Iran, a Longtime Backer of Hamas, Cheers Attacks on Israel
Iran, a Longtime Backer of Hamas, Cheers Attacks on Israel
By Farnaz Fassihi
May 23, 2021
The leadership of Iran, engaged in a long shadow war with Israel on land, air and sea, did not try to conceal the pleasure it took in the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Over the 11 days of fighting this month, Tehran praised the damage being done to its enemy, and the state news media and conservative commentators highlighted Iran’s role in providing weaponry and military training to Palestinian militants in Gaza to hammer Israeli communities.
Iran has for decades supported Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza and whose own interests in battling Israel align with Iran’s. Experts say that over the years, Iran has provided Hamas with financial and political support, weapons and technology and training to build its own arsenal of advanced rockets that can reach deep into Israeli territory.
But in the assessment of Israeli intelligence, Hamas made its decisions independently of Iran in the latest conflict.
In the past year, Israel orchestrated a string of covert attacks on Iran, including the sabotaging of Iran’s nuclear facilities. While Iran’s leaders have made no secret of their desire to punish Israel for the wave of attacks, they have struggled to find an effective way to retaliate without risking an all-out war or derailing any chance for a revised nuclear accord with the United States and other world powers.
So the conservative factions in Iran that had been urging payback for the Israeli strikes seized on a chance to portray the thousands of rockets fired by the Gaza militants as revenge.
“The Gaza war woke up Israel to the fact that war with Iran means Israel getting plowed,” Gheis Ghoreishi, a political analyst who has advised Iran’s foreign ministry on Arab affairs, wrote on Twitter.
One analyst in Israel suggested that Iran’s leadership believes that the new military capabilities displayed by the militants in Gaza during the conflict, in both quantity and range of rockets, might make Israel think twice before launching its next covert strike.
Iran viewed the rocket attacks as “re-establishing deterrence” for further Israeli attacks on its soil, said Meir Javedanfar, a political analyst in Tel Aviv who teaches Iranian security studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
But Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman, Lior Haiat, said this month that he had no intelligence connecting Iran to a role in the recent crisis.
Iran does not reveal the details of how it arms Palestinian militants. But Mr. Ghoreishi said Tehran had provided Hamas and another smaller Palestinian militant group in Gaza, the Islamic Jihad, with blueprint technology and training for how to domestically build an arsenal of advanced rockets with a range to target all of Israel’s territory.
Fabian Hinz, an independent expert on Iran’s military, said Iran had in the past sent to Gaza key components of the rockets that were fired at Israel and taught Palestinians to become resourceful in securing raw material locally. Militants have learned from Iranian experts how to use water pipes and how to repurpose unexploded shells to build up their artillery, he said.
But analysts said smuggling Iranian-made weapons and rockets into Gaza was extremely difficult because of a strict land and sea blockade enforced by Israel. Iran was able to transfer military hardware and components for building rockets through underground tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt for a brief time after the Arab Spring of 2011. But analysts said that the current Egyptian government had cracked down on the route.
While Iran’s hard-liners may have been eager for retribution, public opinion within the country is far from monolithic when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many do not see the Palestinian struggle as their fight and oppose the government’s funneling millions of dollars to an array of proxy militant groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that could be used to address urgent economic problems at home.
“No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran” has been a popular slogan chanted every time protests against the government arise.
“Our own people are being crushed by inflation, sanctions and coronavirus,” said Maryam, a 51-year-old who works in the hospitality business and did not want her last name published for fear of retaliation by the Iranian authorities. “Why doesn’t our government resolve the problems of Iranians instead of worrying about Palestinians?”
The rockets that were fired into Israel killed 12 people and sowed terror across much of the country. But they also invited a devastating response from Israel’s vastly superior military, whose airstrikes killed scores of militants, destroyed 340 rocket launchers and caused the collapse of 60 miles of underground tunnels.
While the Israeli strikes may temporarily set back the military capability of Iran’s Gaza allies, Israel’s international standing does seem to be taking a beating with cracks in the once rock-solid support of Western allies.
Iran watched in dismay last year as four Arab countries — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — normalized ties with Israel and declared Iran the biggest threat to regional stability. In the months before the Gaza fighting, Tehran lobbied intensely to prevent other Arab countries from following suit.
Then Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza killed at least 230 Palestinians, including 65 children, according to Palestinian officials. The assault also displaced more than 77,000 civilians. The heavy toll, which outraged Arab public opinion, could dim the prospects of any more countries in the region normalizing relations with Israel anytime soon.
The wrecked civilian infrastructure in Gaza could also give Iran a chance to bolster its influence once again through aid for rebuilding efforts.
On Friday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, commended Palestinians for their battle against Israel and said all Muslim nations must assist Palestinians “with military development, with financial developments.”
On the newly popular social-networking app Clubhouse, hundreds of Iranian conservatives and members of the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps rejoiced when rockets from Gaza penetrated Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and hit civilian neighborhoods.
They celebrated the violent clashes erupting across Israeli cities between Jewish and Arab residents. And they felt that the Israeli strikes on Iran, including the assassinations of a top nuclear scientist and a leader of Al Qaeda, had been at least partly avenged.
“It feels like we had rage stuck in our throats against Israel, especially after the assassinations. And with every rocket fired, we gave a collective, deep sigh of relief,” said Mehdi Nejati, 43, an industrial project manager in Tehran who moderated a daily Clubhouse chat on developments in Gaza.
There was also much boasting on social media about Iran’s role in enabling militants to amass more advanced rockets.
While Israel will have to continue to contend with Iran’s influence in Gaza going forward, Tehran’s support for the militants there is just one of the many factors standing in the way of a longer-term peace, said Mr. Javedanfar, the political analyst.
“Confronting Iran is only going to be part of the solution for Israel’s challenge in Gaza,” he said. “A bigger part of the challenge can be solved with smarter Israeli policies in Jerusalem.”
Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter for The New York Times based in New York. Previously she was a senior writer and war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years based in the Middle East. @farnazfassihi