Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jonathan Schanzer, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center. He has served as a counterterrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of Treasury and as a research fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of the new book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine. Daniel Pipes wrote the foreword to the book and some of the research was undertaken at Pipes’ Middle East Forum.
FP: Jonathan Schanzer, good to have you back.
Schanzer: Good to be back Jamie.
FP: I’d like to talk to you today about Iran’s role in the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. But first, for readers who did not read our previous interview, please describe the thesis of your new book Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine.
Schanzer: The book is about the power struggle between the Palestinian Fatah faction and its Islamist rival, Hamas. This struggle dates back to 1988, in the early days of the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada, when Hamas began to circulate bayanat, or leaflets, in competition for leadership. Thereafter, the two factions have engaged in a political and now violent struggle for control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today, I argue, it may be this struggle that represents the greatest obstacle to regional peace, eclipsing even the typical Palestinian-Israeli issues that typically dominate the headlines.
FP: Ok, describe for us Iran’s historical role in Palestinian affairs.
Schanzer: It began in 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini succeeded in ousting Iran’s Reza Shah Pahlavi from power. In mid-February, just days after his revolution was complete, Fatah/PLO leader Yasir Arafat enjoyed a personal audience with Khomeini. While it was reported that Khomeini lectured Arafat on his need to drop his nationalist and revolutionary ideologies and embrace Islamism, photos of the meeting show the two men, in typical Arafat fashion, smiling and holding hands.
Khomeini, in fact, wished to thank Arafat for the Fatah leader’s support for the Iranian revolution. Arafat even helped the Shah’s opponents by providing training and weapons. The first generation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards was the recipient of Arafat’s largesse. Khomeini, in appreciation, closed the Israeli embassy in Tehran and handed the keys over to Arafat, and flew a Palestinian flag above it. The building became the PLO’s official embassy there.
FP: When and why did Iran-Fatah ties sour?
Schanzer: Relations deteriorated during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, as the Palestinians threw their support behind Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Khomeini rejected Arafat’s attempts to mediate the conflict. It was, however, the Palestinian leader’s decision to engage in peace talks with the Israelis that ultimately led to the unraveling of Fatah-Iranian ties. Indeed, Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khameini dubbed Arafat “a traitor and an idiot” for engaging in talks with Israel.
FP: When did Iran begin to support Hamas ?
Schanzer: Hamas, an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim brotherhood organization, was created in 1988 as a “resistance” organization. Its sole purpose, according to its charter and its leading cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was to destroy the State of Israel, and to replace it with an Islamic Palestine.
Despite the fact that Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shiite, the Islamist approach of both parties made their marriage almost inevitable. Hamas was clearly in synch with Iran’s Islamist policies. As early as December 1990, three years into the intifada, Hamas leaders paid an official visit to Iran, along with other rejectionist groups, for a conference in support of the uprising. In 1994, Hamas began a campaign of suicide bombings against Israel. This was the first time a Sunni group had carried out this kind of attack. Until then, suicide bombing was always associated with Iranian-backed Hizbullah.
In December 1994, as peace talks between the PLO and Israel began to gain traction, hundreds of Iranian demonstrators occupied the PLO embassy in Tehran, destroying property, and calling Arafat the “biggest collaborator with Israel and the United States.” The Iranians distanced themselves from the incident, but Tehran was now openly offering Tunisia-based PLO members support for their opposition to Arafat. There were even press reports of Iranian attempts to assassinate Arafat. The Hamas representative to Iran openly gloated that the growing ties between Hamas and Iran came at the expense of the PLO.
FP: How did Arafat react to this new reality?
Schanzer: As early as 1992, Arafat complained that Iran had provided some $30 million to Hamas. This would appear to corroborate a Lebanese report that Iran was providing the Islamist group with $10 million per year in funds derived from oil sales. Hazy reports emerged of Iranians training Hamas members in Sudan, Lebanon, and Iran itself.
In an attempt to weaken its Iranian-funded rival, Arafat found support from Israel and the United States. The 1995 U.S. trade embargo on Iran and the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) were designed, at least in part, to weaken Iranian support to Arafat’s chief opposition.
Meanwhile, on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza, a low level conflict was quietly brewing between Hamas and Fatah. Every time Hamas carried out an attack in Israel, it was a signal that the Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority lacked control. Prompted and armed by Washington and Jerusalem, Fatah cracked down on the suicide-bombing Hamas organization.
FP: But Arafat launched a war against Israel with the assistance of Hamas in 2000, just a few years later. What changed?
Schanzer: Support for Yasir Arafat’s Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority dwindled rapidly on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza during the late 1990s. Progress with Israel was slow, and the Palestinians grew frustrated with PA corruption. Hamas, all the while, gained popular support steadily by sticking to its strategy of opposition to Oslo and violence against the Jewish state.
When the Camp David II talks collapsed in autumn 2000, marking the end of the Oslo process, Arafat elected to launch a war against Israel known as the al-Aqsa Intifada. At the time, Arafat told Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, “We chose the way that religion and history of all Muslims have entrusted to us.” In so doing, he appeared to have finally given the Palestinian cause to Islamism. Indeed, in the name of Islam’s third holiest site, the al-Aqsa mosque, he exhorted Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to join forces with Fatah’s manifold paramilitary groups, including the newly-formed al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
FP: After this change of heart, did Iran begin supporting Fatah again?
Schanzer: Iran provided funding to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, “mostly through Hizbullah.” Zakariya Zubeidi, one of the group’s West Bank leaders, confirmed that the Brigades coordinated with the Iranian-backed organization. “Without the help of our brothers in Hezbollah, we could not have continued our struggle,” he said. “They give us money and weapons. We coordinate our military operations.”
Iranian support for Fatah was also confirmed in the capture of the ship the Karine-A, carrying 50 tons of Iranian-supplied weapons through the offices of Hizbullah. Israeli sources suggested that the shipment was the work of the late Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah’s operations chief, who coordinated closely with the Iranians.
FP: So, why did Fatah continue to lose power in the territories?
Schanzer: The Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority took pounding after pounding from the Israeli military in response to continued terrorist attacks. With its government infrastructure reduced to rubble, Fatah could no longer fill a leadership role. Government services once filled by Fatah were replaced by Hamas and its long-standing dawa, or outreach network, which provided food, education and other vital services.
Meanwhile, the Iranian-backed Hamas faction began to compete for territory once unquestionably controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian tribes, families, and clans loyal to Hamas fought with those loyal to Fatah. As the mainstream media filed story after predictable story about Israeli-Palestinian violence, the increasingly common internecine Palestinian clashes went largely unreported.
FP: What impact did the death of Yasir Arafat have on this dynamic?
Schanzer: By the time Yasir Arafat died in November 2004, the territories were in utter disarray. In my view, it is around this time that Iran appeared to sense opportunity. Particularly as Saudi Arabian funding for Hamas dried up, Iran took in Hamas as a valued proxy. In light of the rapid decline of the Palestinian Authority, and now its leadership vacuum, Iranian funding for Hamas increased over the next two years, as Hamas consolidated its strength.
FP: What role did Iran play in the 2006 election and the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007?
Schanzer: The extent to which Iran helped Hamas prepare for the 2006 elections is not known. But, after Hamas’s electoral victory over Fatah, Iranian influence in the territories reached a zenith. Understandably alarmed, Israel and the United States encouraged the world to impose sanctions against the Hamas regime.
Undeterred, one Hamas spokesman confirmed that Iran “was prepared to cover the entire deficit in the Palestinian budget, and [to do so] continuously.” The Bonyad-e Mostazafan za Janbaza (Foundation of the Oppressed and War Veterans), a splinter of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the group that Arafat trained in the 1970s, was also believed to be providing Hamas with critical financial support. During a visit by Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh to Tehran in December 2006, Iran pledged $250 million in aid to compensate for the western boycott.
The standoff continued through June 2007, when Hamas launched a brutal lightning coup that toppled Fatah in Gaza. Within weeks, Fatah intelligence sources were openly accusing Iran of funding the coup and training the fighters. According to Palestinian intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi, “it was a joint program with Iran.”
FP: What are the implications of Iranian influence in the territories today?
Schanzer: As the Palestinian civil war rages between “Fatahland” in the West Bank and “Hamastan” in the Gaza Strip, Iran remains Hamas’ staunchest supporter. Iranian funds and weapons continue to be smuggled into Gaza. Analysts continue to express concern that this support may contribute to a Hamas conquest of the West Bank.
The incoming Israeli and American administrations must recognize that regional peace cannot be achieved until the Palestinian internecine conflict is resolved. And the only way to resolve this conflict is to remove Iran from the equation. As we have now established, Iran has been an integral component of the continued Palestinian turmoil.
More broadly, it must be recognized that Iran is playing a masterful game of chess. Amidst its alarming declarations of intent to achieve nuclear weapons, it has strengthened its Lebanese Hizbullah proxy on the Israeli border, while simultaneously arming its Gaza proxy. Great effort must be now expended to prevent Iran from planting another chess piece in the West Bank. A repeat performance of Gaza may be underway.
FP: Jonathan Schanzer, thank you for joining us.
Schanzer: Thank you Jamie.
Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine’s managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.