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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 18 June 2024

Iran runs an illegal arms supply ring in Israeli-occupied West Bank: Officials

The goal, as described by three Iranian officials, is to foment unrest against Israel by flooding the enclave with as many weapons as it can

Farnaz Fassihi, Ronen Bergman, Eric Schmitt New York Published 10.04.24, 06:33 AM
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Iran is operating a clandestine smuggling route across West Asia, employing intelligence operatives, militants and criminal gangs, to deliver weapons to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to officials from the US, 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 it can.

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The covert operation is now heightening 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 has taken on new urgency this month, risking a broader conflict in West Asia, as Iran vowed to retaliate for an Israeli strike on an embassy compound that killed seven Iranian armed forces commanders.

Many weapons smuggled to the West Bank largely travel along two paths from Iran through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, the officials said. As the arms cross borders, the officials added, they change hands among a multinational cast that can include members of organised criminal gangs, extremist militants, soldiers and intelligence operatives.

A key group in the operation, the Iranian officials and analysts said, are Bedouin smugglers who carry the weapons across the border from Jordan into Israel.

The New York Times interviewed senior security and government officials with knowledge of Iran’s effort to smuggle weapons to the West Bank, including three from Israel, three from Iran and three from the US. The officials from all three countries requested anonymity to discuss covert operations for which they were not authorised to speak publicly.

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

The smuggling to the West Bank, analysts said, began about two years ago when Iran started using routes previously established to smuggle other contraband. It is unclear exactly how many weapons have made it to the territory in that time, though analysts say the majority are small arms.

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

The Israeli military describes the raids as part of its counterterrorism 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.

Human rights groups say many Palestinians are being unfairly detained, particularly those held in Israeli prisons without a formal trial.

They say that it is unclear how many of the detainees possess genuine militant links.

“These arrests include many who are being swept up for reasons that are not clear,” said Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

New York Times News Service

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