Last year, after deserting the Iranian-led “axis of resistance” and positioning itself in the Sunni coalition against the Assad regime in Syria, Hamas lost the backing of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and incurred the bitter enmity of the new military rulers in Cairo. All this seriously hurt Hamas’ political, economic and military interests in the Gaza Strip and isolated it regionally.
The estrangement from Iran and Syria came with a price. Military aid from Iran, which for years had funneled heavy weapons through Sudan and Sinai, came to a full halt.
The split from the axis of resistance sparked internal opposition within the Hamas leadership. The Hamas military wing wrote to the organization’s Qatar-based political leader Khaled Mashaal that “Palestine will be liberated with arms and not with money,” and called for a rehabilitation of ties with Hezbollah and Iran, while criticizing Hamas’s close relations with Qatar.
As a result, Hamas leaders began negotiations to mend fences with Iran, its former sponsor, and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Indeed, they reached an agreement to continue their cooperation against Israel while differing on policy vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war.
The present crisis is a direct result of Hamas’ weakness in a dire situation it no longer controls. Hamas’ main patrons, Qatar and Turkey, are ostracized by the main Sunni powers: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the other Gulf countries.
Iran on the other hand is overstretched by its military, political and economic involvement in the Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi conflicts. The sensitive nuclear negotiations with the Western powers also dictate more restraint.
Until lately, Iranian leaders and Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah were quite mute concerning the intense Israeli military offensive against Hamas. Suddenly, two weeks after the beginning of the Israeli Protective Edge Operation, Hamas’ old allies became vociferous.
In a speech on July 23, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that “until that heartless and child-killer [Zionist] regime is destroyed” armed resistance is “the only path.” He added that “the West Bank should be armed just like Gaza” by anyone who is capable of doing something.
The next day, Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee member Esmail Kowsar called for arming the West Bank while the Basij called on the government to urgently submit a bill for the arming of the Palestinians in the West Bank in accordance with Khamenei’s statement.
In a July 22, 2014 speech, Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi called on the resistance forces in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine to sign a military defense pact against Israel and on Arab countries to use their armies “to destroy Israel.” He expressed sorrow that Iranian forces are unable to fight shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians against Israel.
On July 24, 2014, Deputy Basij commander Ali Fazli said that the Palestinians in Gaza are partners in the resistance axis, and even called them “Shi’ites.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran is ready to send humanitarian and medical aid to the Gaza Strip and transfer the wounded Palestinians to Iran for treatment. The Egyptian government has not given yet the permit for such a move nor for a visit to Gaza by six members of the Iranian Majlis (Tehran Times, July 25, 2104).
Iran’s Bazaaris’ Basij organization has announced a bank account for collecting money from citizens to supply weapons for Palestinian fighters, Iran’s Fars news agency reported on July 24.
More interestingly, Amir Mousavi, a former adviser to the Iranian defense minister, claimed that Tehran is going to provide missiles to Palestinians in the West Bank. He said “simple means are required…[and] there is no need for long-range missiles” because “the distance between the West Bank and Tel Aviv, Haifa and other areas is much shorter than the distance from Gaza” (Al-Mayadeen TV as reported by MEMRI).
In a statement issued by its Media Relations on July 6, Hezbollah called for a wide campaign in solidarity with the Palestinian people “who have been passing through escalating ordeal.”
Nasrallah’s Deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said on July 13, five days after the beginning of the crisis, that “the Palestinian people struggling in Gaza are being subjected to a real war, amid shameful official Arab silence and international conspiracy, but the valiant Palestinian resistance…will win just like…the Lebanese resistance won,” without even mentioning Hamas by name (Al-Manar Website, July 13, 2014).
In his first public reaction to the Gaza war, on July 25, Nasrallah vowed “all means of support” to the Palestinian resistance in its battle with Israel. “We feel that we are true partners with the Palestinian resistance. … Your victory is our own.” In a telephone conversation with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal earlier that week, Nasrallah said the resistance movement would support the “Palestinian people’s uprising and resistance in our heart, willpower, hope and destiny” (Press TV, July 26, 2014).
Moussa Abu Marzouk, Khaled Mashaal’s deputy told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that Hamas hoped Hezbollah would engage Israel from the north and together will fight against Israel, which “could mean a lot.” (JPost, July 30).
It seems Iran and Hezbollah decided to reach the fray by introducing two new elements: attempts to arm sympathetic or paid elements in the West Bank (like they did during the second intifada) and convincing Hamas to return to the embrace of the “axis of resistance” and ally with the Assad regime.
There are probably several reasons for this Iran/Hezbollah late reaction to the Gaza war.
1. The United States’ hesitant and even odd behavior in this crisis, such as the ceasefire draft proposal Secretary of State John Kerry accepted under Qatari and Turkish pressure. Furthermore, the US has hinted it is ready to cooperate with Iran against the ISIS threat to Iraq.
2. Talk by Israeli pundits and politicians that this operation will not destroy Hamas and another round should be expected in two-three years.
3. The expectation that Hamas will be perceived in the Arab world as the winner in this war, same as Hezbollah emerged after the Second Lebanon War.
4. Less urgency on the nuclear negotiations front after Iran and six major powers reached on July 18 an agreement for continuing the talks for four more months.
Operationally, they took advantage for their inflammatory declarations the Iranian sponsored Qods (Jerusalem) Day, on the last Friday of Ramadan, which this year fell on July 25 and saw tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrating violently throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem to protest the Israeli operation in Gaza.
It is of note that Fatah Central Committee member Tawfiq Tirawi in a TV interview said that the violence in the West Bank will lead to a “big explosion” and all means will be legal to use, “and let no one say that weapons are forbidden in the West Bank.” (Lebanese Al-Mayadeen TV channel, July 24, 2014).
Iran and Hezbollah would be happy to help a third intifada emerge in the West Bank and their moves should be watched closely by the relevant Israeli authorities. Possibly they could use Jordanian territory and its long border with Israel to smuggle weapons to the West Bank, as they did during the second intifada, with more or less success.