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Iran's growing role in Judea and Samaria

By Irina Tsukerman
web posted February 12, 2024

The latest salvo in a series of increasing terrorist activity in the West Bank occurred on January 19, 2024. With the West Bank descending into chaos, a large-scale and imminent Palestinian terrorist operation was thwarted in a 45-hour IDF operation in Tulkarem, and a huge cache of weapons and 400 explosive devices were seized. IDF strikes on January 17, 2024, into the Ramallah Balata camp, killed nine members of a Fatah-affiliated terrorist cell. A similar strike occurred on November 18, 2023, which killed five members of a cell headed by Fatah terror mastermind Amed Abdullah Abu-Shalal. The necessity to disrupt and deter terrorist attacks from PA-controlled areas undermines the popular narrative, which presents Mahmoud Abbas' governance and political faction as more reasonable and moderate than Hamas. This image is breaking down as the PA is faced with the prospects of infiltration of pro-Iran elements and increasing pressure locally to engage with Iran.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Fatah-affiliated terrorist group founded by Yassir Arafat, started as a small clique formed in late 2000, but, despite its initial size, it came to prominence during the Second Intifada. Although the spree of violence has died down, thanks to the construction of a security fence and Israel's vigilance in the area, smaller-scale attacks remained par for the course throughout the ensuing years up until the mid-2020s, when stabbings, shootings, and other attacks inside major Israeli cities gave West Bank terrorism a second lease on life. Until recently, Fatah's anti-Israel position remained independent and was framed only by local rivalry with Hamas. For years, Abbas, the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, enjoyed the security of absolute power and broad international legitimacy. However, Iran's penetration into the Arab street in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza has contributed to challenging this monopoly on leadership and support of the pro-Palestinian activists. Even Fatah-led terrorism proved to be insufficient to maintain that position as Hamas and other groups with Iranian-regime backing increased the Israeli body count.

Circa 2016, "lone wolf" knife attacks in Israeli cities were seen as an effective way of circumventing the fence and other security measures aimed at preventing mass casualties. Neither the incitement to violence nor the official PA backing of terrorism ever entirely stopped, though with the growing reach of Iran throughout the Middle East, these incidents took a backseat in the broader media survey of the regional security framework. The momentum of the Abraham Accords and the first Manama Dialogue conference, which took place December 4-6, 2020, ran parallel to the Connect2Innovate gathering for entrepreneurs and businesspeople. The result was a renewed interest in peacebuilding with the PA via economic initiatives. While there seemed to be prospects for a more prosperous, peaceful, and secure society, Abbas never embraced that outreach; on the contrary, PA residents were precluded from attending the summit, and some were viciously attacked upon expressing interest. Abbas was grasping at straws of relevance for the pro-Palestinian cause. Hamas, at the time, was already plotting a major terrorist attack, and so Abbas's fight was mostly and more directly related to the Arab world's change in priorities and the more significant concern about advancing a coalition with Israel against Iran's looming threat.

These developments did not change the reality of enmity between Fatah and Hamas. Both embraced violence against Israel and systematic indoctrination of the population, in particular regarding the issue of the Al Aqsa mosque. The PA perpetuated a smear and fear campaign that claimed that the famed Jerusalem mosque was in danger of desecration by Israeli worshippers visiting the Temple Mount and by Israeli police forces removing rock throwers and clearing weapons stashes from the vicinity. Jerusalem is just about the only unifying factor that could and eventually would bring the PA and Hamas together towards a ceasefire and joint action under Hamas' umbrella on October 7, 2023. History shows that efforts at rapprochement between the rivals failed with remarkable consistency. That record alone should be enough of a red flag to the White House and to anyone else who believes in the chimera of the PA's having a governance role in Gaza.

Iran's regional expansion provides additional reasons for concern. These developments link back to Iran's strategy of encircling Israel with its various proxies. The "Al Aqsa Flood" operation and the consequent expansion of the regional conflict to different Iran-backed proxies and militias indicate that Iran's commitment has been consistent and substantial. Moreover, Tehran made forays even into the circles close to Mahmoud Abbas through meetings between Fatah Central Committee insiders and prominent Iranian officials as early as 2014.

Part of the selling point for Iran's targeting of the PA is that Iran has already succeeded in bringing the otherwise hostile factions together on October 7 and in minor forms of cooperation before that. The Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade joined forces with the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas, a long-standing beneficiary of Iran's political and military support. Iran's ability to navigate these sectarian rivalries to get factions to fight Israel under the Hamas umbrella during the Al Aqsa Flood operation was a significant accomplishment. Iran has no particular interest in internal Palestinian governance frictions; however, to the extent that opposition to Israel's existence is Iran's direct agenda, it prefers to push a united front among Palestinians. Whether that ultimately means persuading the PA into the fold, isolating it, circumventing it, or dividing and conquering, Iran remains dedicated to equating the pro-Palestinian agenda with eliminating Israel.

Four Avenues of Iran's Palestinian Success

Tehran's growing success indeed rests on these four methods. Several known Fatah members and officials already have had long-standing relationships with Iran for years. Rumors of Iran's outreach to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade go back to the days of the small terrorist organization's outsized success during the Second Intifada. Cultivating these ties by Iran may have laid the foundation for its participation in anti-Israel action with its local rivals years later. Moreover, according to Pinchas Inbari, Iran engaged with mainstream PA/Fatah leadership to ensure a cadre of supporters within the Fatah discourse. One of these voices was Major General Jibril Rajoub, a prominent Palestinian leader who established relations between Iran and the PA in 2014 when he traveled to Iran to meet with the Iranian Foreign Minister. At the time, Rajoub was a Deputy Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee. This visit lent additional legitimacy to Iran's broad involvement in the Palestinian cause beyond just Hamas and PIJ.

Several years later, in 2018, another member of Fatah's Central Committee, Abbas Zaki, called for Arab dialogue with Iran over resistance to Israel, expressing a form of outreach on the anniversary of the assassination of the Iranian "martyr" Muhammad Saleh Al-Husseini, and equating Israeli attacks on Hizbullah to attacks on the state of Lebanon, Palestine, and the Arab and Islamic world. And none other than Riyad Al-Maliki, PA Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2007, helped secure and formalize Venezuela's support for the Palestinian cause while also serving as a go-between with various other Iran allies around the globe, including Algeria, which ended up being a conduit for Iran-backed attacks and subterfuge against Morocco. Under Al-Maliki, the PA opened its embassy in Caracas, which is increasingly tied to Iran. Al-Maliki's record is one of supporting Iran's initiatives to reengage with the Arab world, both over the Palestinian issue in general and praising China for its role in advancing normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan hosted a meeting of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, July 26, 2023. (Turkish Presidency Press Office)
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan hosted a meeting of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey,
on July 26, 2023. (Turkish Presidency Press Office)

The Iranian-Palestinian efforts face significant obstacles. The more traditional elements of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas' hardcore loyalists, are focused exclusively on retaining regional power, and they view any such efforts at reconciliation with suspicion. Indeed, many experts, such as Yoni Ben Menachem, believe that any effort towards unity is bound to backfire and that distrust of both Hamas and Iran limits Tehran's reach into these power circles. Over the summer, Israel dismantled terrorist infrastructures in PA-controlled areas, perhaps preventing a similar attack to Hamas's Al Aqsa Flood from being launched from the West Bank. The PA has also been pursuing its agenda to dismantle the Oslo Accords through political action, taking advantage of Israel's institutional passivity and inaction to respond to Palestinians' territorial takeover by creeping measures. However, none of this is enough to be seen as an invitation to a foreign power to take hold.

Old habits die hard. In the event of Abbas's passing, the transition process would most likely lead to a temporary power-sharing agreement among three of his loyalists, who by all accounts share his views, which include extreme distrust of outsiders or any forces that could challenge his power, before settling on the new Chairman/President. These three loyalists would take control of the PA presidency, the Fatah movement's chairing, and the PLO's control. These three include stalwarts Majed Faraj, the current head of PA's General Intelligence Service, handpicked by Abbas; Prime Minister Fayyad; and a handful of others. Moreover, according to Yoni Ben Menachem, the PA praetorian guard, despite rhetoric to the contrary, is not interested in dealing with Gaza, in part due to the proliferation of assorted political, economic, security, and social issues in the West Bank, and in part due to the level of radicalization and enmity among the Gaza-based popular contingent.

Still, Iran's success in reaching some serious and credible voices among the Fatah power echelon speaks to its patient strategy that could ultimately play on local greed, corruption, and willingness to make a broader alliance in the wake of falling interest in the Palestinian cause in the Arab world. Other factors include Abbas's lack of popularity and his mismanagement. By helping Hamas position itself as the leader of violent anti-Israel resistance, Iran is pushing the PA to embrace similar rhetoric and public action more openly and to lend support to Iranian proxies. Abbas may ultimately be cornered with no choice but to accept Iran's self-serving assistance, if only to remain relevant in light of Hamas's apparent success. The result was not only the engagement of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade but a foiled plan of attack on Israel and PA commitment to pay nearly three million dollars in assistance to the families of the fallen Hamas operatives.

Iran's weaponization of the Palestinian issue to discredit its own regional rivals, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), has earned its popularity even in unlikely circles. With the Biden administration's apparent disinterest in confronting Tehran and rolling back its regional metastasis, even Riyadh understood the threat of losing popular ground on this issue. Around Ramadan of 2023, KSA made another effort to bring the PA and Hamas together in another failed attempt at unity. KSA has also adopted rhetoric mirroring Iran's and Qatar's in its reactions to the Al Aqsa Flood attack and Israel's consequent role in Gaza. Saudis are aware that they may be losing influence even in the West Bank as some of Abbas's stalwarts embrace an opening with Iran. Iran's potential infiltration of the PA provides a check on the Saudi role claim to the lead on the Palestinian issue, which they have championed through Abbas ever since Riyadh sidelined Hamas as a Muslim Brotherhood proxy in the mid-2000s.

Additionally, Iran has pursued other paths toward overcoming the PA's seeming reluctance to embrace its plan for Israel's destruction in public. For instance, Tehran has played off Abbas's corruption and inability to organize the West Bank street against Hamas's initiative to outsmart Israel through its two years of deceit as it prepared for the October 7 massacre. The result was that the Al Aqsa Flood operation enjoyed broad public support in the Palestinian street, and Abbas was squeezed into adopting a public position of support to avoid accusations of being insufficiently supportive of the movement to annihilate Israel.

Additionally, Iran has made use of alternative routes to direct the flow of weapons into Judea and Samaria across the Jordanian border, forcing Israel to decide to build another security fence. Rerouting weapons through Syria and into Jordan has allowed Iran to create security problems for Jordan, contribute to tensions with Israel, as well as diversify its reach from "Hamasland" to PA-controlled areas.

Finally, Iran's tried-and-true method of dividing and conquering ensures that Abbas's position is deteriorating, while other Fatah factions are gaining the upper hand in some areas. Iran capably exploited the existing division between Fatah leadership in Ramallah and the Tanzim, a splinter Fatah faction in Jenin. This group has been working at cross-purposes to Abbas' dictates, particularly when it comes to weaponizing armed terrorist groups against Israel. Jenin has become practically a no-go zone for Fatah's Ramallah-based security forces; Israel's efforts to demilitarize the area have resulted in security debacles in recent years. The biggest takedown of terrorist fortifications in Jenin occurred in July 2023. In addition to co-opting the local Fatah leadership, Iran has worked on backing local Hamas and PIJ contingencies that are gaining popular ground control in some areas of PA-controlled territories. This development has increased pro-Iran support among the Sunni-majority Palestinian population in the West Bank and is upending Israel's traditional security model for this area. As Fatah Ramallah finds itself unable to cope with the influx of Iran-supplied weapons into the West Bank, Israel finds itself having to consider the possibility of another potential front in the escalating multifront war with Iran-backed proxies.

These developments indicate that while unity and prospects for successful governance among Palestinian factions might still be light-years away, Iran's dedication to political gains among Palestinians may contribute to bridging these divides and "reconstructing" the PA towards a more Iran-inclusive model. If so, the United States and Israel are in a race against time to put an end to greater radicalization and militarization of the Palestinian street by Tehran's increasingly integrated comrades and proxies. Iran and Hizbullah may very well be willing to sacrifice any number of Hamas officials as a tactical measure, but the more Israel is pressured to make "humanitarian" concessions and deescalate, the more complex the overall objective of demilitarizing and deradicalizing Gaza will become.

Iran's support consistently feeds the ideological element of the war. If Iran succeeds in retaining at least some ground in Gaza through the remnants of Hamas and simultaneously gains ground in PA territory, Iran will have advanced its objective of encircling Israel, particularly if Israel shifts to confront Iran's Hizbullah proxy in the north. If Tehran persists in forging ties with Fatah, the prospects for PA's governance in Gaza will be less of a pipe dream, as currently envisioned by the Biden administration. The American government believes that turning over Gaza to the PA will somehow wrestle the Palestinian cause away from Iran.

However, Gaza, in the Palestinian Authority's hands, would be a catalyst for a speedier implementation of Iran's "Axis of Resistance" model in the region. PA and Fatah alignment with Iran and the integration with Hamas remnants would be the worst possible outcome. If Iran succeeds in strengthening its roots in the West Bank, then the various Fatah factions and Iran's existing network may indeed agree on a unity framework. The more Fatah is penetrated by Iran, the less resistance it would offer Hamas, further advancing Iran's ambitions to create yet another corrupt and controlled Iranian colony in the region, one that pledges fealty at least as much to Tehran as to its own, no longer divergent, local power ambitions. ESR

Irina Tsukerman, a national security and human rights lawyer, journalist, and geopolitical analyst, is a Fellow at the Arabian Peninsula Institute and a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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