Iran called threat to peace between Arabs, Israelis

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli and Palestinian officials are warning that Iran is actively working to promote violence here and undermine chances for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.

Palestinian officials, usually reluctant to acknowledge external threats, say privately they are worried that Iran has a growing involvement. Israeli military intelligence officials say that militant Palestinian cells are receiving money and arms indirectly supplied by Iran, through neighboring Syria and Lebanon.

Outside involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not new, since the leaders of militant groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad have offices in Damascus, the Syrian capital. But analysts say new forces are becoming active now that Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, appears serious about ending violence against Israel.

According to gunmen here as well as Israeli army officials, the Iranian-supported militant group Hezbollah - the most powerful political and military force in southern Lebanon, along that country's border with Israel - is offering gunmen money to defy the truce with Israel.

'Calming down'

"Hezbollah is very much concerned about this calming down," said Salah Abdel Shafi, a political analyst in Gaza who meets frequently with leaders of Hamas and officials from the Palestinian Authority. "There is tremendous pressure on Iran and Syria from America, and as long as the uprising continues, the attention is here and they are left alone. It is in Iran's interest to keep the Palestinian territories boiling."

Officials talk of other reasons for Hezbollah to want to prolong the conflict. They include Hezbollah's need to justify itself after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, and its core ideology that Israel should not exist.

"The headquarters of the Palestinian terror organizations are located in Damascus," Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, told reporters this week. "Syria together with Iran encourages and finances terror activities by Palestinian terror organizations, as well as Hezbollah's activities against Israel."

Evidence scarce

But direct evidence of Iranian influence in the West Bank and Gaza is difficult to find. Israel's best case is the interception three years ago of the ship Karine A, which Israel says was loaded in Iran with a cargo of 50 tons of weapons destined for Palestinian militants. Palestinian Authority security officials and Hezbollah operatives were caught on board.

The Israeli army also points to the arrest of militants who say they are in contract with Hezbollah. In addition, the Hamas chief in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal, met in Beirut last month with Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah.

This week, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank, and militants announced that the men had been dispatched to attack a Jewish settlement on orders of Hezbollah. Israeli army officials believe that Hamas' recent breach of a truce, involving dozens of mortar rounds being fired at Jewish settlements in Gaza, was ordered by Hamas leaders in Syria over the objections of the group's local, more moderate commanders.

Hamas denial

Hamas vehemently denies that outside influences are fueling the conflict. "There is no relationship between us and any outside group," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri said in an interview here. "The positions we take affect Palestinian issues, and Palestinians alone will decide our course of action."

Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator from Gaza who is negotiating the current cease-fire on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, was equally dismissive of Iranian or Syrian influence on local affairs.

"Israel has a tendency to exaggerate the existence of external threats," Amr said. "We are dealing with internal Palestinian issues, and convincing the factions to disarm has nothing to do with the concerns of other countries. It is simply not an issue. Iran is not fighting Israel from here."

Change for Hamas

But there is little doubt that Hamas, which both carries out suicide bombings against Israel and provides food and emergency aid to Palestinians, is undergoing significant change that could dramatically alter the course of the conflict and disrupt outside agendas.

Hamas leaders in Gaza have agreed to an informal truce and to seek permission from the Palestinian Authority before responding to any Israeli actions. They also recently won seats in municipal elections here.

"Joining a mainstream, democratic election has consequences," Amr said. "They are now more beholden to the people who put their members in office, and the people now want calm. It shows a willingness to integrate into the system, and we believe that is the best way to eventually get them to end the fighting."

Radical shift

Shafi, the political analyst, said that it is this radical shift in policy that worries Iran and Hezbollah.

Days after Abbas won election in January, Hamas attacked an Israeli-Palestinian terminal in Gaza, killing six Israelis in a sophisticated, well-planned attack. At the time, the Israeli army said the attack bore the hallmarks of Hezbollah's tactics, and it was seen as an early, ominous message to Abbas.

Israel responded by threatening a large-scale invasion of Gaza. Knowing the threat, Abbas met with militant leaders.

"He told them they have two options," said Shafi, who was briefed on the talks by Abbas' aides. "Either you calm things down or I go back home and you bear the consequences. Israel is prepared to do an incursion, and I'll come back after and talk to you, if I find any of you alive."

Death of Arafat

Both Shafi and Israeli officials say that Hamas understands that conditions have changed, beginning with the death last year of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"Hamas is going through a transition period," Shafi said. "They are pragmatic enough to realize that the Palestinian people are fatigued and want quiet. What outside groups like Hezbollah and Iran don't yet understand is that in the current situation, they cannot conduct business as usual."

But Shafi also warned that Hamas is far from ready to surrender its arms or change its belief that violence will ultimately be necessary to defeat Israel. He said the group is tactically maneuvering to stay alive and relevant.

"Hamas firmly believes that no real political solution will surface to answer the big questions, such as refugees, territory and the occupation," Shafi said. "During the Oslo peace process, Hamas laid low waiting for things to explode. Now, as then, they are sure that the promise of the peace dividend will not materialize, but they are willing to give Abbas a chance knowing that the alternative at the moment is their own destruction at the hands of Israel."

Cautiously watching

The Israeli army is cautiously watching. To help Abbas gain true effective control, it has agreed to halt offensive operations, end its practice of targeting militants for arrest or assassination and to withdraw gradually from Palestinian cities.

Military analysts have moved Hamas from the category of "active terror group" and into another category, called "changing and indecisive." A senior army official who tracks militant groups said Hamas, decimated by Israeli attacks that wiped out most of its leadership, is reassessing its future.

"There is no doubt that Hamas sees itself as an active terrorist group," said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named. "But the group has made a decision to change. They are on the road to making a strategic decision - whether to enter the political arena or continue their terrorist lifestyle. Israeli actions have made it difficult for them to continue with the double identity of a terrorist group and a social entity."

The army analyst depicted Hamas as being in the middle of competing pressures, pulled back toward violence by Hezbollah on one side and toward peace by Abbas on the other.

"The real question is who will win," the official said. "We are watching very closely. One thing that is clear is that unlike Arafat, Abbas is forcing Hamas to make decisions. The waiting game is over. We believe Hamas is ready for a cease-fire, they are just now trying to negotiate the price."

Zohri, the Hamas spokesman, said the group is considering a cease-fire in exchange for a formal role in Palestinian government. But it also wants firm commitments by Israel to releasing prisoners, withdrawing troops and ending army operations.

Tactical shift

He described the group's new moderate tone as a tactical rather than strategic shift. "Calming means temporary," said Zohri, who also teaches Islamic history at Islamic University in Gaza. "Naturally, if Israel keeps its promises and its commitments, this calming could last a long, long time."

Zohri said he understands that Abbas' ultimate goal to convince Hamas to disarm and give up violence, something he said the group is not yet ready to consider. He warned that Hamas still considers itself a pivotal player, bolstered by its strong showing in municipal elections.

"Hamas has not changed its long-term goals," Zohri said. "If we see the need to calm things down, we will. If we see the need to attack, we will. Hamas can bring peace or it can bring war."