Ninety minutes into the 72-hour unconditional ceasefire announced this morning, Hamas launched a suicide attack in which two IDF soldiers were killed and another was kidnapped. Word on the ground in Israel is that Palestinian Islamic Jihad, rather than Hamas, may be responsible for the operation. If those rumors prove accurate, some analysts speculate, it would mean that Iran, PIJ’s longtime patron, is behind the operation and is responsible for scuttling the ceasefire.
The reality is that regardless of PIJ’s involvement, it is virtually certain that Iran played a large role in this morning’s operation. Mounting evidence points to the fact that Hamas’s nearly month-long campaign, now bracketed by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli civilians and the killing and the kidnapping of IDF soldiers, was an Iranian project from the beginning.
As Iran analyst Ali Alfoneh noted yesterday, “Arm Hamas . . . was the main message of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s speech on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of the month of Ramadan.” Support for Hamas marked a shift in Khamenei’s rhetoric, as Alfoneh explains. Relations between Hamas and Tehran have been chilly ever since the two parties came down on different sides of the Syrian conflict, with Iran fully backing its client Bashar al-Assad and Hamas wary of supporting a brutal suppression of their Sunni co-religionists.
But both sides have been trying to mend relations for some time. Hamas needs Iranian money and arms, and with Hezbollah spread increasingly thin fighting in Syria as well as Iraq, the clerical regime needs to shore up its deterrence against Israel. Hamas’s campaign over the last month was effectively a tryout to rejoin Team Iran.
As Tony Badran, a research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains in an important column for NOW Lebanon today, Iran and Hamas have been clearly signaling each other during the conflict.
“After the war broke out,” Badran writes, “senior Iranian officials, including Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, expressed strong support for the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah also phoned the head of Hamas’s politburo, Khaled Meshaal, and Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Shallah. Iran's relationship with Hamas has been strained for the past couple of years, so these statements mark a reinvigoration of the ‘Resistance Alliance.’ The rebirth of the Iranian-led axis provides the essential ingredient for a new explanation of Hamas's decision to go to war with Israel.”
The Gaza conflict should come as a sharp reminder that what we’re watching unfold in the Middle East at present is less a region-wide Sunni-Shiite war but rather a regional cold war where sectarian conflict and the rise of sub-state actors is a byproduct of a larger struggle between real nation states, often fighting through proxies. On one side are traditional American allies or partners like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. This is the status quo camp that wants to preserve the U.S.-backed order of the Middle East, a task increasingly difficult with the Obama administration all but absent from the region.
Iran and the resistance axis, including Assad, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias and even Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki are on the other side. Turkey and Qatar are somewhere in the middle, looking to make themselves relevant, like by backing the Muslim Brotherhood. In the Gaza conflict, Doha and Ankara are acting as Hamas’s lawyers, for instance presenting John Kerry with the pro-Hamas terms for a ceasefire agreement last week. However, their attempts at mediation notwithstanding, Qatar and Turkey are secondary players. Yes, Khaled Meshaal lives in Doha, but Hamas’s political officials aren’t directing the war on the ground. Rather, it’s in the hands of Hamas’s military commanders, like Mohamed Deif and Marwan Issa.