Ghassem Suleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, publicly pledged support for Palestinian fighters on July 30.
Suleimani’s rare public statement was both a call for repairing any rifts–such as the Hamas-Iran split on Syria—and a reminder of the Islamic Republic’s commitment to stand behind any group fighting against its Israel, as articulated by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in 2011. Iran would no longer keep silent on its support for the fight against Israel, Khamenei said at the time. And this is exactly what Commander Suleimani has done, without pledging overall support to one faction—a strategic move to reposition Iran on the international stage at a time when domestic politics have been anything but smooth.
Singling out specific groups affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, Suleimani said that, when Israel is defeated, it would be due to the bravery of five groups in particular—Qassam Brigades, Al-Quds Brigades, Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades, al-Aqsa Martyrs and Nasser Salahuddin Brigades.
So who are these resistance groups, what is their relationship with the Islamic Republic—and how much power can the Iranian government gain by name-dropping?
Qassam Brigades and the 19-Year Manhunt
The Qassam Brigades is Hamas’s military wing, 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 from Gaza’s Shijaiyah neighborhood, which has seen widespread destruction during recent Israeli air strikes. Zeif founded the brigades in 1992, along with Emad Aqel, Yahiya Ayyash, and Abu Bilal al-Qol. After all three 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 Palestine’s 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 led to his spinal cord being severed. 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—or the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement— was founded 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, though 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 Mashal has an office in Qatar—neither have offered military assistance or equipment.
Al-Quds Brigades: Iran’s Closest Ally
Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement and an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1981. Led by Ramadan Abdullah Shalah, it’s Iran’s closest ally in Gaza. Unlike Hamas, Al-Quds Brigades has not taken sides is the Syrian conflict and is overall more receptive to Iran’s policies. But, like Hamas, it believes in armed struggle against Israel.
Ties between Iran and the Al-Quds Brigades are much deeper and go back much further than that of Iran and Hamas. In 1990—when Hamas has just been formed—Fathi Shaqaqi, one of the founders of 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 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.
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.”
Nasser Salahuddin Brigades: A Break with Fatah
According to its spokesman, Abu Mujahid, the Nasser Salahuddin Brigades is the third largest paramilitary group in Gaza. A breakaway group from Fatah—the biggest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—the brigade refused to accept the 1993 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 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.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades: Working for Fatah, but Against It
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades calls itself the official military wing of Fatah—though there are differences across the coalition, particularly when it comes to those members of the group that reside in Gaza, most of whom 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 its strategic and lasting alliance with Lebanon’s Hezbollah—a move that would have chimed well with the Islamic Republic.
Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades: The Red Pedigree
Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades is 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.
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 have claimed to have fired a number of rockets at Israeli towns bordering Gaza.
Iran Drives the Message Home
Suleimani’s support for these factions—and the implication that this represents the views of the Islamic Republic too—is a call for solidarity, but also a means of reiterating Iran’s position on the international stage vis-à-vis Israel. Khamenei and senior Iranian political and military figures have all reiterated 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 create a war of attrition, providing Iran with significant space to maneuver, both on the international and political stage.
When the time comes, Iran will be in a position to help rebuild Gaza, giving it another chance to extend its influence, especially since most Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have refused to support Hamas in any way, even through public statements of general support.
For the most part (with the exception of Khaled al-Batsh), Palestinian armed groups have failed to respond or react to recent statements by Ayatollah Khamenei, Ghassem Suleimani or other prominent Iranian figures. But they are well aware of the political currency at stake—and of the benefits and drawbacks of such support.