Iran’s president on Friday delivered an unprecedented speech to an annual pro-Palestinian rally in the Gaza Strip – a rare display of Iran’s importance to the Hamas militant group that rules the territory.
Speaking virtually to hundreds of supporters of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group gathered at a soccer stadium in Gaza City, Iran’s conservative President Ebrahim Raisi urged Palestinians to press on with their struggle against Israel.
His speech – the first of its kind to Palestinians – appeared to culminate years of quiet diplomacy aimed at mending a rift between Hamas and its long-time patron, Iran, over the devastating civil war in Syria.
Mr. Raisi addressed the crowds of Palestinians on the occasion of “Jerusalem Day,” or al-Quds Day after the city’s Arabic name, which falls on the final Friday of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. In his speech, Mr. Raisi struck a hard line against the Palestinian Authority’s recent bilateral meetings with Israel in Aqaba, Jordan, and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
A surge of violence in Israel and the West Bank after an Israeli police raid on the holy Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem last week have served to undermine the summits, which sought to de-escalate soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
“The initiative to self-determination is today in the hands of the Palestinian fighters,” Mr. Raisi said, dismissing the Palestinian Authority that rules parts of the West Bank not controlled by Israel.
During the ceremony, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yehiyeh Sinwar, celebrated that militants in southern Lebanon, Gaza and Syria had fired rockets into Israeli territory, describing the attacks as a response to the police raid on the Al-Aqsa mosque – the third-holiest site in Islam that sits on a hilltop that Jews revere as the Temple Mount.
“The response came like a simple electric shock,” Mr. Sinwar said of the rocket fire.
For the past four decades, al-Quds Day parades have drawn thousands to the streets around the Middle East. The event is most dramatic in Iran, where crowds burn Israeli flags and chant pledges to liberate Jerusalem.
Although Hamas is a Sunni Muslim group, it has a militant wing that has long nurtured close ties with Iran, a source of funding and a Shiite powerhouse. Hamas and Iran are brought together by a shared enmity of Israel.
While Iran has not revealed the details of its support, Hamas has publicly praised the Islamic Republic for its assistance. Experts say Iran’s support is both financial and political – now mostly blueprint technology, engineering know-how and training to help the militant group grow its own homemade arsenal of advanced rockets that can strike all of Israel’s territory. A crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas violently wrested control of Gaza in 2007 has made it difficult for Hamas to smuggle Iranian-made rockets into the coastal enclave in recent years.
The U.S. State Department reports that Iran provides some $100-million a year to Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas and the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The civil war in Syria has for years split Hamas in two. In 2012, Hamas closed its Damascus office and left Syria following President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on a popular uprising – including on the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamist movement with which Hamas is aligned.
But the Hamas military wing has been drifting closer to Iran, a main backer of Assad. Recent steps toward reconciliation between Hamas and Assad late last year have pointed toward Iran’s strengthening influence on Gaza’s militant rulers.