The conflict between Iran and Israel has substantially intensified over recent years, with its scope broadening daily. Israel’s worries about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, regional influence, and military advancements have positioned it as a key player in responding to these perceived threats. As such, with the aim of strengthening deterrence against Iran, Jerusalem has designed a strategy of death by a thousand cuts, which includes intensifying covert operations against Iranian interests.
Unlike its previous strategy, which focused on sabotaging Tehran’s nuclear program and assassinating its nuclear scientists, Israel now appears to have extended its web to target other scientists and officers in charge of missile and drone programs, as well as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force. Additionally, Jerusalem is utilizing its diplomatic capacities to further operationalize this strategy of “death by a thousand cuts” by expanding its relations with Iran’s neighboring states—especially those that do not have good relations with Iran. Strengthening relations with Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Region, normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and reopening its embassy in Turkmenistan are among its actions in this regard.
Given all this, what has Iran done? It seems that Iran’s response to Israel’s actions can be evaluated in the framework of two short-term and long-term approaches. Tehran’s short-term approach to Jerusalem’s actions has mainly included a case-by-case response, including targeting positions and assets related to Israel in the sea or a third country. In this regard, drone attacks on Israeli ships in the Persian Gulf and missile attacks on the Mossad headquarters in Erbil have been carried out. In addition, Iran’s long-term policy toward Israel has always been based on creating a defensive front in the Eastern Mediterranean. By propping up Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement alongside Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran has endeavored to turn Lebanon and the Gaza Strip into defense embankments against Israel.
How Iran’s West Bank Strategy Came to Be
The term “Arming the West Bank” was raised for the first time in the middle of the 2014 Gaza War. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that he considered the only way to rescue Palestine was by “arming the West Bank like Gaza.”
A month after the end of the conflict, the notion was raised again in Khamenei’s meeting with Ramadan Abdullah, the former secretary-general of the Islamic Jihad Movement. In this meeting, Khamenei stressed the need for “serious planning to join the West Bank in confronting Israel” with the aim of increasing Israel’s security concerns.
These statements were welcomed by Palestinian militant groups. Among others, Khaled Qaddoumi, Hamas’s representative in Tehran, considered this approach to be a serious and important option for resistance groups in Palestine—if supported by Iran, they could change the balance of power in what Palestinians see as the occupied territories.
In Iran’s view, this approach stands out because of how vulnerable Israel is to it. Not only is the West Bank relatively close to Israel’s three key cities and military-economic centers—Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa—but also the presence of Jewish settlers and more than two million Palestinians provides a rich environment for Iran to open a new front. Unlike Iran’s other deterrence measures, arming the West Bank would inflict more deadly blows on Israel by reducing the geographical distance as much as possible. The approach could paralyze Israel’s security system and blockade Israel within its own borders by expanding the geography of the conflict.
How Would the Strategy Be Implemented?
Iran has plenty of options on the table to pursue this approach: it can transfer small arms and light weapons through non-state allied intermediaries, provide training to facilitate the production of light weapons inside the West Bank itself, finance the purchasing of weapons from arms dealers, and more.
Tehran, however, faces a few obstacles in attempting to pursue this strategy. The borders of the West Bank, for one, are strongly patrolled by Israel and Jordan, impeding any easy arms shipments. Similarly, the Palestinian National Authority will not look kindly upon the arming of its domestic political rivals and the potential diplomatic damage that this could result in.
On the other hand, Iran was seriously involved in Syria and Iraq and had focused on defeating Saudi Arabia in regional conflicts. Despite these obstacles, some reports show that at the same time, Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Quds Force, in contact with the commanders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, emphasized the arming of the West Bank as Iran’s priority in the occupied territories. Also, while many experts were talking about the impossibility of this strategy due to many hurdles, former Iranian diplomat Hussein Sheikh al-Islam rejected this issue and said: “We know how to deliver weapons to the West Bank. We have already delivered weapons to other fronts.”
As some news sources, quoting Israeli security officials, have revealed, Lebanese Hezbollah, the main non-state ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has transferred light weapons to the West Bank. In addition, the smuggling of arms through dealers or other people to the West Bank has grown significantly in recent years. The latest example in this regard was the arrest of Imad al-Adwan, a Jordanian lawmaker, by Israeli police on charges of trying to smuggle weapons to the West Bank.
The idea of negotiating with Israel has faded among the Palestinians for various reasons (such as the continuation of settlements, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by Donald Trump, and the inauguration of the most right-wing government in Israel). In return, they have turned to individual armed struggle, which has gained unprecedented popularity among the young generation of Palestine, especially after the intensification of arms smuggling to the West Bank.
The emergence of new armed groups in the West Bank, such as the Jenin Brigade, the Balata Brigade, and, most notoriously, the Lions’ Den, shows a change in approach in this region. In the past two years, the beginning of a new round of conflicts in Nablus, Jenin, and Sheikh Jarrah and numerous attacks against checkpoints, soldiers, and Israeli settlements have led some analysts to consider the continuation of this situation as the beginning of the Third Intifada. Iran openly supported the actions of armed groups in the West Bank. Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force, praised the Palestinian youth of the West Bank and said: “Before the West Bank was armed, few actions were taken against Israel in this area, but today, in some days, more than 30 operations are conducted.” Ramzan Sharif, the spokesman of the IRGC, also announced that these groups are fully supported by Iran.
From a macro perspective, it seems that Iran is pursuing two strategic objectives via its policy of arming the West Bank: the unity of Palestinian groups in confronting Israel and the addition of a new front in the battle with Israel. The importance of unity among the Palestinian groups lies in the fact that after the end of the Second Intifada, the West Bank was out of the conflict with Israel, and the armed groups were active only in the Gaza Strip. In the current situation, the unification of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip can lead to the formation of a joint command structure in order to coordinate information and operations between Palestinian groups under the supervision of Iran and Hezbollah. This happened for the first time in the war of 2021, known as Saif al-Quds.
Also, the gradual expansion of West Bank arming will increase Iran’s capabilities in any possible action against Israel. Especially if the pursuit of this policy is accompanied by the transfer of more advanced weapons such as rockets, mortars, and short-range missiles. In this case, Israel can be attacked from at least three fronts: southern Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. As it stands, it seems that the third decade of the twenty-first century in the Middle East should be called the era of intensification of the Cold War between Tehran and Jerusalem and the confrontation between the two strategies: Arming the West Bank and death by a thousand cuts. Especially after the normalization of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and speculation about the continuation of de-escalation with Arab neighbors, Iran’s capacity to focus on confronting Israel will increase.
Dr. Amir Hossein Vazirian holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, Iran. His research interests are primarily focused on Iran’s foreign and security policy and Middle East Studies.