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Palestinian ties to Iran, Hizbullah look firmer

Israeli accusations of links between the three gain credence, as Arafat becomes more isolated.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2002


Three years ago, Iran described Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a "traitor" to the cause of Palestine. The head of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizbullah organization has called Mr. Arafat a "disgrace to Palestine, Arabism, and Islam" and urged the Palestinian people to kill him.

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But in the past two weeks, Israel has been energetically promoting the idea of a secret "terror" triangle linking Arafat's Palestinian Authority with Iran and Hizbullah. Israel's argument has been received with cautious sympathy by the United States, denials from the Palestinians and Iran, and guarded skepticism by Arab commentators.

The connection, according to Israel, was an attempt to smuggle 50 tons of mainly Iranian weapons by sea from an island off the coast of Iran to the Gaza Strip. The plan was foiled Jan. 3 when Israeli naval commandos seized the Karine A's cargo in the Red Sea.

The Israeli government said it had conclusive evidence that Iran supplied the weapons, that the Palestinian Authority was the recipient, and that the deal was engineered by Hizbullah.

Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, claimed that a "significant strategic connection between the Palestinian Authority and Iran" has existed since last April.

"A most dangerous axis began to be created, consisting of an attempt to infiltrate the region," General Mofaz was quoted as saying by the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot.

Israeli government adviser Dore Gold said that, following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Iran had been seeking an entry for Hizbullah into the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

"Iranian involvement in the Karine A affair reinforces the impression it is seeking a regional role, largely by meddling in terrorism," Mr. Gold said.

Hizbullah's fighters line the Lebanon-Israel border, but the organization denies being active in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has accused Iran of manipulating three fronts against Israel: Hizbullah along the Jewish state's northern border, the alliance with the Palestinian Authority, and an unspecified penetration of the Israeli-Arab community.

However, the Palestinian Authority scoffs at the charge that it has established military ties with Iran.

"There is no such military or security relationship," Palestinian spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo says.

Iran has been equally dismissive.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has had no military relations with Yasser Arafat, and no steps have been taken by any Iranian organization for the shipment of arms to the mentioned lands," Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told the Islamic Republic News Agency.

Given the iciness of their previous relations, a strategic alliance between Iran and the Palestinian Authority would appear unlikely at first glance.

Iranian leaders have been openly hostile toward Arafat in the past. Iran strongly opposes the 1993 Oslo Accords, which provided the framework for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and believes that Arafat has granted too many concessions to the Jewish state in negotiations.

In October 1998, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the supreme leader of Iran, scathingly described Arafat as a "lackey of the Zionists" for signing the Wye River land-for-security agreement with Israel. Two days later, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbullah, urged Palestinians to kill Arafat.

The Palestinian leader has also leveled criticism at Tehran for supporting the hardline groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat views the growing popularity of the two Islamist groups in the West Bank and Gaza as a potential threat to his own leadership.

Nonetheless, the once-frosty relationship between Iran and Arafat appears to have thawed since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. Iran, which opposes Israel's very existence, is a staunch backer of the intifada, opening its hospitals to wounded Palestinians, training fighters, and rallying support for the up rising.