JERUSALEM – The Lebanese Shiite Islamic group Hezbollah has become a key sponsor of Palestinian violence, funding suicide bombings that have killed dozens of Israelis in recent months, Israeli intelligence sources, Palestinian Authority officials and militants have told The Associated Press.
The Iranian-backed group first earned a foothold in the 3½-year-old Palestinian uprising by giving money to Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search), ideological allies that also seek the destruction of Israel.
In recent months, it has pulled off something akin to a hostile takeover of some of cells of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), wrenching them away from Yasser Arafat's secular Fatah movement and turning them into a proxy army.
Al Aqsa members in the West Bank city of Nablus say they speak with their Hezbollah handlers by phone almost daily. Israeli security officials say Hezbollah (search) trains some Palestinian militants abroad, instructing them in weapons and bomb-making.
Hezbollah does not seem to be issuing specific instructions about targets or timing. One Al Aqsa member said his Hezbollah contact urges him to carry out attacks whenever the opportunity arises, in "any way possible."
Israeli officials say Hezbollah helps coordinate joint shootings and bombings by the three Palestinian militant groups and has been trying to spur Israel's Arab citizens — who have mostly stayed out of the uprising — to join in.
Israel's Shin Bet (search) security service says that since 2003, six Hezbollah cells have been discovered among Israeli Arabs.
Hezbollah doesn't elaborate on what support it gives, but after the assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March, it promised to do whatever possible to help Hamas exact revenge.
A senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Hezbollah's involvement in the Palestinian intefadeh, or uprising, as "immense."
"They are all over the place and they give a lot of money," the official said, adding that Iran might be using Hezbollah to fund Palestinian militants.
Many Palestinians admire Hezbollah, crediting its 18-year guerrilla war with having forced Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000. It's a model Palestinian militants would like to emulate.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah, meaning "Party of God," is seen not only as a militant group, but as an influential and legitimate political force, with schools, clinics, a TV station and members in Parliament.
Hezbollah still launches occasional attacks on Israel over a minor border dispute, but the issue inspires little passion. Its search for new relevance has led it to the Palestinians, said Ibrahim Bayram, an analyst with Lebanon's An-Nahar daily.
"Whether here or in Palestine, Hezbollah considers resisting the Israeli occupation to be part of its own struggle," he said. "If the intefadeh ends, the justification for its [military] existence ends too."
Supporting Palestinian militants from afar also allows Hezbollah to keep in good standing with its own backers, Iran and Syria, two fervent enemies of Israel, said Shlomo Brom, a former senior officer in Israeli military intelligence.
"This way, they can continue operating against Israel without really paying a price," Brom said.
Money is often funneled to the militants through money-changers, bank transfers and couriers coming in from abroad, Israeli officials said.
Israel says a Feb. 25 bank raid in the West Bank town of Ramallah netted more than $6.7 million sent by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah to fund attacks.
A high-level Palestinian security source said the Hezbollah money goes to just a few dozen Palestinians involved in planning attacks.
Israel has arrested at least a dozen Palestinians on charges of recruiting for Hezbollah, getting military training and smuggling in money. Israel accused three brothers — Fadi, Hamni and Shadi Abdo — of creating a massive infrastructure to transfer money from Hezbollah to militants in the northern West Bank.
The Shin Bet says Hezbollah paid for several deadly attacks, including a double suicide bombing on Jan. 5, 2003, that killed 23 people and an April 24, 2003, bombing at the Kfar Saba train station that killed one Israeli.
Palestinian security officials said Hezbollah helped finance the last two Jerusalem bus bombings, on Jan. 29 and Feb. 22, which killed 19 people. Such attacks cost less than a few thousand dollars to carry out, according to militants and Israeli security officials.
The Shin Bet also accused Hezbollah of playing an important role in the March 14 bombing at the Israel port of Ashdod that killed 10 people.
Around the time of the Ashdod attack, Hezbollah transferred about $3,300 to Al Aqsa, a senior Israeli military official said. Al Aqsa later claimed joint responsibility with Hamas.
Israel responded to the Ashdod attack by killing Yassin.
Afterward, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, based in Damascus, met with the Hezbollah chief, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who affirmed "absolute solidarity" with Hamas and offered it all his resources.
Though Hezbollah has long supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad — two highly structured organizations with leaderships abroad — its ties have grown strongest with Al Aqsa, according to Palestinian and Israeli sources.
Al Aqsa was formed by activists in Arafat's Fatah movement shortly after the intefadeh broke out. It began as a group of chaotic, loose-knit cells spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Much of its funding came indirectly from Fatah coffers, though some came from Hezbollah, via Fatah leaders in Lebanon, the militants said.
But they said much of the Fatah money has dried up under Israeli pressure on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to stop the attacks, the militants said.
Hezbollah stepped in with direct funding and general guidance, wresting many of the most active cells from Fatah's influence, the militants said.
"We are receiving funding from Hezbollah because we have no other option," said a Nablus Al Aqsa leader who goes by the name Abu Mujahed.
Hezbollah used to transfer $50,000 to a Nablus militant leader every two or three months for different cells, though the payments have decreased in recent months, according to one militant.
One cell in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus gets at least $1,000 a month for ammunition and cellular telephone calling cards, the militant said. When the group plans to carry out an attack, Hezbollah gives it $10,000 to $15,000.
Hezbollah audits the cells, rewarding those that kill large numbers of Israelis with more money for the next attack, militants said. Hezbollah only pays the militants, not the families of suicide bombers as deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein once did.
Recently, Fatah has tried to regain control of Al Aqsa. Former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas began paying militants a few hundred shekels a month not to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians, said Abdel Fattah Hamayel, a Fatah lawmaker who acts as a liaison to Al Aqsa. About 4.5 shekels make a dollar.
While many Al Aqsa members have taken up the offer, some of the most militant cells rejected the deal and turned to Hezbollah instead, Hamayel said.
"They take funds from abroad and they are still carrying out attacks, and we are in contact with them, trying to get them to stop this outside funding and outside orders," he said.
Many Al Aqsa militants are furious with Fatah and feel let down by its leaders. Abu Mujahed called them "a disgrace."
"Fatah is not supporting the Al Aqsa Brigades," he said. "Without other support, we would not have survived so far."