JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Iran spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help allies fighting elsewhere in the Middle East and this outlay appears to be rising, Israel’s armed forces chief said on Tuesday.
Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot’s remarks coincided with almost a week of Iranian street protests that initially focused on economic hardships but have turned overtly political - though he did not comment directly on that unrest.
Eizenkot accused Iran, Israel’s arch-foe, of working to forge a “Shi’ite crescent” of influence running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestinian-ruled Gaza.
“Just glance at the scale of Iranian investment in order to achieve regional hegemony - it adds up to giving (Lebanese militia) Hezbollah between $1 billion and $700 million each year,” he said in a speech to the IDC Herzliya university.
“In recent months, investment in the Palestinian arena has also been growing out of a desire to influence it - with an increase in the (annual) funding in the Gaza Strip for (militant groups) Hamas and Islamic Jihad to $100 million.”
Iran is a Middle East big power deeply involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and supportive of Houthi forces in Yemen’s war, as part of a battle for influence with rival Saudi Arabia. Many Iranians, however, resent the foreign interventions and want their leaders to create more jobs at home, where youth unemployment reached 29 percent last year.
Eizenkot did not give sources for his data on Iranian spending. Generally such statements are based on the estimates of Israel’s intelligence services.
In mid-2017, Israeli defense officials assessed Iran was spending $800 million annually on Hezbollah, and $70 million on Hamas - Gaza’s dominant faction - and the smaller Islamic Jihad.
Both Palestinian groups acknowledged Iranian backing last month, which suggested Tehran is reorienting its regional efforts as the Syrian civil war winds down in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, whom it reinforced.
Islamic Jihad said that Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian general, spoke to its leadership to “stress Iran’s support for the Palestinian resistance”. Hamas said it received a pledge from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Tehran would “spare no effort in supporting the Palestinian people”.
Since U.S. President Donald Trump infuriated Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital on Dec. 6, there have been almost nightly militant rocket and mortar bomb attacks from Gaza on Israel, which has responded with air strikes.
Israel says Hamas bears overall responsibility although the launches were carried out by rival Islamist factions, and it accuses Iran of arming these groups as well.
Citing this alleged Iranian involvement, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Tuesday that avoiding escalation in Gaza was in order.
“The Israeli interest is that the international community’s attention be entirely on Iran, and not to launch an all-out campaign in Gaza which would distract attention from Iran,” Lieberman told Army Radio.
Eizenkot further said that since 2012 Iran had also spent “billions” of dollars on Syria. He said Iran currently had around 2,000 military advisers in Syria deployed alongside 10,000 foreign Shi’ite militiamen and 8,000 Hezbollah fighters.
Iran spends “hundreds of millions” of dollars more on allies in Iraq and Yemen, Eizenkot added.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich