May 13, 2021 | Commentary Magazine

The War Between Wars Heats Up

The hidden hands behind the conflict between Israel and Hamas
May 13, 2021 | Commentary Magazine

The War Between Wars Heats Up

The hidden hands behind the conflict between Israel and Hamas

In the wake of a complex property dispute between Jews and Arabs in East Jerusalem, waves of violence rocked Israel in May. The most acute threats came from the relentless Hamas rocket salvos. Israel’s remarkable Iron Dome air-defense system neutralized most of the rockets. However, some snuck through, hitting civilian homes, with one projectile striking the strategic Ashkelon gas pipeline. Israel responded by striking key Hamas leaders as well as rocket production and storage facilities. Hamas has an estimated 30,000 rockets in its arsenal, enough to sustain a lengthy conflict. Israeli officials watched nervously as riots spread in towns and cities with large Arab communities.

This is only the latest in a string of skirmishes between Israel and Hamas dating back decades. However, there are other story lines to follow. Hamas is reeling from a recent intra-Palestinian political defeat, and it wants to reassert itself through a conflict with Israel. To that end, it has allowed itself to be wielded by Iran as a proxy in a gray-zone war that was months in the making. The Biden administration, obsessed with providing sanctions relief to Iran, is of little use as an honest broker.

Israel is dealing with this crisis as it has with so many others—with a high degree of professional competence. But officials seemed genuinely perplexed by one thing: the domestic unrest inside Israel that erupted in parallel to the slugfest with Hamas. Was it planned or state-sponsored? Even worse, could it be a sign of things to come?

On April 29, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—who controls the Palestinian political structures in the West Bank—canceled Palestinian elections scheduled for May 22. Abbas had already extended his four-year term by 12 years, so his decision seemed only to consolidate his iron grip on power. On the other hand, by canceling the elections, Abbas likely saved the Palestinian polity from being taken over by Hamas. Opinion polls from September 2020 pointed to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh winning 52 percent to 39 over Abbas. In parliamentary elections, Abbas’s Fatah faction was projected to secure 38 percent of the vote, compared with Hamas’s 34. The December 2020 polling picture showed the parliamentary split between Fatah and Hamas around the same, and Abbas still on the way to being defeated by Haniyeh. Worse, 66 percent of those polled said they would welcome Abbas’s resignation.

Inexplicably, the nascent Biden administration initially encouraged the Palestinian elections. The decision to hold them was first announced in September 2020, while President Donald Trump was in office. After taking power in January, Biden-administration officials posited that America had its own political dysfunction and could therefore not tell the Palestinians how to choose their leaders. This was odd given that then–Senator Joe Biden in 2006 spearheaded the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which blocks U.S. financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority if the government is “effectively controlled by Hamas.”

As it became increasingly clear that Hamas would win seats or even win outright, however, American officials began to voice concern. The London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that White House officials asked Abbas for “clarifications on the partnership with Hamas in the upcoming elections.” One Palestinian outlet claimed that the Biden administration openly called for Abbas to scrap the elections. Israeli officials, not surprisingly, did the same. Notably, Nadav Argaman, head of Israel’s Shin Bet, asked his counterpart in Ramallah to reconsider.

Abbas was in an impossible position. Holding elections would risk legitimizing Hamas. Canceling the elections risked reinforcing his reputation as a corrupt autocrat unwilling to share power. Of course, Abbas was to blame for announcing elections with Hamas in the first place. He could have tackled the challenge of Hamas through a national dialogue or some other informal process. But he didn’t.

Hamas wanted retribution. This was the second time the terror group had agreed to engage in the electoral process and the second time the agreement had backfired. (The first was 2006, when the group won a legislative majority, but Abbas refused to transfer power.) And it was only the latest effort by Abbas’s ruling Fatah party to marginalize the terror group.

Hamas slammed the cancellation as a “coup.” The organization stated that “the Fatah movement and the Palestinian president bear full responsibility for this decision and its consequences.” And those consequences may well have been the violence that subsequently rocked Israel some two weeks later.

Whether the May 2021 violence is one day dubbed a “third intifada,” a brief skirmish, or a longer war, there is no doubt that Hamas used the moment to assert itself politically. And history shows that assaults on Israel, which remain wildly popular among the Palestinian population, are the surest way for Hamas to achieve that.

The truism that all politics are local certainly applies. The decision to attack Israel was as much about Palestinian politics as it is about Palestinian irredentism. Maybe more so.

But politics can be global, too. And here’s where the Islamic Republic of Iran figures prominently.

The regime in Iran is a longstanding patron of Hamas, dating back to the late 1980s. It is certainly not Hamas’s only patron. Turkey and Qatar play in this space, too. But Iran has provided Hamas with entire rocket systems, rocket parts, assembly training, cash support, and other means to bolster the group’s fighting abilities over the years. Tehran undoubtedly saw an opportunity to help Hamas assert itself in the aftermath of the canceled elections. But more important, the regime saw an opportunity to work through Hamas to strike at Israel amid an ongoing conflict that Israelis describe as the “war between wars.”

The war between wars is not new. Nor is it a particularly difficult concept to grasp. Iran indirectly targets Israel through the terrorist groups it sponsors. Israel has traditionally responded directly to those that attack it. Iran has thus gone untouched for many years. But that recently changed. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu made the decision to target Iranian military assets where possible, while rolling back the capabilities of the regime’s proxies as well. And so the war between wars has escalated. Iran has paid a heavy price for it, both in terms of human assets and hardware.

In November 2020, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed in his car by a remote-controlled weapon. The culprit was presumed to be the Mossad, which has been widely blamed (or credited, depending on where you sit) for six other attacks against other Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007. The Israelis were also involved in the 2020 assassination of Abu Mohammed al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, who was living under regime protection in Tehran. The revelation of this arrangement raised new questions about the regime’s relationship with the terrorist group that attacked America in September 2001.

In March, after Israel struck an Iranian oil vessel bound for Syria, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Israel had targeted maybe a dozen others since 2019. In April, Israel damaged an Iranian command ship on the Red Sea. At least four Israeli ships were hit in response along the way. Israel quietly absorbed those setbacks and continued striking, reportedly with a drone attack on an Iranian tanker and an explosion on an oil tanker off the coast of Syria.

In April, Reuters reported that Jerusalem had “dramatically expanded air strikes on suspected Iranian missile and weapons production centers in Syria” as part of Israel’s operations to halt Iranian weapons proliferation to its proxies on Israel’s borders. In fact, there have been dozens of Israeli attacks on Iranian assets in Syria over the past two years. In December 2020, Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi announced that Israel had conducted more than 500 strikes in Syria, targeting Iranian smugglers, fighters, and weapons systems. Kochavi was being understated. The numbers are likely triple that, perhaps more.

Israel is also battling Iran in cyberspace. In April, Israel appeared to confirm—or at least didn’t deny—an apparent cyberattack that knocked centrifuges offline at the Natanz nuclear reactor. That hasn’t stopped Iran from enriching uranium to 63 percent purity since. But it was a sign that Israel could reach deep into Iran’s most secure facilities. The Natanz attack echoed Israel’s previous cyber-operations, such as the deployment of the Stuxnet worm in 2010 and the daring 2018 operation by the Mossad that spirited away reams of documents from a secret nuclear archive on the outskirts of Tehran. Several of those documents helped the UN’s nuclear watchdog identify nuclear sites previously obscured by the regime.

After getting shellacked for months, Iran saw Hamas as a means to respond. Iran’s supreme leader took to Twitter with the message: “Palestinians are awake and determined. They must continue this path. One can only talk with the language of power with these criminals. They must increase their strength, stand strong, confront the enemy, and force them to stop their crimes. #FreePalestine.” Iran was also believed to have provided Palestinian Islamic Jihad with a new rocket variant, the Badr 3. Israeli military officials privately note that they saw other signs of Iranian involvement in the recent conflict, but they have yet to explain what that might mean.

In conflicts past, senior American officials often stepped in and compelled both sides to see the wisdom of a cease-fire. Sometimes Israel wanted to keep fighting. Sometimes it was ready to quit. But it always acquiesced to Washington, in a nod to the special relationship that the two countries share.

This time, the Biden administration dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr in an effort to “deconflict,” as the neologism has it. This decision was a curious one. Protocol dictates that Amr, a relatively low-ranking official, would not enjoy access to Israel’s top decision-makers.

It’s also unclear how much Israel wants to talk to U.S. officials about Iranian-backed terror these days. Tensions are running high owing to the Biden administration’s ill-advised decision to reenter the flawed 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. America’s side of the deal will almost certainly include billions of dollars in cash incentives to the regime in exchange for temporary nuclear concessions. In other words, America is set to fund Hamas indirectly, given the terror group’s patron-client relationship with Iran.

Finally, there is the question of what exactly America seeks to achieve in the region. The Biden administration has repeatedly stated that it seeks to pivot away from the Middle East. But at the same time, it is investing significant time and effort to revive the nuclear deal—which will empower Iran while weakening Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Hamas knows this. And that is likely one reason the Hamas leadership felt sufficiently emboldened to launch this latest conflict.

In other words, this latest round could be an early indicator of the Biden administration’s new Middle East. It’s not a good one.

During the first days of the conflict, I spoke with Israeli officials both past and present. It’s part of my job. If I’m doing it right, I pick up on common themes across multiple conversations. This time around, I quickly sensed one. My interlocutors all took the Hamas attacks in stride. The Israel Defense Forces were not surprised by any of Hamas’s strategies and tactics. What did surprise and even alarm them was the Arab unrest in Israeli cities. There appeared to be no contingency for this.

In the towns and cities of Akko, Ramle, Jaffa, Lod, Bat Yam, and Jerusalem, Arabs took to the streets, burned cars, and destroyed property. In some cases, Jewish crowds clashed with them. As one analyst on the Israeli Kan TV network blurted incredulously, this was not something seen even during the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000.

Netanyahu, visiting Lod after the first night of the unrest, vowed to bring order back with an “iron fist.” But Israeli leaders surely acknowledge that an iron fist likely won’t bring calm to population centers in a democracy. In Israel’s near future, there are grievances to hear and political bargains to make. 

But troubling questions remain. While the unrest seemed organic, extemporaneous protests amid a slugfest with Hamas seem unlikely. There are rarely coincidences in the Middle East. More often there is a hidden hand. The Israelis know this. But they also know that the state would be threatened in entirely new ways by the radicalization of its Arab citizens. The path ahead will not be easy.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Military and Political Power Palestinian Politics