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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Iran smuggles arms to West Bank, officials say, to foment unrest with Israel

People arrive for the iftar meal to break their Ramadan fast on Wednesday, April 3, 2024, in Tehran near a banner of Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Syria. A covert operation is heightening concerns that Iran is seeking to turn the West Bank into a flashpoint in its shadow war with Israel. (Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times)

By Farnaz Fassihi, Ronen Bergman and Eric Schmitt

Iran is operating a clandestine smuggling route across the Middle East, employing intelligence operatives, militants and criminal gangs, to deliver weapons to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to officials from the United States, Israel and Iran.

The goal, as described by three Iranian officials, is to foment unrest against Israel by flooding the enclave with as many weapons as it can.

The covert operation is now heightening concerns that Iran is seeking to turn the West Bank into the next flashpoint in the long-simmering shadow war between Israel and Iran. That conflict has taken on new urgency this month, risking a broader conflict in the Middle East, as Iran vowed to retaliate for an Israeli strike on an embassy compound that killed seven Iranian armed forces commanders.

Many weapons smuggled to the West Bank largely travel along two paths from Iran through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, the officials said. As the arms cross borders, the officials added, they change hands among a multinational cast that can include members of organized criminal gangs, extremist militants, soldiers and intelligence operatives. A key group in the operation, the Iranian officials and analysts said, are Bedouin smugglers who carry the weapons across the border from Jordan into Israel.

The New York Times interviewed senior security and government officials with knowledge of Iran’s effort to smuggle weapons to the West Bank, including three from Israel, three from Iran and three from the United States. The officials from all three countries requested anonymity to discuss covert operations for which they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“The Iranians wanted to flood the West Bank with weapons, and they were using criminal networks in Jordan, in the West Bank and in Israel, primarily Bedouin, to move and sell the products,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research organization, and the author of a study on the smuggling route.

The smuggling to the West Bank, analysts said, began about two years ago when Iran started using routes previously established to smuggle other contraband. It is unclear exactly how many weapons have made it to the territory in that time, though analysts say the majority are small arms.

In the months since the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack against Israel from the Gaza Strip, Israeli security forces have conducted a large-scale crackdown across the West Bank.

The Israeli military describes the raids as part of its counterterrorism effort against Hamas and other armed factions to root out weapons and militants. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, including those accused of attacking Israelis, according to the United Nations, in one of the deadliest periods in decades.

Human rights groups say many Palestinians are being unfairly detained, particularly those held in Israeli prisons without a formal trial. They say that it is unclear how many of the detainees possess genuine militant links.

“These arrests include many who are being swept up for reasons that are not clear,” said Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli government has a long track record of abusive detention, arbitrary arrests and detaining people for exercising their basic rights.”

For years, Iran’s leaders have declared the necessity of arming Palestinian fighters in the occupied West Bank. Iran has long supplied weapons for attacking Israel to militants elsewhere in the region, members of its so-called Axis of Resistance, including its two primary Palestinian allies in Gaza, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Both of those groups, which also operate in the West Bank, are designated terrorist organizations by the United States, the European Union, Israel and other countries.

The Iranian officials said Iran had not singled out a particular group for its largesse, choosing instead to broadly inundate the territory with guns and ammunition.

Fatah, the Palestinian faction that controls the Palestinian Authority and with it much of the West Bank, accused Iran last week of trying to “exploit” Palestinians for its own means by spreading chaos in the territory. In a statement, Fatah said it would not allow “our sacred cause and the blood of our people to be exploited” by Iran.

In a statement, Iran’s U.N. Mission did not comment on the smuggling operation, but emphasized what it said was the importance of Palestinians taking up arms against Israel.

“Iran’s assessment posits that the sole effective avenue for resisting the occupation by the Zionist regime is through armed resistance,” said Amir Saeid Iravani, the country’s U.N. ambassador. “Palestinian resistance forces possess the capability to manufacture and procure the necessary armaments for their cause.”

Even after Oct. 7, as Iran’s proxies have increasingly launched salvos from Lebanon and Yemen, Iran and Israel preferred to restrict much of their conflict to the shadows. But that covert war exploded into public view last week with the airstrike against an Iranian Embassy building in Syria.

Israeli warplanes on April 1 attacked a meeting of leaders from Iran’s armed forces and members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Damascus, the Iranian officials said. Among those killed was Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, 65, the Revolutionary Guard general in charge of Iran’s covert operations in Syria and Lebanon through which parts of the weapons smuggling trail wends, the Israeli, Iranian and American officials said.

That attack came on the heels of another Israeli airstrike. On March 26, Israeli forces struck a key node of the smuggling route in eastern Syria, according to the American and Iranian officials, and two of the Israeli officials.

The majority of the smuggled weapons, analysts said, are small arms such as handguns and assault rifles. Iran is also smuggling advanced weapons, according to the American and Israeli officials. Those weapons, the Israeli officials said, include anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, which fly fast and low to the ground, creating a challenge for Israel when defending civilian and military targets from close-range fire.

Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, said in a statement that it had recently seized advanced military equipment smuggled into the West Bank. The statement added that Shin Bet “takes very seriously involvement in activities directed by Iran and its affiliates and will continue to carry out active measures at all times to monitor and thwart any activity that endangers the security of the state of Israel.”

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