Analytical Brief, n.30, November 2023

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas stands out for its departure from the patterns of previous Arab-Israeli wars. Notably, this conflict is not limited to external borders, as it unfolds within Israeli territory. The scale of Israeli military operations against Gaza surpasses those of the campaigns in 2008-2009 and 2014.

What sets this conflict even more apart from previous Arab-Israeli confrontations is the prominent Iranian factor and the presence of Iranian proxy groups in the vicinity. The role of the Iranian factor in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has undergone a significant evolution in recent years. Until 2014-2015, despite its anti-Israeli rhetoric, the Palestinian issue did not top Iran's foreign policy agenda. However, the dynamics changed with the advent of the Arab Spring, which led to Iran's establishing a substantial military presence in Syria.

It is imperative to underscore that the recent confrontation should be considered within a protracted chronicle of hostilities between the two nations. These hostilities encompass a range of actions, such as the systematic bombardment of Iranian military installations within the Syrian territory, the deliberate elimination of Iranian scientists, with particular prominence accorded to the nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and the sustained endeavors by the United States aimed at subverting diplomatic negotiations about the nuclear accord, concurrently accompanied by the imposition of additional sanctions.

Iran's strategy involves the opening of multiple fronts. In this new approach, Iran aims to create various theaters of military operations against Israel, effectively encircling it. The southern front in the Gaza Strip plays a crucial role in this encirclement. The central front is the West Bank of the Jordan River, strategically vital for Israel's national security, as it is near major political and economic centers such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. The presence of two million Palestinians in this area provides fertile ground for the initiation of a new front.

Further complicating the situation is the northern front, consisting of Southern Lebanon, where the Hezbollah movement dominates. Hezbollah serves as a critical non-state ally of Iran. Its military capabilities and combat experience have significantly expanded since the 2006 war with Israel, alongside its participation in the Syrian civil war alongside the Bashar al-Assad government.

A more recent development is the eastern front of resistance to Israel, situated in the Syrian provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, which emerged between 2013 and 2017. This development was fueled by Hezbollah's and pro-Iranian armed groups' involvement in Syria. Hezbollah has solidified its presence in this area following its support for the Syrian government in its battle against jihadist forces.

Hezbollah holds a prominent role as a pro-Iranian entity in the system of regional operational coordination. It serves as the conduit through which Iran establishes and maintains connections with the Hamas movement. Before the year 2012, Hamas received consistent support from both Iran and Syria. Iranian strategists regarded Hamas as a strategic asset, offering a form of "strategic depth" for Syria in the face of potential Israeli threats. During this time, Hamas' leader, Khaled Meshaal, operated from Damascus. However, the Syrian civil war eruption in 2012 catalyzed a transformation in Hamas' alliances. The shift towards alignment with anti-government forces was influenced by the ideological resonance between Hamas and the international Muslim Brotherhood movement, which constituted a prominent faction within the Syrian opposition at that juncture. Concurrently, Qatar and Turkey, the primary sponsors of anti-government forces in the Syrian Arab Republic, played a role in Hamas' realignment. Khaled Meshaal relocated to Qatar, and the Hamas leadership unveiled plans for clandestine communication networks with Islamist factions within the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. Consequently, Hamas found itself devoid of Iranian support for several years.

The rapprochement between Hamas and Iran started in 2017 when representatives from its military wing, under the leadership of Yahya Sinwar, assumed prominent roles within the Hamas hierarchy. This transition in Hamas leadership saw a reevaluation of the organization's previous anti-Syrian stance.

The ascendant influence of Iran on Hamas is notably exemplified by the migration of numerous Hamas leaders to Beirut in recent years, facilitated under the auspices of Hezbollah. In 2019, Lebanon was entangled in a protracted economic crisis, leading to political turmoil and administrative paralysis. During this period, the Palestinian presence, denoting groups affiliated with Hamas, began to intensify, thanks to the support extended by Hezbollah.

In 2017, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on Qatar, one of the primary demands being the end of Qatari support for 'terrorist organizations.' This list included the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah. In the same year, Hamas Deputy Secretary-General Saleh al-Arouri relocated from Doha to Beirut. After the Saudi-Qatari reconciliation in January 2021 and Turkey's renewed approach toward normalizing relations with Israel, Hamas leaders domiciled in Doha and Ankara felt marginalized, prompting a gradual migration to Lebanon. Beirut, in particular, emerged as the new domicile for two prominent figures within Hamas leadership who had departed from Turkey: Khalil al-Hayya and Zaher Jabarin. Khalil al-Hayya is a member of the Hamas Political Bureau, bearing responsibility for interactions with the Arab and Islamic world. At the same time, Zaher Jabarin serves as the Deputy General Secretary for the West Bank of the Jordan River, overseeing matters related to Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails. Additionally, Ziyad Nahle, the leader of the Islamic Jihad movement, an active faction in the Gaza Strip, also established a residence in Beirut. This migration underscores Hezbollah's consolidating influence over exiled Hamas leaders.

Efforts to streamline coordination among various fronts and Islamic resistance groups culminated in May 2021 during the military undertaking termed 'Operation Al-Quds Shield,' led by the Hamas movement against Israel. The barrage of rockets launched from Gaza into Israeli territory during this period precipitated a tangible economic paralysis in the state of Israel, enduring for nearly a week and encompassing the suspension of aviation operations. Concurrently, this period marked the inaugural noteworthy appearances of armed groups within the West Bank of the Jordan River, including Lion's Den and Brigade Jenin.

Iran's Response to Gaza Events: A Delicate Balancing Act

In the wake of recent events in Gaza, Iranian political circles and media outlets have been vocal in their condemnation of Israel's actions, resoundingly expressing their support for Hamas. Nevertheless, there remains a conspicuous absence of any overt intention on Iran's part to engage in combat operations alongside Hamas.

Iran's Foreign Minister, Amir Hossein Abdollahian, during a visit to Qatar, hinted at a potential escalation, stating, "If efforts to halt Israeli attacks in Gaza stall, the possibility of multiple fronts opening against Israel looms large." Notably, Iran refrains from explicitly endorsing military involvement but strategically keeps the option on the table.

The conservative Iranian newspaper "Kayhan" elucidates five dire predicaments that Israel could confront in the event of a ground operation in Gaza: a substantial toll on the Israeli military in urban warfare, the peril of Hamas taking Israeli hostages, a surge in international censure, regional isolation, and the jeopardization of the fragile process of normalizing relations with Arab states. (1)

Nonetheless, the probability of a large-scale Middle East war involving a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel remains exceedingly low. The United States is actively advising Israeli leadership against broad military operations and seems to have made headway in that regard. Simultaneously, Lebanon's Hezbollah movement exhibits no enthusiasm for a genuine war with Israel, with hostilities limited to sporadic rocket strikes carefully calibrated to minimize Israeli civilian casualties.

The prospect of resolving the nuclear conflict between Iran and Israel appears highly unlikely. Israel's possession of A- weapons is widely acknowledged, although the country has not officially confirmed this fact. According to anonymous Iranian sources, Iran may possess a minimum of ten nuclear warheads.(2) However, the use of nuclear weapons by Iran against Israel is ruled out, given the inevitable contamination of neighboring Lebanese and Syrian regions. In turn, the prospect of an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran is also shrouded in uncertainty, with the U.S. exerting considerable efforts to prevent such a scenario.

In the event of escalating tensions, Iran's proxy forces, including Hezbollah, Iraqi armed groups like the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and Yemeni Houthis, may come into play. Houthis, in particular, armed with a missile arsenal capable of targeting Israeli territory, pose a threat to Israel.

Nevertheless, the prevailing reluctance to engage in a large-scale confrontation with Israel at this juncture should not be construed as an overt endorsement of peace. Rather, it hints at the possibility of a "war of attrition" between Israel and the various Iranian proxy groups operating in the region. This approach suggests a protracted, low-intensity conflict aimed at exhausting the resources and resolve of the opposing parties while carefully avoiding any direct military confrontation with the United States, a paramount strategic objective for Iran.

Concurrently, another avenue for resolution remains the pursuit of a two-state solution, a time-honored and diplomatically sought path to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a solution aims to provide a framework for addressing historical grievances and facilitating the coexistence of these two national entities.

Amid this intricate Middle Eastern landscape, Iran is walking a precarious tightrope. On one hand, it ardently champions the cause of the Palestinian people, supporting their quest for self-determination and sovereignty. On the other hand, Iran is keenly aware of the need to avoid unnecessary escalation, especially with the United States, which could jeopardize its broader regional interests and alliances. This delicate balancing act requires astute diplomacy and strategic maneuvering to ensure that Iranian objectives align with the complex realities of the region.


(1) عرصه بر اسرائیل تنگ شد فشار از بالا و پایین بدون چانه‌زنی!//

2) Uncorroborated report