A Who’s Who of Iran’s Favorite Palestinian Terrorists

The shadowy commander of Iran’s Quds Force has a roster of his top Palestinian fighters. Their divisions, and their connections, are key to understanding Gaza.

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty

By Ladan Salami at IranWire

Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force who is known as the point man for Iran’s military and covert operations outside its borders, publicly pledged support for Palestinian fighters on July 30. Then he named five specific groups. Some of them are affiliated with Hamas, which has led the fighting in the most recent Gaza war, and some with the even more radical Islamic Jihad. All portray themselves, and are lauded by Iran, as resistance fighters. All are branded by Israel as terrorists.

They are: the Qassam Brigades, the Al-Quds Brigades, the Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades, the al-Aqsa Martyrs and the Nasser Salahuddin Brigades.

OK. But who are these resistance groups? What is their relationship with the Islamic Republic? And why the name dropping just now?

The Qassam Brigades are the military wing of Hamas, and they are the largest and best-equipped group operating in Gaza today. Named after Izz ad-Din al Qassam, a Muslim preacher who led the resistance movement against the Zionists and the British in the 1930s, the brigades are overseen by 49-year-old Mohammed Zeif (or Deif), born in Khan Yunis and a resident of the al Shajayah neighborhood outside Gaza City, which has seen widespread destruction during recent Israeli airstrikes. Zeif founded the brigades in 1992, along with Emad Aqel, Yahiya Ayyash, and Abu Bilal al-Qol. After the three others were killed in successive Israeli operations in the mid-1990s, Zeif took command. He has been on Israel’s “wanted” list for 19 years.

According to the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Zeif is a “secretive man” who serves as the de facto Hamas defense minister. To Israelis, the paper says, he’s known as the “serpent’s head,” confined to a wheelchair after a rocket attack on his home in 2006 severed his spinal cord. Since the attack, he has appeared on television only twice, speaking from the shadows with only half of his face showing. During a recent video address, during which he called for vengeance against Israel, his face was completely hidden.

Hamas itself was founded as the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was killed in 2004 by an Israeli helicopter gunship. Since its inception, Hamas has had close ties with Iran, but relations soured when civil war broke out in Syria. Hamas supported Islamists fighting against the regime of President Bashar al Assad, while Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah actively supported the Syrian president. Commander Suleimani is said to be in charge of Iran-led operations in Syria, so why has he turned to praising Hamas’ Qassam Brigades?

Even when relations between the Islamic Republic and Hamas were at their lowest, many believed that their shared struggle against Israel would be enough to cool tensions—and the current conflict in Gaza supports this view. Iran has been Hamas’ biggest support in the region. Though both Turkey and Qatar have spoken of their support for Hamas—and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has an office in Qatar—neither have offered military assistance or equipment.

The Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement, are Iran’s closest allies in Gaza. Founded in 1981 and led by Ramadan Abdullah Shalah, the Al-Quds Brigades have not taken sides in the Syrian conflict and are generally more receptive to Iran’s policies.

Ties between Iran and the Al-Quds Brigades are much deeper and go back much further than that of Iran and Hamas. (Al Quds is Arabic or Persian for Jerusalem.) In 1990, when Hamas was still building support, Fathi Shaqaqi, one of the founders of the Al-Quds Brigades, was a familiar face in Tehran and a frequent guest of Iranian officials.

Israel’s Mossad agents assassinated Shaqaqi in Malta in 1995. Shortly thereafter, the Islamic Republic named a street in Tehran after him, pledging its commitment to armed struggle against Israel.

Today the relationship between Iran and the Al-Quds Brigades is stronger than ever. In January, when the U.S. State Department declared Ziyad al-Nakhalah, the Brigades’ second in command, to be a “global terrorist,” he was invited to Tehran.

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Khaled al-Batsh, a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine, thanked Iran for its help. “We are an occupied nation,” he said. “We have found support among many of our brothers. Let me clearly say that the Islamic Republic of Iran is at the forefront of this show of support.”

According to its spokesman, the Nasser Salahuddin Brigades are the third-largest paramilitary group in Gaza. They are a breakaway faction from Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1993 the brigades refused to accept the Oslo Peace Agreement between Israel and the PLO, currently led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president.

Unlike the PLO, the Nasser Salahuddin Brigades believe that the armed struggle against Israel must continue, and they have established themselves in Gaza instead of the West Bank, which is run by the PLO.

Since two of the brigades’ secretary-generals have been assassinated by Israel, it now refuses to name its leaders or commanders.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades call themselves the official military wing of Fatah, but there are differences throughout the organization. Most of the members who reside in Gaza have taken up arms. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades consists of scores of armed groups in the West Bank and Gaza. In recent days the group claimed that it fired rockets at Israeli missile defense system locations.

Last year the brigades issued a statement reiterating their strategic and lasting alliance with Lebanon’s Hezbollah—a move that would have gone down well with the Islamic Republic.

The Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades are the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist organization formed in 1967. It is officially part of the PLO, but has boycotted the PLO’s Executive Committee and considers both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza to be illegal, particularly since there have been no further elections in the Palestinian territories since 2006, when Fatah and Hamas split.

The PFLP’s military wing changed its name from the Red Eagles Brigades to the Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades in August 2001 after Israeli forces killed PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustapha. In July 2007, Mahmoud Abbas called for armed Palestinian groups to surrender their weapons to the Palestinian Authority, but the Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades refused. During the recent Gaza-Israel conflict, the brigades claimed that they fired a number of rockets at Israeli towns bordering Gaza.

Suleimani’s support for these factions—and the implication that this represents the view of the Islamic Republic, too—is a means of reiterating Iran’s position on the international stage vis-à-vis Israel. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and senior Iranian political and military figures have all emphasized their support for the Palestinian resistance, not limiting their support to Hamas. By spreading support across the different groups, Iran’s leaders may hope to incite a continued war of attrition, providing Iran with significant space to maneuver, both on the international and political stage. Indeed, several reports suggest that the latest Gaza war did not begin with Hamas, but with other groups firing rockets until Israel retaliated and Hamas was forced to join in.

When the time comes—if the time comes—for Gaza to rebuild, Iran will be in a position to help. That will give Tehran another chance to extend its influence, especially since most Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have refused to support Hamas in any way in recent years.

For the most part (with the exception of Khaled al-Batsh), the Palestinian armed groups have failed to respond or react to recent statements by Ayatollah Khamenei, Qassem Suleimani or other prominent Iranian figures. But they don’t need to. All are well aware of the stakes for themselves and for the region. If they want to continue to fight the long war against Israel, they’re going to have to have Iran’s encouragement and support. Suleimani was assuring them that they’ve still got him on their side.

This article is adapted from one written by Ladan Salami on IranWire.