The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

As ever, Iran prefers to avoid direct involvement. But without its backing, support and expertise, the latest Hamas offensive against Israel would have been inconceivable.

Iran and its allies appear to wish to avoid any direct intervention in support of Hamas’s war against Israel from the Gaza Strip. Launchings of rockets from southern Lebanon and Syria in the direction of Israel caused heightened alerts in the North last week. But these appear to have been symbolic efforts, timed to coincide with the marking of “Nakba Day.” The launches from Lebanon could not have taken place without the permission of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and their Lebanese Hezbollah proxy, who are the true rulers of that country. But these acts were a gesture, not a signal by IRGC/Hezbollah of intervention into the conflict.

IRGC Quds Force commander Maj.-Gen. Esmail Ghaani notably spoke by telephone with Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday. Ghaani also called Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah. The reports in Iranian media of the conversations described formulaic exchanges. Ghaani, whose knowledge of the Arab world is limited, reiterated his country’s support for the muqawama (“resistance”). Haniyeh described Hamas’s fight against Israel as the battle of all Muslims.

Lesser elements of Iran’s “resistance axis” (the term Tehran prefers for its archipelago of proxy political-military organizations across the region) have also expressed their support for Hamas’s campaign.

Nasir al-Shammari, deputy leader of Hezbollah al-Nujaba in Iraq, pledged his movement’s willingness to offer practical support for Hamas. In an interview with the Iranian Mehr News Agency on Sunday, Al-Shammari said, “We are ready to support the Palestinian resistance; from weapons and the transfer of experience to direct participation in the fight against this usurping regime.”

A new study by Hamdi Malik at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy details further statements by Iraqi Shia militias. These include a claim by the Ashab al Kahf group, a front for the well-known Asaib Ahl Al Haq militia, to have fired the three rockets launched at Israeli territory from Syria on May 14.

Such pledges and claims amount to little more than rhetoric. Nujaba, of the Iraqi Shia militias, has a long record of declarations of intent regarding its desire to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its leader, Akram al-Kaabi, announced the formation of the Golan Liberation Brigade in March 2017. In 2018, Kaabi traveled to southern Lebanon and pledged to fight “on a single front” with Hezbollah against Israel. The Golan Liberation brigade has yet to make its appearance on Israel’s northern border.

But while Iran and its proxies clearly wish to avoid direct engagement beyond the rhetorical in the current hostilities, Iran’s support forms a vital component of Hamas’s war effort. Hamas’s relations with Tehran are complex. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a straightforward proxy and client of the Iranians. Hamas, by contrast, emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

During the brief moment a decade ago when it looked like a new Sunni Islamist bloc was emerging in the region, Hamas quit its headquarters in Damascus and sought to align with this new bloc. But with the defeat of Sunni Islamism in Egypt and then Syria, the new alliance proved stillborn. Since that time, Hamas has been seeking to rebuild its ties with Tehran. These efforts have made considerable progress over the last two years.

The latest Hamas attacks that began the current round of fighting are likely to improve Hamas’s stock in the eyes of the Iranians. Unlike the Turkey/Qatar axis, Tehran’s expectation of its Palestinian allies is for direct armed action. Iran’s role in assisting and supplying Hamas’s rocket arsenal is central and pivotal. The Kornet ATGMs employed in recent days by Hamas, which resulted in the death of Sgt. Omer Tabib, were supplied to Gaza from Syria under the auspices of the IRGC, according to a December 7, 2020, statement by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Both Hamas’s Qassam Brigades and Islamic Jihad have noted the use of Iranian ordnance, including Sejjil and Badr-3 missiles, in their bombardments of Israeli towns in recent days. The ability of Hamas and PIJ to produce their own rockets in Gaza exists largely because of Iranian assistance.

As Hamas representative in Tehran Khaled Qaddoumi put it in a May 17 interview with al-Monitor, “The Islamic Republic of Iran… has helped a lot in transferring knowledge and expertise on one side, and transporting the rockets on another, helping Hamas depend on its local capabilities to produce such advanced technology.”

Or as Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala told the pro-Iran al-Mayadeen channel on December 1, 2020, “All the conventional weapons reached Gaza via al-Hajj Qassem Soleimani, Hezbollah and Syria, and the entire resistance axis played a part in transporting them…. There are training camps in Syria where our brothers in Hamas received special training to produce the rockets.”

HAMAS’S WAR effort against Israel is of importance to Iran as a testing ground for a certain strategic hypothesis. As Qaddoumi put it, the movement this time “applied a strategic shift in the concept of resistance, from defending Gaza against Israeli attacks to defending all Palestinians living in historic Palestine.”

This statement accurately points to the essential strategic question underlying this round of fighting. In recent years, the Palestinian Arab population west of the Jordan has become politically fragmented. Four identifiable populations exist: the Arab citizens of Israel, the inhabitants of Gaza, the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the population living under the administration of the West Bank Palestinian Authority.

The Hamas offensive which began with the launching of seven missiles at Jerusalem on May 10 is an effort to test the hypothesis that by mobilizing the symbol of al-Aqsa Mosque, and then initiating military action in the name of its defense, Hamas could reduce or remove these divisions.

Iran’s strategic vision is of a long war conducted through the use of proxies and political client forces, and intended to result in Israel’s hollowing out, weakening, isolation and eventual collapse.

The division of the local Arab forces represented and represents a threat to the advancement of that vision. The latest Hamas offensive is hence most importantly an attempt to reverse this fragmentation. The feasibility of the Iranian strategy against Israel depends on the divisions being bridged.

At this interim stage, but with a ceasefire now looking increasingly possible, what will be the verdict drawn regarding this effort? As of now, it looks mixed.

Jerusalem, with Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr passed, has experienced only sporadic unrest. The riots in Israeli Arab towns have for the moment receded. The West Bank has seen large demonstrations but does not currently appear close to conflagration.

Gaza, though it will undoubtedly continue to fire rockets until the last moments, has suffered far greater damage than it has been able to inflict. If these situations hold, the fragmentation has not been comprehensively overturned.

Nevertheless, from the Iranian point of view, there are also considerable reasons for encouragement from the events of the last 10 days. Most importantly, the widespread rioting and attacks on Jews by Arab Israelis in Lod, Ramle, Haifa, Jaffa and elsewhere demonstrate the efficacy of al-Aqsa as a unifying symbol.

Even if this has not for now resulted in a generalized uprising, it is a strategic lesson that the Iranians will note carefully. For the first time since the establishment of Israel, Arab Israelis in large numbers mobilized, and on occasions used weaponry, to assist the war effort of an organization attacking Israel. This is a matter of deep significance, and represents a profound, if still partial, success for Hamas and its backers. The possession of considerable arsenals in the hands of elements of the Arab Israeli population, and the potential this has for disruption will similarly have been carefully noted.

The initially slow and weak response of Israeli state authorities in responding to this will also be recorded. As will the role of armed Jewish volunteers in defending against the mobs, particularly in Lod (an aspect insufficiently discussed in Israeli media.)

The large rallies in Europe and the Middle East demonstrate the continued resonance this issue has for broad sections of the Muslim public.

All these will be seen by Iran as encouraging signs of Israeli internal disarray and division, opening up new possibilities for future use.

As ever, Iran prefers to avoid direct involvement. But without its backing, support and expertise, the latest Hamas offensive against Israel would have been inconceivable. From this point of view, the events of the last 10 days may be seen as the latest episode in Tehran’s long war against Israel.

Published in The Jerusalem Post 21.05.2021

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