TEL AVIV — Even though he had been targeted for death since last fall, Israeli defense officials say the assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi became an urgent priority only in the last month, after he became the head of Hamas and began upgrading Iranian involvement in the organization.
Rantisi, 54, was killed April 17 by an Israeli helicopter gunship near his Gaza home, just 26 days after he took over Hamas following the assassination of his predecessor, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
During the few weeks that he headed the organization, defense officials say Rantisi invited the Iranians and their Lebanese surrogates, Hezbollah, to play a guiding role that Yassin had long resisted granting them.
The Israeli defense establishment is following this alliance with great concern. “Hamas has lost its compass, lost its direction,” said a ranking defense official.
Iranian involvement in Palestinian terrorist groups is not new. In addition to their longstanding ties to the Islamic Jihad organization, they have worked with Hamas and Fatah groups both directly and indirectly via Hezbollah. They have emerged in the past year as a key factor in West Bank terrorism, running cells of Hamas and Tanzim. They have also contributed to Hamas-run charitable funds in Gaza.
The apparent increase in Iranian involvement in Gaza follows several recent shocks suffered by Hamas, including the assassination of Yassin and a severe financial crisis. The new leadership that succeeded Yassin was weaker, less authoritative and less pragmatic, and looked to Iran for a crutch.
Iran, for its part, appears to view the opening in Gaza as part of a larger strategy, linked to its growing role in fomenting unrest in Iraq.
Hamas at its height had a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. In the last two years its funding sources have been radically curtailed. America has been shutting down various Hamas-linked fundraising foundations, and European authorities have been prodded to follow suit. In recent months the Palestinian Authority, too, has imposed restrictions on 39 charitable associations identified with Hamas. As a result of these actions, Hamas has reached a fiscal crisis that threatens its existence.
Several months ago, as part of the P.A.’s struggle against its Islamist rivals, Hamas was obligated to get a permit from the Palestinian Ministry of Interior and the general intelligence service for every money transfer over 5,000 dinars that it receives from abroad. As a result, most of the money that Hamas has raised in Gaza in recent months has been raised at home. Needy families supported by Hamas charitable organizations have not received money in three months.
Indeed, Israeli sources say, the budgetary constraints were one of the explanations for the fact that hundreds of Qassem rockets weren’t flying into Israel after the elimination of Yassin. On April 9, for the first time in the organization’s history, masked members of Hamas’s Iz A-Din Al-Qassem Brigades took up a Friday collection in local mosques.
These collections are small change. When Iran enters the picture, real money will start to flow, defense officials believe. And with the Iranian money will come influence over the character of Hamas and over its political stance toward Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab world. Arms and materiel will start to flow from a major state with a professional espionage service, and combat techniques will change accordingly.
To understand the sort of role Iran could play in Gaza if unchecked, Israeli officials point to Lebanon, where Iranians were instrumental in setting up the Hezbollah organization in the 1980s. Today they provide Hezbollah with some $80 million a year — roughly 80% of its overall budget. Islamic Jihad, which is entirely dependent on Iranian money, receives some $10 million a year.
In the West Bank the changes introduced by Hezbollah into the Tanzim and Hamas cells it operates are palpable in the more standardized and deadly organization, planning, sophistication, in combat materiel.
The Iranian apparatus working with the Palestinians today consists of some 300 Revolutionary Guard personnel based in Lebanon. The liaison is Hezbollah. The intention in Gaza is apparently for the Revolutionary Guards to work directly with Hamas, without this mediation.
The new link to Hamas is an Iranian achievement of no small magnitude, and Israel’s security establishment still hopes to halt it. They contrast it with the Iranian encroachment into the governmental vacuum in Iraq, which they say is far deeper, and perhaps irreversible. Iran is said to be the central player leading the current uprising against the Americans.
In a report to the Italian parliament last month, Italy’s foreign intelligence agency said that the Iranians are putting $70 million a month into subversive forces operating against the coalition forces in Iraq. These sums include the establishment of three training camps, the infiltration hundreds of agents — members of the Revolutionary Guards — into the Shi’ite cities in Iraq, the acquisition of hundreds of safe houses, and the organization of the Al Mehdi Army of Moktada Sadr.
In describing the connection between Iran’s efforts in Iraq and Gaza, Israeli officials here point to an unusual declaration issued by Sadr in early April. During Friday prayers he announced that “Hamas and Hezbollah can regard me as their striking arm in Iraq.” The words were initially taken to be propaganda, affirming the shared destinies of Iraq and Palestine. Sadr’s spokesman, Abbas Al-Rabi’i, quickly explained that the link between the Al-Mehdi Army and Hamas and Hezbollah is based on the defense of Islam. Beyond that, he added, we are serious in our intention to mobilize for Hamas and Hezbollah.
This public solidarity between Gaza and the Shi’ite slums of Baghdad continued to gain momentum. Several days after the April declaration Sadr in Iraq and Rantisi in Gaza issued an identical declaration, in which both men vowed not to let the enemy of the Arabs, George Bush, be reelected.
The fact that Sadr is, in effect, more Iranian than Iraqi is not news. A month before the battles erupted in Najaf he visited Iran, and all signs indicate that the timing of his opening fire and provoking the coalition troops was not coincidental.
The direct link between Rantisi and Iran was less understood. The connection was newer. Its fate after the death of Rantisi is unclear.
A short time before Yassin was killed, Hamas set up a committee to explore plans for managing life in Gaza after the Israelis leave. A parallel staff had been set up by the Palestinian Authority.
The creation of these two staffs made coordination necessary, and the elimination of Yassin made coordination all the more urgent. Arafat had chosen former Gaza security chief Mohammad Dahlan as his representative at the coordination talks. Rantisi, whose main concern was survival, managed to meet him just once. Afterward, Hamas was represented by two officials considered more pragmatic and closer to the views of Yassin regarding the role that Hamas should play in running Gaza.
According to the Yassin view, Hamas aimed to take over Palestinian society in stages, starting in the streets, moving to the engineers’ and lawyers’ unions, the universities, and only afterward to government.
Rantisi, in contrast, was in a hurry. He belonged to the stream that believes Hamas should pose itself now as an alternative to the Palestinian Authority. He wanted to seize key positions in government and the security forces.
As strange as it sounds, the document that served as a basis for the contacts between Hamas and the P.A. was agreed on as early as August 2002, right after Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield. At that time, following criticism of the elimination of Hamas leader Sallah Shehadeh, Israelis insisted there was no such agreement between the two sides. But there was a document, and the two sides were about to sign it.
That document, which was revived shortly before Rantisi’s death, dealt among other things with a halt to attacks inside the Green Line. As before, in the latest talks Hamas was refusing to accept a complete cease-fire. Israelis were watching with concern to see whether the P.A. would manage to impose its will on Hamas and prevent attacks across the Green Line after Israel withdrew. The answer could have been much simpler in August 2002. In April 2004 the matter is far more complicated, because now there is another partner: Iran.
Alex Fishman is the chief military correspondent of Yediot Aharonot.