Home inFocus Israel’s Allies and Adversaries Iran is Willing to Fight to the Last Israeli Arab

Iran is Willing to Fight to the Last Israeli Arab

Sean Durns Spring 2022
Arab Israelis demostrate against the Jewish nation-state law in Tel Aviv in 2018. (Photo: Ammar Awad)

Iran, it has often been said, is willing to fight to the last Arab. The Islamic Republic’s long-standing policy of using Arabs to fight its proxy wars is, it seems, being extended to the Jewish state. And Israeli Arabs are paying the price. 

Many of Israel’s Arab communities have seen a spike in violent crime in recent months and years. In 2013, for example, there were 58 homicides. But by 2020, that number stood at 97 – an astounding increase. That year, the Times of Israel observed, was for Israeli Arabs officially “their deadliest year in recent memory.” 

The epidemic of violence attracted considerable coverage from news outlets, both foreign and domestic. The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, have devoted news and editorial space to the crime spree. Much of the press attention, however, has focused on the supposed social inequities – both real and imagined – which are allegedly fueling the violence. 

“The wave of violence,” The Washington Post claimed in an October 2019 report, “has prompted outrage in the country’s Arab communities, near-daily protests and accusations that law enforcement protects some Israelis more than others.” Two years later, an October 2021 New York Times dispatch warned that “killing of Arabs by Arabs has soared,” but “the prevailing assumption, an official said, was ‘as long as they are killing each other, that’s their problem.’” 

The news media narrative is clear: even when Israeli Arabs are shooting each other, it is somehow and someway, still the fault of the Jewish state.  

But another, more credible culprit exists: Iran. 

The Role of Iran

The Islamic Republic has been sending illegal firearms and weaponry into Israel’s Arab communities. And it’s not speculation to say so. Rather, it’s a fact. 

In November 2021, Israeli police revealed that Iran has been smuggling weapons to Israel’s Arab community to “sow civil strife,” as the Times of Israel reported. Yaron Ben-Yishi, chief superintendent for the Jewish state’s northern district, told Israel’s Channel 12 news that “95 percent of the smuggling from Lebanon is directed by Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese-based terror proxy.” Some of the arms are also being smuggled across the Jordanian border. 

The weapons, while destined for Israeli Arab crime organizations, “would also be available for terror attacks in the event of another surge in violence between Jews and Arabs,” TOI noted. 

Iran has considerable expertise in smuggling. The country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) uses smuggling to “generate revenue,” as the U.S. Treasury Department has documented. The IRGC’s extensive criminal network utilizes Iran’s numerous terrorist proxies and connections to the underworld to run guns, drugs, oil, ivory, and a host of other illicit goods. 

Indeed, Iran has previously smuggled drugs into a variety of Middle East nations, including  archenemies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. The narcotics bring disorder and death to Tehran’s opponents – and they also fill the IRGC’s coffers. But Hezbollah, Ben-Yishi told TOI, has now moved from drugs to weapons. And in far greater quantities than before. 

Over the Border

Hezbollah has previously smuggled guns into Israel. But recent months have witnessed a “seven-fold” increase in the number of arms being smuggled. And not only are the quantities greater – the quality of the weapons has also improved.  

In July 2021, Israeli security forces seized $800,000 (USD) worth of weapons and ammunition. It was, officials told reporters, the “largest stash of weapons intercepted in recent years.” Footage released by Israeli Defense Forces showed the smugglers moving the material. While no arrests were announced, the IDF has said that it believes Hezbollah’s involvement is likely. As TOI noted, “Hezbollah has long maintained control over the area adjacent to the border with Israel” – it would be highly unlikely for the terrorist group to not be involved. 

That Iran uses proxies to smuggle weapons to Israeli Arabs is unsurprising. It is a strategy that dovetails with Tehran’s efforts – often successful – to sow chaos in the region. 

Iran’s Strategy

Jason Brodsky, the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), told me in an interview that Iran’s strategy “is likely to inflame tensions so as to undermine the social fabric” in Israel’s Arab communities. “This,” he observed, “invites the instability off which Iran thrives.” 

Brodsky pointed out that the Islamic Republic’s strategy is also “aimed at delegitimizing Israel.” In his view, this is an influence operation to serve that end. By encouraging violence among Israeli Arabs, Tehran is aiding the numerous elements that are engaged in a long-running campaign to weaken the Jewish state.  

Growing crime in Israeli Arab neighborhoods feeds into the narrative, pushed by anti-Israeli NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that Israel is an “apartheid state” – one in which justice, and societal ills, are not evenly dispensed. International media is happy to promote this narrative, as coverage of the subject illustrates. 

A March 23, 2021, report by The Washington Post, for example, said: “Though they make up one-fifth of Israel’s population, Arab Israelis say police and politicians are ignoring the high rates of crime and poverty in their neighborhoods.” The dispatch, by Post correspondent Miriam Berger, featured more than a dozen pictures of Israeli Arabs mourning and protesting    including an image of three teenaged girls who “painted their faces with red hands to symbolize the bloodshed in their community,” the newspaper said. But The Post failed to provide readers with essential details: the major Arab political party now sits in government; polls also show that sizable majorities wouldn’t want to be part of a Palestinian state, should one be created . 

Indeed, most of the reporting by foreign press outlets has failed to note the origin of many of the weapons used in what The Washington Post merely labeled a “surge in gun violence” in Israeli Arab communities. If legacy media outlets were willing to dig deeper, they would find Iran’s prints at the scene. 

Tehran, of course, hopes to do more than just contribute to the ceaseless propaganda war against Israel. The Islamic Republic’s “foreign policy and national security strategy,” Brodsky pointed out, “is organized to destroy the Jewish state.” Iran would be delighted if the arms that it is supplying were used in interethnic conflicts in Israel. 

Riots in Israel

As Joe Truzman, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told me in an interview, smuggling weapons into Israel isn’t a prime threat in and of itself. Rather, “the threat emerges when these weapons are coupled with widespread rioting – much like what occurred during the 2021 Gaza conflict.”

In May 2021, Iranian proxies in Gaza launched a war against Israel. For 11 days, U.S.-designated terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad indiscriminately launched rockets into Israel, which responded with Operation Guardian of the Walls. The war was the fourth such conflict in the last dozen years. The latest salvo was launched by Iran to test Israel’s missile defense system and for Hamas to capitalize on the growing weakness of its Fatah rival that dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. However, it was also marked by a new, ominous occurrence: violence between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.  

Towns like Lod, which have long had a heavily mixed population of Arab and non-Arab, experienced rioting and interethnic violence. Rioters torched synagogues, beat soldiers, and burned cars in what the Times of Israel called “some of the worst internal unrest in years.” Paramedics and policemen were shot. Indeed, in Lod alone, no fewer than five synagogues were set ablaze. 

Importantly, as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) documented, the month before the latest Israel-Iran conflict also witnessed growing incidents of Jewish-Arab violence. Hanan Amiur, the Editor-in-Chief of Presspectiva, CAMERA’s Hebrew department pointed out: 

On April 15th, a Palestinian youngster from Jerusalem uploaded to his TikTok account a video showing him without provocation harshly slapping a Jewish religious teen riding in the city’s light rail. 

Soon afterwards, attacks on Jewish bystanders became a trend. Many young Arabs started uploading countless – dozens if not hundreds – of videos to TikTok in which they are seen attacking policemen, humiliating ultra-Orthodox passers–by, and beating them with severe violence. 

Unsurprisingly, many press accounts ignored the earlier violence and portrayed the May 2021 rioting as purely the result of Arabs being “fed up” with social inequities as a May 25, 2021 Washington Post dispatch put it. In a December 2021 report, Human Rights Watch called the violence “peaceful protests by Palestinians” – an odd way both to refer to the burning of synagogues and attempted murder of civilians and first responders, and to refer to Israeli Arabs, the majority of whom prefer to not be called “Palestinians.” 

Propaganda Value 

But interethnic violence in Israel presents the Islamic Republic with numerous opportunities, including those which extend beyond the propaganda war against Israel. Simply put, it is an opportunity to not only bleed Israel, but to shake the faith of Israelis of all backgrounds in their shared future and that of the Zionist project. 

There is a sort of twisted irony in Iran attempting to use Israel’s own Arab citizens against it. Iran, it can fairly be said, has brought Israel and many of its Arab neighbors together. The shared threat that the Islamic Republic, a revisionist power, poses to the region has led to historic Israeli-Arab peace agreements like the Abraham Accords. 

Iran, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Jonathan Schanzer observed, is hoping to “start a bunch of fires and see what ones Israel puts out  – and how.” He noted that Iran might be hoping that Israel will be preoccupied with the smuggling of larger, deadlier munitions like precision guided missiles (PGMs). 

Tehran’s efforts to incite interethnic violence are likely to fail. As CAMERA pointed out in a Jan. 6, 2021, Washington Examiner op-ed, Israeli Arabs have served on the country’s Supreme Court, held high ranks in the IDF, run hospitals and businesses, and have their own political parties.  

Both Israel and the United States could deter Iran’s plans. As Jason Brodsky pointed out, both countries “should be working together to pressure social media companies into denying platforms to the Iranian regime.” Social media, he told me, has been used by the regime to “create fissures between groups.” Indeed, a recent investigation by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) showed that Tehran was running a network on Facebook targeting orthodox Jews to divide and enflame along ethnic and religious lines. 

Iran, of course, is not the first country to use the tactic of “divide and conquer” to construct its empire and bring ruin to its enemies. Nor is Israel its first victim    the Islamic Republic and its minions have made similar exertions in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. It only stands to reason that Israel, its foremost enemy after the United States, would be subjected to a variation. But the audacity of the Islamic Republic is striking, nonetheless. 

Fighting Back

Whether Tehran succeeds will depend on several factors. 

Iranian plans to sow interethnic violence and strife have been severely hampered by Israel’s excellent intelligence-gathering capabilities and its border security. In Truzman’s view, “Israeli authorities have done an excellent job in thwarting attempts to smuggle weapons into Israel from countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.” He added: “Pinpoint intelligence is required to detect these attempts and Israel has achieved this capability.”  

Another potential factor will be Iran’s expanding war chest. The sanctions relief enacted by the Biden administration will likely whet the regime’s ambitions. Flush with hundreds of milions in new dollars,  the Islamic Republic seems certain to finance even more terror and destruction. And some of the cost, it seems certain, will be paid with the blood of Israeli Arabs. 

Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).