Palestinian Militants Speak With Many Tongues on Iran Support
The alliance with Iran isn't what it used to be
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad used to be close with Iran. For years, the militant groups relied on a steady pipeline of weapons and financial support to fight Israel, and Iran reciprocated as an opportunity to exert its influence in a largely Sunni region where Israel is widely despised.
But those days are over — and the relationship between the militants and Iran is considerably more complicated.
Iran is really part of two alliances. The one with Hamas is called the “Axis of Resistance,” and also includes PIJ, the Alawite-dominated government in Syria and the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah. The Palestinian groups, including Hamas, are Sunni members in a largely Shia alliance.
Then there’s “the Shia Crescent,” which can refer to the Shia-majority populations of the Middle East, or alternatively, to a coalition of Iranian-backed parties and militant groups which overlap — in parts — with the Axis.
As an alliance, the Shia Crescent considers Israel an enemy, but not the main one. That would be Sunni Arab governments, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
While both alliances worked in parallel, the Arab Spring and Syria’s civil war strengthened the Shia Crescent and eroded the Axis.
In Syria, an Iranian-backed government massacred Sunni civilians, damaging Hamas’ alliance with Syria and the rest of the coalition. When PIJ refrained from condemning a Sunni-led offensive against Shia rebels in Yemen’s civil war, Iran withdrew most of its support from the movement.
Above — a Hamas rally in Ramallah in 2007. Hoheit/Wikimedia photo. At top –a rocket launch from the Gaza Strip on Nov. 18, 2012. Dima Vazinovich/IDF photo
Today, the extent of Iran’s involvement in Gaza remains controversial and mysterious.
In February, a Hamas delegation visited Iran and met senior officials including Maj. Gen Qassem Suleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to Al-Monitor. But “Soleimani said that Hamas has stepped out of the resistance axis that stretches from Tehran to Gaza,” Al-Monitor noted, citing the Lebanese Al Mayadeen T.V. channel.
In March, the Ministry of Interior in Gaza shut down an Iranian charity for political activities.
During interviews, several officials from both Hamas and PIJ refused to discuss Iran, Syria or Yemen in detail, and preferred to describe their struggle as national rather than international. Although Hamas has disclosed that its alliance with Iran has weakened, and that financial support has declined, it has tended to downplay this in public.
“The relationship with Iran has not been interrupted at any stage, but it has been affected by the difference in our dealings with Syria,” Hamas spokesman Hassam Badran told War Is Boring from Qatar. “What ultimately concerns us is a consensus on the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause. Our policy is not to interfere in the internal affairs of other states.”
When asked about the war in Syria, a PIJ spokesman declined to take a position on either side. But the drop-off in support here may be even more serious. Iran has reportedly cut funding to PIJ by 90 percent.
Hamas and PIJ are both proscribed terrorist organizations in the United States and the European Union.
“Our position on the Syrian and Yemeni wars is a lack of interest,” Mahfuth Minwar, a PIJ official in Lebanon told War Is Boring. “These problems can only be solved with a mediator acceptable to both sides of the conflict … Israel is the enemy of the Arabs, waging war against Arabs and stealing Arab land, but this does not mean that we are with one party or against another.”
“The Palestinian issue must be a moral compass that points to the real enemy.”
According to this perspective, the Palestinian groups are focused on fighting Israel, and the wars elsewhere have little relevance. Meanwhile, Israel has kept open contacts with Syrian rebel groups operating near the Golan Heights, and has launched occasional airstrikes on weapons shipments to Hezbollah.
However, Israel is officially neutral toward the war.
Hamas and PIJ also assert neutrality in public, whatever is happening between them and regional powers in private. “The geopolitical balance has clearly changed in the region,” Badran said. “However, we will not join any regional alliances. We are keen to have good relations with all parties — whatever their differences.”
Sure enough, references to the Axis of Resistance now rarely appear in Hamas and PIJ rhetoric, and Hamas officials say they’re not involved in Syria. “As of now, Hamas is not present in Syria and does not have any relationship with it,” the spokesman added.
This may be for Hamas’ own survival. Hamas’ leaders lived in Syria until 2012 when they left for Qatar — a longtime U.S. ally — over disagreements with the war. In another twist, Qatar also backs rebels fighting the Iranian-backed Syrian regime.
So don’t expect Hamas to endorse either side, at least openly. No one is entirely sure which way the regional balance of power is shifting. While Iranian influence has expanded in Iraq, it has shrunk in Syria as swathes of territory fell to the rebels. For Hamas to take a position would entail risks it can ill afford to make.