Creating new perspectives since 2009

The next Palestinian Intifada will involve more support from Iran

February 22, 2020 at 1:16 pm

Palestinian protesters are seen at the Israel-Gaza fence during the Great March of Return on 12 October 2018 [Ashraf Amra/Apaimages]

There are early signs that another uprising, or Intifada, will erupt in occupied Palestine. A couple of weeks ago, a spokesperson of the Gaza-based Al-Quds Brigades, an armed wing of the resistance faction Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), called on Palestinians to take up arms and attack military checkpoints and illegal settlements in the West Bank, describing it as a “response” to the “Deal of the Century” proposed by the Trump administration. A deal unsurprisingly rejected by the Palestinian people and leadership, over its unwavering Zionist stance on an undivided Jerusalem and the discontinuous bantustans brought about by further annexations.

It will be the implementation of this plan, with disregard for Palestinians’ say, that will ignite the next Intifada. It is certainly heading in that direction, given Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, prompting Iran to confirm it risked sparking a “new Intifada”. An Iranian think-tank, the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, earlier this week argued that due to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and resistance movements’ unanimous opposition to Trump’s peace plan: “It is predicted that the Occupied Territories will in the future witness a new Intifada against the Zionist regime.” The looming third Intifada, however, will involve more support from Iran than the previous one for several reasons.

Read: Gazans demand Palestinian rights be upheld

The First Intifada in 1987 kicked off during the first decade of the Islamic revolution. Iran was primarily focussed on the existential threat posed by the invasion of Western and Gulf-supported Iraq, leading to a devastating eight-year war. In spite of this, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) still managed to offer support and training to the nascent Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, who represented the country’s marginalised Shia community and naturally were Iran’s main focus at the time, within the context of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.

However, Iran’s solidarity with the Palestinian cause was enshrined shortly after the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, with Ayatollah Khomeini’s initiative of the International Quds Day, falling on the last Friday of every Ramadan.  Former secretary-general of PIJ, Ramadan Shalah, has stated that: “Our ties with Iran date back to the first days of our movement, just after the Islamic revolution took over in Iran.” Reflecting on the 50-day Gaza war in the Summer of 2014, Shalah also claimed that: “Without Iran’s strategic and efficient help, resistance and victory in Gaza would have been impossible.”

Iranian support for the Palestinian resistance would become more prominent following the Second Intifada in 2000, also known as Al-Aqsa Intifada, after the then-Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, made a provocative, heavily-guarded visit to the contested site of Al-Aqsa mosque, an incident which has become normalised and a regular occurrence in recent years.  According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, Iran’s “direct involvement” in Palestinian territories could be traced to the Second Intifada, where “hundreds of wounded Palestinians” during the uprising received medical treatment in Iran, and that during their stay, some of them provided intelligence or underwent military training. Supplies and operational support given to resistance movements constitute Iran’s “indirect involvement”.

Of all the Palestinian resistance movements, PIJ is the second largest faction in Gaza after Hamas, but described as “more militant” and with stronger ideological ties to Iran. It’s funding, though, is reportedly modest in comparison to Hamas and Hezbollah, and was briefly curtailed in 2015 over disagreements over PIJ’s refusal to condemn Saudi’s military aggression against in Yemen against the Houthi-led forces, who form part of Iran’s Axis of Resistance. This led to Iran shifting focus on a splinter group of PIJ, composed of PIJ members who adopted the Shia school of thought, forming the Al-Sabirin movement operating in Gaza since 2014, which has itself fallen at odds on occasions with Hamas and other Sunni Islamist movements. It has reportedly established cells in the West Bank and Jerusalem, but has sought to downplay any sectarian identity. Nevertheless, PIJ continues to benefit from Iranian support to this day, and is notable in being one of the few Sunni Arab groups to support Iran during its war with Iraq.

Read: What’s new about Israeli threats against Hamas?

Hamas, which is considered by Iran to be part of the Axis, has formed ties in the early 1990s with Tehran, following the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s recognition of Israel. The electoral victory of Hamas in 2006 in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas presently still governs, has helped to further accelerate Iranian support reaching the movement, including rescuing the near bankrupt PA in the Strip, in addition to the provisions of military aid and training to the military wing of Hamas, the Al-Qassam Brigades.

The conflict in Syria caused tensions in the relationship with Iran and Hezbollah, as they backed the Syrian government and Hamas sided with the opposition groups which include Takfiri Jihadists. This led to the Hamas leadership relocating from Damascus to Qatar. However, in recent years there have been signs of reconciliation between Hamas with Hezbollah and Iran, and possibly a return to relations with Damascus. This is especially so with current allies, Qatar faced with continued isolation and pressure from its Gulf neighbours, and Turkey’s high-risk involvement in Syria and Libya. Damascus is crucial to the supply route from Tehran to Hezbollah, in Lebanon and beyond. The Syrian government’s successful onward push in reclaiming state sovereignty from foreign-backed jihadists with Russian and Iranian support, will ensure that this is maintained, in addition to reports over the years that Iran has in effect altered the demographics of Damascus, through sectarian repopulation and infrastructure.

Read: Israel and the evolution of asymmetric warfare

Recent reports that Iran’s allies in Yemen, the Houthi movement, are capable of locally developing sophisticated and accurate drones, coupled with previous reports of Hezbollah’s own Unmanned Aerial Vehicle capabilities, it will only be a matter of time until Palestinian armed factions alter and improve their tactics. It is already a pressing fear that Palestinians will start employing more sophisticated ones than presently used. This, of course, will be a result of shared information courtesy of Iran and its other allies. Drone usage will become a “tactical threat” to future conflicts against Israel.

The biggest persistent security concern for Israel is a Hamas takeover of the occupied West Bank, especially with a vulnerable and unpopular PA and an aging leadership in Mahmoud Abbas. Head of Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, warned in 2017 that: “Hamas is trying with all its strength to carry out attacks in the West Bank and to disturb the stability of the PA.” According to a recent report, Israeli intelligence believes that if the Palestinian elections were to take place, Hamas may come out top. Last year Hamas formally agreed to participate in PA elections, it has been suggested they will seek to profit from rival party Fatah’s internal divisions, and the public’s negative perception of the PA. Polls last year, reported by Israel Hayom, also indicated that were PA elections to take place, Hamas would beat Fatah in addition to beating Abbas, in a presidential leadership race. However, it is unlikely these will be held any time soon, nor in Abbas’s lifetime.

Read: Trump has no idea what he has done by killing Soleimani

There are of course pragmatic, realist reasons as to why Iran will be more involved in the future Intifada -namely the fact that Arab states and Israel are increasingly and openly pushing for normalisation – fundamentally based on a unified animosity and fear of Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the region. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah also have scores to settle with Israel, over the latter’s consistent violations of Syrian and Lebanese airspace, having carried out numerous attacks on soft and hard targets, alike, including those belonging to Iran. Tehran will likely also seek clandestine revenge over revelations that Israeli intelligence was used in the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani.

Logistically speaking, smuggling arms into the West Bank faces obstacles from Jordan, Israel and the PA, however, Iran is determined to overcome these. One senior advisor disclosed: “The issue remains on the Iranian agenda”, whilst an adviser to Iran’s foreign minister also explained: “This is a military and intelligence issue, and we know how to deliver weapons to the West Bank. We have already delivered weapons to other fronts.”

However, Israel is equally determined to push Iran out of Syria. Israeli defence minister, Naftali Bennett, has as of this week, announced that he will do all he can to avoid conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, but will instead focus attention on Iran in Syria. That being said, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has hinted at a “big surprise” amid reports Israel plans to carry out assassinations of Hamas leaders. Ultimately, it is a contest of wills between Iran and Israel. Yet, as I argued last month, Iran and its allies continue to achieve political and strategic success in various theatres of war in the region. As far as Ramezan Sharif, the spokesperson for the IRGC, is concerned, the assassination of General Soleimani: “Will lead to the liberation of Jerusalem, by the grace of God.” It is true that be it, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon or Syria, Iranian involvement and support has in the long-run yielded strategic results. The case of resistance in Palestine may well be added to this list in the future.

2020 so far: Iran and allies push forward despite losing Soleimani

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.