GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli and Palestinian officials are warning that Iran is actively working to promote violence here and undermine chances for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
Palestinian officials, usually reluctant to acknowledge external threats, say privately they are worried that Iran has a growing involvement. Israeli military intelligence officials say that militant Palestinian cells are receiving money and arms indirectly supplied by Iran, through neighboring Syria and Lebanon.
Outside involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not new, since the leaders of militant groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad have offices in Damascus, the Syrian capital. But analysts say new forces are becoming active now that Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, appears serious about ending violence against Israel.
According to gunmen here as well as Israeli army officials, the Iranian-supported militant group Hezbollah - the most powerful political and military force in southern Lebanon, along that country's border with Israel - is offering gunmen money to defy the truce with Israel.
"Hezbollah is very much concerned about this calming down," said Salah Abdel Shafi, a political analyst in Gaza who meets frequently with leaders of Hamas and officials from the Palestinian Authority. "There is tremendous pressure on Iran and Syria from America, and as long as the uprising continues, the attention is here and they are left alone. It is in Iran's interest to keep the Palestinian territories boiling."
Officials talk of other reasons for Hezbollah to want to prolong the conflict. They include Hezbollah's need to justify itself after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, and its core ideology that Israel should not exist.
"The headquarters of the Palestinian terror organizations are located in Damascus," Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, told reporters this week. "Syria together with Iran encourages and finances terror activities by Palestinian terror organizations, as well as Hezbollah's activities against Israel."
But direct evidence of Iranian influence in the West Bank and Gaza is difficult to find. Israel's best case is the interception three years ago of the ship Karine A, which Israel says was loaded in Iran with a cargo of 50 tons of weapons destined for Palestinian militants. Palestinian Authority security officials and Hezbollah operatives were caught on board.
The Israeli army also points to the arrest of militants who say they are in contract with Hezbollah. In addition, the Hamas chief in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal, met in Beirut last month with Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah.
This week, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank, and militants announced that the men had been dispatched to attack a Jewish settlement on orders of Hezbollah. Israeli army officials believe that Hamas' recent breach of a truce, involving dozens of mortar rounds being fired at Jewish settlements in Gaza, was ordered by Hamas leaders in Syria over the objections of the group's local, more moderate commanders.
Hamas vehemently denies that outside influences are fueling the conflict. "There is no relationship between us and any outside group," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri said in an interview here. "The positions we take affect Palestinian issues, and Palestinians alone will decide our course of action."
Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator from Gaza who is negotiating the current cease-fire on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, was equally dismissive of Iranian or Syrian influence on local affairs.
"Israel has a tendency to exaggerate the existence of external threats," Amr said. "We are dealing with internal Palestinian issues, and convincing the factions to disarm has nothing to do with the concerns of other countries. It is simply not an issue. Iran is not fighting Israel from here."
Change for Hamas
But there is little doubt that Hamas, which both carries out suicide bombings against Israel and provides food and emergency aid to Palestinians, is undergoing significant change that could dramatically alter the course of the conflict and disrupt outside agendas.
Hamas leaders in Gaza have agreed to an informal truce and to seek permission from the Palestinian Authority before responding to any Israeli actions. They also recently won seats in municipal elections here.
"Joining a mainstream, democratic election has consequences," Amr said. "They are now more beholden to the people who put their members in office, and the people now want calm. It shows a willingness to integrate into the system, and we believe that is the best way to eventually get them to end the fighting."
Shafi, the political analyst, said that it is this radical shift in policy that worries Iran and Hezbollah.