already] supports, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

However, Mahmoud Mardawi, a Hamas leader and former West Bank-based official in Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, told Al-Monitor:

“Iran has certain aspirations in the Palestinian arena and is making intensive attempts to strengthen its influence by supporting military formations in the West Bank, funding and arming them. Iranians do not hide their desire to raise the pace of the military confrontation against Israel, as is the case in the Gaza Strip. Iran has various tools to overcome obstacles to deliver weapons and money to the Palestinian territories. It has certain control over waterways in the region, particularly near the Horn of Africa, and it can exploit the chaos in Syria to approach the border geographically linked to Palestine and Jordan.”

Yoni Ben-Menachem, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, said Jan. 4 that Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are facing a common challenge to thwart the arrival of Iranian weapons in the West Bank. On Jan. 3, Israeli daily Israel Hayom quoted senior Palestinian security officials on condition of anonymity as saying that there is secret security coordination between the PA and Israel to prevent Iran from infiltrating the West Bank.

A Palestinian official close to President Mahmoud Abbas told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The Palestinian leadership is angry at Iran’s increasing interference in the Palestinian arena because it poses a great danger to the Palestinian national security and the stability of the Palestinian leadership. This threat needs to end no matter what, even if this calls for increased security cooperation with Israel.”

Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and chairman of the Political Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told Al-Monitor:

“The Palestinian home front is immune to any regional break-ins, whether by Iran or any other country. We reject foreign interference in our national cause. However, Iran’s extended talks about supporting Palestinian factions are only due to regional polarization and its conflict with Saudi Arabia. Iran wants to paint itself as supportive of the Palestinian resistance, while Saudi Arabia is normalizing its relations with Israel.”

Perhaps the extent of Iran’s intervention in the Palestinian arena is further revealed by recent commutations between Palestinian and Iranian figures. Most notably, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, addressed a letter Jan. 18 to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, valuing Iran’s positions on the Palestinian cause and thanking its role in strengthening the Palestinian resistance.

Prior to that, Haniyeh phoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Dec. 11 to discuss the Dec. 6 decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while Gen. Qasem Soleimani, senior military officer of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force, contacted leaders in the military wings of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza on the same day to grant them military support.

Kuwait daily Al-Jarida reported Dec. 13 that Soleimani had asked Hamas and Islamic Jihad to recruit elements in the West Bank because providing these groups with weapons had become a priority of Iran’s. The article further said that Soleimani had recently met with arms smugglers and demanded that they seek ways to deliver quality weapons to the West Bank in order to form an armed front against Israel there and deliver logistical support including money, ammunition, rockets and quality weapons to the Palestinians there.

A member of the Iranian Islamic Consultative Assembly told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity:

“Iranian support for the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank is a religious duty, and Khamenei sees it as an important priority for Iran and will try to overcome security obstacles posed by Israel and the PA. The Iranian military and financial support has proved its effectiveness in the Gaza Strip in terms of confronting Israeli wars. But since there is no organized military command for the armed resistance in the West Bank, Israel is able to confiscate and occupy lands to build its settlements.”

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Dec. 31 that mortar shells fired at Israel from Gaza Dec. 2 were made by Iran and smuggled into Gaza. Alaa al-Rimawi, the director of Al-Quds Center for Israeli and Palestinian Studies in Ramallah, told Al-Monitor:

“By accusing Iran of interfering in the Palestinian territories, Israel may be hinting at the presence of Palestinian armed cells that received training in Iran. Meanwhile, [Iran] is carrying on with its attempts to activate armed resistance in the West Bank, as was the case in the early days of Al-Aqsa intifada, when active military groups first emerged.”

Saleh al-Naami, a Palestinian expert on Israeli affairs reporting for The New Arab, told Al-Monitor:

Israel made similar accusations in the past against Iran’s intervention in the Palestinian arena. However, this time they coincide with the Iranian protests that erupted in late December. Israel wants to use these accusations to incite the Iranian public opinion against its own government and claim it is spending money outside its borders.”

It seems that Iran will not stop extending its influence in the Palestinian territories despite the Palestinian and Israeli security efforts against it. Iran sees this provision of money and weapons as an extension of its regional power. Meanwhile, Palestinian factions namely rely on this Iranian support since they have no one else to resort to – particularly in terms of armament.