Israel’s attempt to stabilise the region and create an anti-Iranian alliance through the Abraham Accords has been largely successful, yet the annual Israeli-Palestinian clashes send it one step back each time. Following terrorist attacks in Israel, endorsed and/or praised by Hamas and other Gaza-based groups, as well as subsequent arrests and raids in the West Bank, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians inflamed once more. Particularly, this April, during the period of Ramadan, skirmishes between Palestinians and Israeli police on the Temple Mount have led to strong threats arising from both sides, as well as vocal statements of disapproval by regional actors. One actor, however, that hopes for an escalation, is Iran. As was witnessed last year, Iran may use tensions in Jerusalem and the recent wave of terror attacks during the time of Ramadan to operationalise various groups against Israel.
Despite calm being restored on the days of the clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police, with Muslim worshippers gathering at the al-Aqsa mosque for afternoon prayers without further incidents taking place, countries who Israel now shares diplomatic relations with, such as the UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain, severely condemned Israel over the arrests inside al-Aqsa, making the Temple Mount an ever-present subject of contention in the alliance. In hopes of easing tensions, Israel refused to authorise a march by Jewish religious nationalists around the walls of the Old City, yet it was not enough for Hamas, which on April 20 sent rockets to Sderot in southern Israel.
For now, Israel has responded with targeted attacks on Hamas weapon infrastructure, with no casualties reported on either side. Nonetheless, if more rockets were to be launched from Gaza, and if more terror attacks were to be carried out within Israel, it is expected that Israel will escalate in its response, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned following the wave of terror attacks celebrated by Gaza-based groups and the Islamic State.
If a conflict were to recommence, regional actors are likely to distance themselves from Israel, with the UAE already pulling out of the Israeli Independence Day flyby on May 4 as was planned. This would benefit Iran, which is taking advantage of the chaos to directly target Israel, as it did on April 20 with a cyber-attack on Ben Gurion’s Airport Authority website. How this scenario will play out this year is yet to be seen, however, the risk of a next conflict looms, and Iran seeks to come out as the sole victorious actor.
The Paradoxical Alliance between Shiite Iran and Sunni Hamas
Iran, since the times of Persia, has had one primary goal: to achieve supremacy in the Middle East. Its main accomplices in this endeavour are Syria, Hezbollah, and Islamic jihadists, which it finances generously. Its three nemeses, and thus barriers to achieving this goal, are the United States, Israel, which has become the main objective, and Saudi Arabia, its regional competitor. Whilst Iran hopes to become a nuclear power, it is currently unable to do so due to international constrictions. Thus, its real weapons, for now, are its gas and petrol reserves — third in the world — and, most importantly, its proxies throughout the Middle East, which enable it to intimidate actors in the region. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when Iran placed itself as the leader of the Shiite world, Sunnis and Shiites have competed against one another politically and militarily on ideological lines to become the ultimate leaders of Islam. Due to these differences, what, then, has led to Shiite Iran having a strong influence over Sunni Hamas? And how does this affect Israel?
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
Despite Iran being Shiite and Hamas being Sunni, thus having contradicting ideologies, the closeness of these two actors proves an age-old phrase that Israel is also familiar with: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Indeed, now as routine, whenever Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad strike Israel either through the use of missiles or terrorism, Tehran is quick to acclaim their actions. The praises that are not heard, however, are from the Sunni leader of the region, Saudi Arabia, which though it is officially opposed to engaging in diplomatic relations with the Israeli state, condemns Israel’s actions but does not vocally voice its support for Gaza. This is due to the two countries being united both by American endorsement and Iranian threats, agreeing that Iran is a threat that must be extinguished. As a consequence, Iran has since aimed to fill the vacuum left behind by Sunni countries to become the champion of the Palestinian struggle.
The current Shiite-Sunni divide across the Middle East, fuelled by conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, as well as the presence of Sunni jihadist groups, such as ISIS, purposely targeting Shiites in the region, have fuelled the struggle for dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both countries have been fighting one another in proxy wars across the Middle East, financing political and militant groups that serve their interests despite their ideology. It is therefore not surprising that Iran’s ultimate geopolitical aim of achieving Middle Eastern supremacy has led to its funding of a radical-Sunni group despite it being against its beliefs. In doing so, Iran has been able to encroach influence over the Palestinian struggle and threaten Israel on its border not only in Gaza but also in Lebanon with Hezbollah, whilst Saudi Arabia seeks to take on a more moderate stance due to its alliance with the United States and thus Israel indirectly.
Roots of Iranian-Hamas relations
To truly understand this paradoxical alliance, one must go back to the 20th century. Hamas was established in 1987 as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood with a formal charter that described its primary goals of destroying Israel and getting rid of Judaism in the region. Neglected by Arab states taking part in the Arab-Israeli peace process of the 90s, its first contact with Iran occurs when the latter hosts two conferences on Palestine in 1990–1991 which were attended by Hamas delegates, exactly during the 1991 Madrid conference.
Iran shares similar goals to those of Hamas, thus when the group becomes involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the first intifada against Israel–which led to Yitzhak Rabin’s government deporting more than 400 leading Hamas figures to Lebanon in 1992–the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) focused on training Hamas deportees on the tactic of suicide bombings, the modus operandi of Hezbollah. When Rabin allows the deportees to return, Hamas and other Gaza-based groups begin their suicide bombing campaigns against Israel, as well as receiving funds in the form of $50 million annually from Iran.
Due to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, suicide terrorism became increasingly difficult to carry out following the security barriers built by Israel on its borders. Since then, Iran has been supporting Hamas’ rocket program by supplying it with weapons and rocket material. Hamas now utilises rocket, mortar, and antitank ambush attacks, enhanced by the use of tunnels and civilian human shields to fend off retaliatory attacks.
The first time Iranian weapons appeared in the Gaza conflict was in 2008; by 2012, Hamas was launching long-range Iranian Fajr-5 rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A hiatus occurred during the Syrian Civil War when the Sunni-Shiite divide was exacerbated, with Hamas backing the Sunni-Arab opposition and Tehran supporting the Assad regime. Iran, however, did not wish to lose its strategic ally and sought to reconcile the Assad regime and Hamas, leveraged by the new filo-Iranian head of Hamas, Yahya al-Sinwar. During the Gaza conflict in May last year, Hamas claimed to possess 15,000 rockets which it was prepared to use. Iran has upgraded their arsenal with enhanced accuracy and longer range. Due to Israel successfully undermining the majority of Hamas’ arms smuggling routes, Iran now resorts to sending weapons and rocket material through sea transfers and deliveries from Libya.
Israel’s Next Steps
With Iran having an increasingly important role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel must ensure that the Abraham Accords alliance stands strongly. It must crackdown on smuggling routes and tunnels in Gaza, especially following the ‘tunnel city’ shown by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad during a media tour to AFP this month. The sole way to enforce these strict monitoring mechanisms is to ensure that it has the approval of regional actors and that the increasing influence of Iran over the Palestinian cause is seen as a matter of worry for everyone, especially Saudi Arabia which suffers from attacks by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
Regarding tensions with Gaza, Hamas is still unlikely to seek an escalation due to the heavy losses it suffered last year, yet it is Iran that is largely responsible for dictating what happens in Gaza. As seen last year, it is prepared to use incidents in Jerusalem to coordinate attacks with Hamas and other militant groups. Israel must seek to deescalate tensions with Gaza as soon as possible, where the rivalry between Hamas, PIJ, and Fatah is based on who can inflict more damage on Israel and become the leader of the Palestinian struggle. As the Sunni-Shiite schism threatens to aggravate even further, Israel should seek to strengthen its anti-Iranian alliance with Sunni countries to prevent Iran from directing Gaza. For this, it necessitates Sunni partners to keep Iran at bay and force Hamas to reconsider a conflict that will ultimately only serve Iranian interests.
A possible scenario for the future is that Gaza-based groups may become increasingly closer to Iran despite ideological differences — in particular, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which claims to have been inspired by the Iranian Islamic revolution. Nonetheless, Hamas could seek to remain more independent from Iranian influence, to avoid antagonising countries that see Iran as a menace and thus cause them to become closer to Israel. The enemy of my enemy is my friend is a proverb that weighs heavily on this conflict, and as another war threatens to take place, the already complicated Israeli-Palestinian issue threatens to become the epicentre of the Sunni-Shiite divide.