Meddling in the Middle East Iran Ups Support for Gaza and Lebanon Hardliners

Iran is reportedly increasing its military aid to both Hezbollah and Hamas, according to Israeli intelligence sources. Meanwhile, Tehran is suspected of interfering in the reconciliation talks between the rival Palestinian factions.

It appears that Iran is continuing with is massive support for extremist groups that are intent on attacking Israel. A 20-page dossier compiled by the Israeli intelligence agencies, which has been seen by SPIEGEL, reports that Iran "has strengthened its operative help to Palestinian terror groups." The military aid is said to take the form of supplies of weapons, ammunitions and money, as well as the education and training of fighters.

Masked Palestinians take part on an anti-Israel rally organised by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Masked Palestinians take part on an anti-Israel rally organised by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The weapons are reported to include mortar shells and anti-tank missiles such as RAAD missiles, which are manufactured in Iran. They are said to be transported by land, sea and air. According to the report, Teheran has sent agents to establish posts along the smuggling routes to guarantee a smooth delivery.

The findings of other intelligence agencies in the Middle East also indicate that Iran is sending weapons and explosives to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Palestinian radical group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. The latest indication of this kind of support came with a failed attack on a shopping center in the Israeli port of Haifa on Sunday, March 22. Security forces managed to disable several dozen kilograms of explosives that had been loaded into a car parked outside the mall. Both Palestinian and Israeli experts who cooperated on the case believe that the attempted attack was the work of Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, the Israelis have carried out aerial attacks in Sudan in an attempt to halt the delivery of weapons to Hamas -- including rockets with a range of 70 kilometers, far enough to reach Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Air Force bombed a convoy of 17 trucks travelling through the Sudanese desert which were attempting to deliver weapons to Gaza via Egypt. The two bombing raids in January and February killed more than 30 people, including Sudanese, Ethiopians and Eritreans. Last Thursday a Sudanese government official confirmed the attacks took place and on Friday the New York Times quoted unnamed US officials saying Israeli warplanes had attacked the convoy.

The level to which Iran is intervening politically in the region is made evident by the failure of attempts so far to achieve reconciliation between the rival Palestinian factions. The moderate Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas, which controls the West Bank, is locked in a bitter conflict with the radical Islamist group Hamas, which forced Fatah out of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Sources close to the Egyptian mediation efforts say that an agreement between the two sides has been tentatively close on several occasions. There had even been a deal to release 450 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who is being held hostage by Hamas. However, even the veteran Egyptian mediators had underestimated Iran's influence.

Khaled Mashaal is regarded as Tehran's man in Hamas. The politburo chief lives in exile in Damascus but in recent months he has been frequently on the move, with Iran one of his most important destinations. Many Fatah officials, such as Ibrahim Abu al-Nasha from Gaza City who has known Mashaal for over 30 years, are convinced that the Hamas leader allowed the talks to fail under pressure from Tehran.

The Fatah veteran explains Mashaal's resistance to reconciliation between the Palestinian factions by rubbing his thumb and index finger together -- the sign for the money he assumes Iran has paid the Hamas leader to buy his hardline position.

Despite the setbacks talks are expected to resume this Wednesday to try to heal the rift between the rival Palestinian factions and the issue is expected to be an important item on the agenda at the Arab League summit that started in Qatar on Monday.

SPIEGEL/wire reports


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