The Magazine

Iran's West Bank Ambitions

Are the mullahs planning a takeover of Palestinian politics?

Dec 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 13 • By AARON MANNES
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WHILE THE VACUUM in Palestinian politics created by Yasser Arafat's death may seem like a great opportunity for moderates to assume power, the force best organized to take control is actually the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah. If Hezbollah succeeds, Palestinians will be condemned to continue their confrontation with Israel, and the impact on the balance of power in the Middle East and the global war on terror will be profound.

Iran and Hezbollah are both Shia Islamist, but they support terrorist groups (including al Qaeda) across ideological and sectarian lines. With a secure base in Lebanon, loyal patrons in Syria and Iran, extensive financial resources, and control of the Al Manar satellite channel, Hezbollah is a potent ally for any terrorist. But Hezbollah's greatest asset is its reputation for effectiveness. In the early 1980s, Hezbollah drove peacekeepers from Beirut by truck-bombing the U.S. and French barracks. Around the same time, it also conducted a hostage-taking campaign in Lebanon that manipulated the United States and France, causing scandals in both countries. In May 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon after 15 years of fighting with Hezbollah, inspiring the Palestinians to believe that Israel could be defeated.

Iran and Hezbollah have provided funds, weapons, and training to Palestinian terrorists. Many of the intifada's most successful tactics were learned from Hezbollah. But all this assistance came at a price. According to Israeli intelligence, Iran is now "in control of terrorism in Israel."

Most small leftist Palestinian organizations are based in Syria and have close relationships with Hezbollah. Palestinian Islamic Jihad receives a majority of its funding from Iran and cooperates with Hezbollah. Hamas is also falling into Hezbollah's orbit. Israel's crackdown on Hamas's leadership has created an opening for Hezbollah. Hamas's political leadership is now exclusively Syria-based, and Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon direct Hamas operations.

Hezbollah has also infiltrated Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, the leading Palestinian institutions. Officers in Arafat's personal bodyguard, Force 17, directed the first Hezbollah cells in the West Bank and Gaza. In exchange for providing arms such as those on the Karine A--the arms-smuggling freighter intercepted by Israel in January 2002--Iran was allowed to open hospitals and social institutions in the West Bank and Gaza. These institutions serve as a cover for an expanded Iranian presence. In late 2002, a captured Palestinian agent for Hezbollah confessed to Israeli security that Hezbollah had established a network of supporters in the West Bank and Gaza to infiltrate Fatah and the PA in order to take control when the PA collapses. Even Arafat complained about Iranian infiltration, telling reporters in mid-October, "[Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei is working against us. He is giving money to all these fanatical groups. Khamenei is a troublemaker."

The captured Hezbollah agent also stated that he reported both to Iran and to senior Fatah/PLO leader Farouq Qaddumi. A Fatah founder and opponent of the Oslo process, Qaddumi lives in Tunisia and has never traveled to the West Bank or Gaza. Yet Qaddumi recently brokered an agreement to reopen Fatah offices in Damascus (Syria had closed them in 1985). In the wake of Arafat's death, Qaddumi was appointed head of Fatah, and he would be a plausible Palestinian frontman for Hezbollah and its proxies.

Elections are no panacea against Hezbollah's influence, which extends into every Palestinian faction. For one thing, no potential Palestinian leader has much popular support. Nor are there any well-organized Palestinian groups poised to counter Hezbollah's influence. So, Hezbollah, which has its own satellite channel and has been an effective political party in Lebanon, could be the crucial factor in Palestinian elections.

The consequences of an Iranian takeover of Palestinian politics would be grave. Judging from the number of terror attacks, the intifada is burning itself out. But Hezbollah could stoke the flames, making the Palestinians pawns to Iranian and Syrian strategic ends. This power play could then have a regional and even international impact. Hamas and Hezbollah have both opened offices in Iraq, and the Palestinians may prove ready recruits for the jihad against the United States. With a predominantly Palestinian population, strategic, pro-Western Jordan may be vulnerable to a Palestinian-Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Also, the Palestinian terrorists bring assets that could augment Hezbollah's world-spanning terrorist network.