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The Attack on Israel Was a Message From Iran

The Hamas attack against Israel is not only a massive Israeli intelligence and military (as well as a U.S. intelligence) failure, but also a dramatic success for Iran’s axis of resistance from Yemen to Gaza. The highly choreographed, multipronged, day-long operation and incursion into Israel itself, involving the use of motorized paragliders and drones and the taking of hostages, required months of planning and training that only Iran and Hezbollah could have provided. Late yesterday, a Hamas spokesperson told the BBC that Iranian support for the assault was a point of pride.

In Tehran yesterday, members of Parliament chanted, “Death to Israel.” The Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh made a televised speech warning Arab countries that Israel could not protect them—an apparent threat against countries that had signed the Abraham Accords, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which has been considering normalizing ties with Israel. Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’s armed wing, said that his group’s action would at last put an end to Israeli air raids against Iranian and Hezbollah assets in Syria.

Hamas and Iran will forever brandish the images of yesterday’s violence as symbols of newfound power: Israeli commanders being dragged out of their barracks in their boxer shorts, the bulldozer tearing down the Erez crossing, Hamas militants parading Israeli tanks. For Palestinian civilians living under siege in Gaza, or suffering under occupation in the West Bank, the overpowering of the mighty Israeli military may bring some satisfaction. They will recall how Palestinians, including underage boys, have been dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers. But they will have also seen the footage of Israeli civilians gunned down at bus stops and mothers pleading for the lives of their children. Hamas may think it has taken revenge, but its victory will be costly and short-lived. The group cannot long sustain what it began today.

The scale of the onslaught, its nature, and its continuation into today suggest that Hamas has not only dramatically improved its capabilities but also rewritten the rules of the game. Israel will surely respond with devastating wrath, but its retaliation will be complicated by the presence of Israeli hostages inside the Gaza Strip. A mini-war of the type the region has seen before is unlikely to satisfy the Israeli government or the public. Negotiations for the release of the Israeli prisoners will be complex and protracted. An Israeli ground incursion into Gaza is most likely. A limited strike or sabotage action against Iran may be on the wish list of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah—the Shia political and militant group active in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—issued a statement of support for Hamas, saying that it was in “direct contact with the leadership of the Palestinian resistance,” and that the attack was a response to the continued Israeli occupation as well as a “message to those seeking normalization with Israel.”

Since the spring, Hezbollah and Hamas leaders have made public statements about the  “unification of fronts,” in which Iranian-backed adversaries in Gaza, southern Lebanon, and the Golan Heights would menace Israel from all sides. Hamas leaders have met several times this year with Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, in Beirut. But the unification of fronts may not mean a multifront assault.

This morning, in a mostly symbolic move, Hezbollah did launch a few rockets at the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, disputed territory on the border between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, “in solidarity” with the Palestinians. Israel responded with limited artillery fire. But for now, Hezbollah seems unlikely to get further involved. It has too much to lose. The group knows that Israel’s retaliation against Lebanon would be even more devastating than the war of 2006. Since 2019, Lebanon has been crushed by a ruinous economic and political crisis, and Hezbollah’s base of supporters cannot afford greater hardship. If Hezbollah feels the need to explain why it is not lending a further hand to Hamas to make Israel’s life even more difficult, it can point to the astonishing actions yesterday as proof that Hamas doesn’t need direct help—for now.

Meanwhile, talk of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia will be put on hold. The kingdom issued a boilerplate statement calling for restraint while emphasizing that it had warned that the continued occupation was a dangerous, explosive situation. In a later call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, added that the kingdom rejected the “targeting of civilians in any way.” Maybe Saudi Arabia will use this crisis to further press the point that normalization with Israel is not possible without Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Or have Iran and Hamas succeeded in shutting down that dialogue?

​​Two years ago, the last time a mini-war erupted between Israel and Hamas, Iran’s then–foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted meekly in support of the Palestinians. The Saudis issued a statement calling for restraint by all sides. And the larger dynamic was clear: Sure, Tehran supplied Hamas with weapons and money, and the Saudis tried to advance peace with various initiatives, but in the end, the Palestinians were mostly on their own. Then as now, Iran used the Palestinian cause to advance its own interests in the region, and its 40-year-long lip service to the cause and material support for militants has yet to deliver any improvement in the lives of Palestinians under occupation.

Hamas is most certainly not on its own now: Iran likely took part in the decision to launch the surprise attack against Israel. But Palestinian civilians will still be left to fend for themselves under Israeli retaliation, and to pay the price while Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah play a regional game.

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