May 5, 2019 | Policy Brief

Egypt, Iran and the Current Escalation in the Gaza Strip

May 5, 2019 | Policy Brief

Egypt, Iran and the Current Escalation in the Gaza Strip

The current round of conflict between Israel and militant groups in Gaza did not occur because of a lack of mediation. It occurred in spite of such efforts.

The current rocket barrages began last week when the Egyptians where in a middle of a new effort to find a short-term arrangement to reduce tensions in the Gaza Strip. However, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) didn’t respect their Egyptian host In the middle of negotiations, the group authorized the sniper operation that kicked off the current round of violence.

Hamas, from what can be determined, did not initially seek out this clash. Israeli officials are thus not ruling out the likelihood that it was PIJ’s Iranian patrons behind the current escalation. The Iranians and their Gaza allies likely believed the forthcoming Eurovision song contest (beginning May 14), Israel Independence Day festivities (May 15), and Ramadan (tomorrow) would likely hinder a forceful Israeli response.  PIJ and Iran may also have believed that Israel would be reticent to act because of the new U.S. peace plan, soon to be rolled out by the Trump Administration tandem of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt.

However, Iran and its allies may have overplayed their hand. After sustaining more than 600 rockets and four fatalities, with no sign of the violence letting up, even some of the more risk-averse Israeli officials see little choice but to destroy significant terrorist infrastructure in Gaza in a major retaliation. Indeed, there is a growing sense in Israel that the IDF must re-establish deterrence and send a clear message such that the gain/pain equation will be different this time.

Israeli military operations in Gaza already look different from previous ones. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) has struck Hamas “internal security” headquarters in Rimal, and a building that included the offices of the Turkish Anadolu News Agency, along with other high profile targets. The IDF is also now targeting top terrorists from the air, including Hamed Ahmed al-Khodary. This was the first known targeted strike of its kind since 2014.

Once again, Iron Dome, the anti-rocket system has neutralized the vast majority of projectiles fired from Gaza. Critics may charge that terrorist groups have felt unencumbered to fire rockets into Israel with the knowledge that the system will shoot down most of them, thereby ensuring that conflict does not escalate. But this is a mistaken assumption. Iron Dome provides the Israeli leadership the freedom to act on its own terms, but it doesn’t prevent Israel from launching an overwhelming response if that is what the leadership believes is required.

Should Israel launch a wider operation, several objectives will almost certainly be made clear. Foremost among them: Israel seeks deterrence through decisive outcome. Israel wants all of Iran’s proxies – Hamas and PIJ – to fear another conflict. Israel, of course, seeks quiet for its southern residents. But Israeli officials see “quiet for quiet” as insufficient. There must also be an understanding that Palestinian terrorist groups do not use this time to build up their military infrastructure for the next conflict.

Reaching an agreement with these groups will once again require Egyptian assistance. Cairo has been a critical partner in this regard. Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sisi will almost certainly return to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to have him project more power into the Gaza Strip. However, Abbas, who sees Hamas as a bitter political rival, won’t agree to anything that strengthens Hamas in any way. Indeed, Abbas is not opposed to another round of conflict between Israel and Gaza terrorist groups so long as it weakens Hamas.

With or without Abbas, Egypt still has a vital role to play in the effort to reach a short-term agreement. But it is now clear that Iran seeks to undermine Cairo’s efforts. This is why Israeli officials increasingly believe that the IDF must gain the upper hand by military means.

BG (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace faculty and a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).  He was previously head of Israel’s National Security Council and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser (acting).


Arab Politics Egypt Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Lawfare Palestinian Politics