Wednesday’s scene of rocket fire, sirens and airstrikes over Israeli and Gaza skies was a familiar one. Israel and Hamas, staying true to the “eye-for-an-eye” law that has governed this land for centuries, are preparing their ranks for the worst. Yet both are plainly reluctant to escalate the situation to all-out war.
It is easy to boil down this latest round of Palestinian-Israeli fighting to a conflict between Israel and Hamas, as the Israeli leadership did when it immediately held Hamas responsible for the June 12 kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank that triggered this flare-up. But there are still several details to the current imbroglio that don’t quite fit the usual paradigm and thus raise questions about Hamas’ influence over the wider Palestinian militant scene.
We return to the first anomaly: the kidnapping operation in Hebron. The operation itself had strange details. Hamas has long attempted to build up a presence in the West Bank, and we had been receiving information since last August that Iran was also facilitating weapons smuggling from Syria through Jordan to the West Bank. But the kidnapping itself appeared amateurish. The perpetrators apparently miscalculated the number of hostages and failed to strip them of their phones, then panicked when one of the hostages subsequently called the police. The perpetrators shot and hastily buried the teens in a field near a heavily guarded settlement compound. Notably, Hamas distanced itself from the kidnapping. It denied taking part while several lesser-known Salafist groups claimed responsibility.
Once Israel started taking retaliatory action against Hamas’ positions in Gaza, Hamas’ engagement with Israel became more apparent. At least nine of the rocket volleys we have seen so far have been longer-range Fajr-5 artillery rockets. One of the projectiles, a Syrian Khaibar-1 rocket that Hamas has relabeled the R-160, crossed roughly 110 kilometers (about 70 miles) to reach the town of Hadera, between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have claimed the rocket attacks, threatening more should Israel escalate its strikes on Gaza. The farther the rockets reach, the deeper the psychological impact on Israel, and thus the more severe the Israeli response. This is a dynamic any Palestinian militant faction understands well.
The common denominator to those longer-range artillery rockets appears to be Iran, yet again. While the rockets can be assembled in Gaza, the construction of the solid-fuel rocket engine and other critical components, such as exhaust nozzles, likely made their way to Gaza from Iran, traveling via ship to Sudanese ports on the Red Sea then overland through Sinai into a maze of Gaza tunnels. This brings us back to something we observed in 2012 during Operation Pillar of Defense. Prior to the launch of that operation, Israel had already detected and targeted sensitive weapons convoys carrying these rockets to Gaza from Sudan. Not wanting to escalate the situation once hostilities broke out, Hamas tried multiple times to organize a truce among militant factions — all while Iran enjoyed another conflict in the Palestinian theater that increased Hamas’ isolation and distracted from the war in Syria.
A similar situation may be in play now. Evidently Israel did not succeed in cutting the Palestinian supply of longer-range artillery rockets, representing both a significant intelligence failure on Israel’s part and weakness on the Egyptian military’s part in physically interdicting these supplies while dealing with multiple militant threats in the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas’ actions since the start of the conflict do not suggest that the top leadership, particularly Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, intended to provoke a military confrontation with Israel at this time, especially not after Hamas took the political plunge of reconciling with its local rivals, Fatah.
In fact, Hamas’ military wing on Wednesday listed an end to the Israeli sabotage of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation as one of its core demands for a cease-fire. Why, then, would Hamas have provoked a conflict that threatens to undermine its understanding with Fatah?
To answer that, we need to examine the players who are most interested in seeing a Hamas-Fatah rapprochement shatter. Israel, as previously discussed, wants to see the Palestinian landscape divided between Hamas and Fatah to keep Hamas isolated and Fatah cooperative. Division would also help Israel maintain an upper hand over any peace negotiations that the United States forces upon it.
Palestinian Islmaic Jihad
But Israel is not the only one that wants to keep the Palestinians segregated. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is more ideologically tied to Iran than Hamas, has been building up support in Gaza at Hamas’ expense over the years. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is effectively sidelined from a Hamas-Fatah unity government and thus stands to gain from any conflict that boosts the group’s militant credentials and undermines Hamas’ dealings with Fatah. Iran has also made it a point to give Palestinian Islamic Jihad sufficient authority over the Gaza rocket arsenal.
Iran has benefited greatly from years of Hamas’ isolation, filling the lead role once occupied by the Saudis in sponsoring the premier Palestinian militant groups. It was when the Hamas leadership broke ties with the Syrian regime and aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 that Iran quietly instigated Operation Pillar of Defense, knowing that Israel would find the long-range Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets intolerable. In the current phase of conflict, shadowy operatives with unclear ties to the usually tight Hamas command appear to have instigated a conflict through a botched kidnapping, while Iranian-made rockets again threaten to draw all sides into a bigger confrontation.
So long as conflict can be produced on a regular basis, Iran can preserve its levers in the Palestinian theater through military ties. The question moving forward is whether Hamas is in full control of militant actions emanating from both Gaza and the West Bank when outside players like Iran seem to be getting more deeply involved.
Publishing of this Geopolitical Diary is with the express permission of STRATFOR.