Iran is smuggling weapons into the West Bank, officials say, to foment unrest with Israel

Iran is operating a clandestine smuggling route through the Middle East, employing intelligence agents, 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 possible.

The covert operation is now raising concerns that Tehran is seeking to turn the West Bank into the next flashpoint in the long-simmering shadow war between Israel and Iran. That conflict took on new urgency this month, risking broader conflict in the Middle East, as Iran vowed to retaliate for an Israeli attack on an embassy that killed seven Iranian military commanders.

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

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

“The Iranians wanted to flood the West Bank with weapons and were using criminal networks in Jordan, the West Bank and 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 author of a study on the smuggling route.

Smuggling to the West Bank, analysts say, began about two years ago, when Iran began using previously established routes to smuggle more contraband. It is unclear exactly how many weapons have arrived in the territory in that period, although analysts say most are small arms.

In the months following the Hamas-led attack on Israel from Gaza on October 7, Israeli security forces conducted a large-scale crackdown across the West Bank.

The Israeli military describes the raids as part of its counter-terrorism 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 bloodiest 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 it is unclear how many of the detainees have genuine links to militants.

“These arrests include many who are swept away for reasons that are unclear,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli government has a long history of abusive detentions, arbitrary arrests and detention of people for exercising their fundamental rights.”

For years, Iranian leaders have declared the need to arm Palestinian fighters in the occupied West Bank. Iran has long provided weapons to attack Israel to militants elsewhere in the region, members of its so-called Axis of Resistance, including its two main Palestinian allies in Gaza, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

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

Iranian officials said Tehran did not single out one group in particular for its generosity, choosing instead to broadly flood the territory with weapons and ammunition.

Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and an expert on Iran's military, said Iran was focusing on the West Bank because it understood that access to Gaza would be limited for the foreseeable future.

“The West Bank really has to be the next frontier that Iran is going to penetrate and proliferate weapons, because if they are able to do that then the West Bank will become just as big, if not bigger, a problem than Gaza,” he said. .

Fatah, the Palestinian faction that controls the Palestinian Authority and with it much of the West Bank, last week accused Iran 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 UN mission did not comment on the smuggling operation, but stressed the importance of Palestinians taking up arms against Israel.

“Iran's assessment assumes that the only effective way to resist the occupation by the Zionist regime is through armed resistance,” said Amir Saeid Iravani, the country's ambassador to the United Nations. “The Palestinian resistance forces possess the capacity to produce and procure the armaments necessary for their cause.”

Even after October 7, as Iran's proxies launched more and more attacks from Lebanon and Yemen, Tehran and Jerusalem preferred to keep much of their conflict in the shadows. But that secret war burst into public attention last week with the airstrike on the Iranian embassy building in Syria.

Israeli warplanes on April 1 attacked a meeting of leaders of the Iranian military and members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Damascus, Iranian officials said. Among those killed was Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, 65, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general responsible for Iran's covert operations in Syria and Lebanon through which part of the arms smuggling trail runs, they said Israeli, Iranian and American officials.

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

Most of the smuggled weapons, analysts say, are small arms such as pistols and assault rifles. According to American and Israeli officials, Iran is also smuggling advanced weapons. Such weapons, Israeli officials said, include anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, which fly fast and low over 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 adds that the Shin Bet “takes involvement in activities directed by Iran and its affiliates very seriously and will continue to implement active measures at all times to monitor and counter any activities that endanger the security of the State of Israel.”

Working with its militant allies and established criminal networks, Iran is using two main routes to get weapons into the West Bank, Israeli, Iranian and American officials said.

Along one route, Iranian-backed militants and Iranian proxies transport weapons from Syria to Jordan, officials said. From there, Iranian officials added, they are transferred to Bedouin traffickers at the border. Nomads bring weapons to the border with Israel, where they are picked up by criminal gangs who then move them to the West Bank.

The Iranian effort takes advantage of a well-established smuggling route in Jordan, which shares a porous 300-mile border with Israel. Last year, a Jordanian lawmaker was indicted in Amman, Jordan, after he was caught in 2022 trying to smuggle more than 200 weapons into the West Bank. The source of the weapons is unclear.

One of the Iranian officials said that the increased security since October 7, both from Israel and Jordan, has increased the risk of being discovered, especially for the Bedouin and Arab-Israelis who play a key role in their ability to cross borders.

A second, more challenging route skips Jordan and takes weapons from Syria to Lebanon, two U.S. officials said. From there, many weapons are smuggled into Israel, where criminal gangs pick them up and move them to the West Bank.

The route through Lebanon, Levitt said, is more difficult, especially since the war in Gaza began, because the border on which Hezbollah operates is more heavily patrolled by both the Israeli army and United Nations peacekeepers.

According to two Iranian officials affiliated with the Guards, much of the work of coordinating the smuggling route is done by Iranian agents of the Quds Forces, the Revolutionary Guards' external intelligence agency.

In addition to the killing of General Zahedi, the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy building in Damascus last week killed two other Quds Force generals and four other officers, Iran said, making it one of the deadliest attacks of the shadow war.

American officials and two Israeli officials said a series of strikes in Syria a week earlier targeted two Iranian intelligence divisions involved in smuggling. One unit, known as the 4000 Division, is directly supervised by the Revolutionary Guards. The other, the 18840 Division, is operated by the Quds Forces.

Days before the Israeli attack on the embassy building in Damascus, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave his personal seal of approval to Palestinian militants receiving many of Iran's weapons. In Tehran he met the leaders of two armed groups: Ziyad al-Nakhalah of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who years ago publicly issued the order to arm the West Bank, told both leaders, state media reported, that Iran would not hesitate to support the Palestinians and their cause.

“It would not have been easy for the Palestinian people to withstand this battle if it were not for Iran's continued and consistent support at all political, military and security levels,” al-Nakhalah said in a speech in Tehran.

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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