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Exclusive: Found document suggests Iran sought to help Hamas make its own weapons ahead of attack, sources say

Armed Hamas movement militants take part in a rally to denounce the killing of Palestinians by the Israeli army in West Bank and to support Palestinians in Israeli jails, in Beit Lahia in the northern of Gaza Strip, on March 10, 2023./ Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

A document recovered from a computer found inside a Hamas pickup truck outside Gaza, obtained by CNN from Israeli officials, shows a Hamas military commander requesting a scholarship for Hamas operatives to study engineering, physics and technology at universities in Iran.

While it is widely known that Iran provides financial and military support to Hamas, Israeli officials and some former US intelligence officials say the document is evidence that in the run up to the October 7 attack on southern Israel, Iran was seeking to provide technical training that would help Hamas produce its own weaponry.

The Israeli government declined to comment on the document, though sources in the government confirmed its authenticity on background.

“This example is another piece in an elaborate puzzle of a deep infrastructure of building, supporting, financing and training terror proxies by the Iranian regime around the globe and specifically in the Gaza strip,” one Israeli official said.

Israeli officials say this is the first known instance of Iran attempting to fund this kind of university-hosted training for Hamas operatives, a claim US officials said they could not confirm.

CNN could not independently verify the authenticity of the letter, but current and former US officials said that it was consistent with how Iran projects power throughout the Middle East. Iran has used scholarships to build its influence, develop potential intelligence assets and promote its ideology since the founding of Lebanese Hezbollah in the 1980s.

A spokesperson for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Since October 7, Israeli government officials have sought to emphasize Hamas’s ties to Iran. Tehran did not appear to have any direct involvement in the planning or execution of the attack, but both Israel and the US have said that Iran is broadly culpable because of its historic support for the group.

The document appears to be a July letter from a Hamas military commander to the Iranian government requesting that seven members of his unit be permitted to travel to Iran to participate in a scholarship program.

Current and former US officials say the program is part of a well-known training program Iran provides to students from allied countries and groups to project soft-power influence across the region.

At least 50 students from the Gaza Strip were expected to participate in the broader program, according to Israeli officials, not all of whom are Hamas fighters. As of now, Israeli intelligence has identified only a few Hamas military operatives who have already arrived in Iran.

According to the Israeli official, Hamas fighters were also offered explicit training on explosives engineering through the university program — training that was likely provided by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Jonathan Panikoff, a former senior intelligence analyst specializing in the region, says that the university program suggests that Iran wants Hamas and other proxies to have increased military capabilities so that they are not entirely dependent on Tehran.

“It’s the ‘teach a man to fish’ analogy,” said Panikoff.

Hamas is also the governing power in Gaza and in the run-up to October 7 had come under domestic pressure from ordinary Palestinians who were frustrated about the provision of basic services like sewage and water, according to Panikoff, who said it’s possible that even some of the Hamas students might be studying engineering for civil purposes.

“But their primary focus is always going to be on the brigades and developing weapons that can be used against Israel,” Panikoff said.

The July letter details the name, military number, phone number and “specialization” for each candidate.

One candidate is marked to study “technologies,” one to study “physics,” one to study engineering,” one to study “programming,” one to study “law” and two to study “management.”

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