Analysis: Iran Leverages Armed Groups Against Israel

The “unification of arenas” slogan often touted by militant groups backed by Iran emerged again last week when Israel responded to attacks on four fronts: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank.

Encouraged by a weakened Palestinian Authority (PA) and a regression of American influence in the region, Iran implemented a strategy to destabilize the West Bank and Israel by using its network of armed groups and proxies to carry out attacks.

Iran has supported its proxies and other armed groups fighting Israel for decades. However, a distinct and troubling pattern emerged recently when the Iran-led Resistance Axis attacked Israel on multiple fronts. Moreover, the number of armed clashes against Israeli security forces, including acts of terrorism targeting civilians over the last year and a half, has not been observed since the Second Intifada.

Tangible signs of Iran’s strategy appeared shortly after the 2021 Gaza conflict. Between June and Dec. 2021, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops and other Israeli security forces began regularly engaging with armed groups led by Iranian proxy Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Some of these armed clashes resulted in the deaths of militants, including members of the PA’s security forces.

Adding to the growing chaos in the West Bank, the security environment in Israel deteriorated in 2022 when members of the Islamic State and so-called lone-wolf attackers targeted civilians. Further complicating matters, Islamic Jihad, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and other groups expanded their presence in northern West Bank cities and villages. The expansion couldn’t have happened without significant support from Iran. [See FDD’s report: Mapping Terrorism in the West Bank.]

It’s noteworthy that while Israeli security forces have operated daily to temper the surge of militant activity in the West Bank, the PA has been mainly on the sideline. In some cases, the PA arrested militants and gave sanctuary to those who wanted to give up the so-called armed struggle against Israel. However, troubling statements made by members of the PA cast doubt on their true intention to reign in armed groups with significant backing from the Palestinian street.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, there were strong indications that Iran was orchestrating its proxies to carry out attacks. However, its intentions became clear when Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Hossein Salami stated in Aug. 2022 that the West Bank was being armed like Gaza.

A clear shift in strategy by the Resistance Axis emerged on March 13, 2023, when a roadside bomb targeted a vehicle at Meggido Junction in northern Israel, injuring an Israeli Arab driver. Compared to previous attacks, the bombing was distinct. The IDF suspected Hezbollah was behind the attack, though it is likely Palestinian armed groups were also involved. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Hezbollah suspected in a cross-border attack inside Israel.]

Attacks from multiple fronts were on the rise following the Meggido Junction bombing. On April 2, a drone of “Iranian origin” was downed entering Israeli airspace from Syria. Over thirty rockets were launched from Lebanon into northern Israel four days later. The IDF blames Palestinian armed groups for the rocket attack, though similar to the Megiddo junction bombing, Hezbollah likely had a role. On April 8, unidentified militants in Syria fired six rockets into the Golan Heights. 

Iran and its armed groups have attempted to obfuscate the reason behind the multi-front conflict with Israel by pinning it on clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. However, evidence indicates that recent attacks on Israel’s borders, including the armed militant uprising in the West Bank, are part of a strategy implemented by Iran to destabilize Israel as early as June 2021.

Joe Truzman is an editor and senior research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal focused primarily on Palestinian armed groups and non-state actors in the Middle East.

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