(January 30, 2019 / The Investigative Project on Terrorism) Wherever violence and aggression flare up around Israel’s borders, Iran or one of its proxies can be found. Iran’s persistent subversion and promotion of terrorism is not only a threat to Israel, but also to its Arab Sunni neighbors, who stand in the way of Tehran’s radical designs for the Middle East.
This pattern was on display in recent days. On Jan. 21, the Israeli Air Force destroyed a number of targets in Syria belonging to the Quds Force, the elite Iranian expeditionary force, led by General Qasem Soleimani.
The Quds Force has been trying to build an Iranian-run terrorist army in Syria, and missile bases, to threaten Israel. But Israel has been able to thwart many of these efforts.
In an attempt to change the “rules of the game,” and deter Israel from continuing to defend itself, a Quds Force cell fired a missile at Israel’s Golan Heights region, threatening civilian lives, before Israeli air defenses shot down the threat.
Iran emerged from this round of fighting fairly poorly, losing valuable assets, including weapons storage facilities that it built at Damascus’s International Airport.
Yet just a few days later, Iran’s chief proxy in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), began gun attacks on the Israel-Gaza border, threatening to plunge the Strip into a new conflict. A new Gaza war would endanger the security of Gazan and Israeli civilians alike.
“In recent weeks, we have monitored increasing attempts by the Islamic Jihad movement to destabilize the security situation in the Gaza Strip,” an Israel Defense Forces statement said.
When a PIJ sniper fired a shot at an IDF officer, striking his helmet, Israel responded with tank fire on Hamas outposts, killing a Hamas operative. Israel’s message to Hamas was simple: Get PIJ under control.
But it isn’t just Israel that delivered a warning to Hamas, itself a radical Islamist regime that has partnered up with Iran. According to a recent report that appeared in the Israel Hayom Hebrew daily newspaper, Egypt delivered the very same message to Gaza’s rulers.
“Cairo has made it clear that [Hamas political chief Ismail] Haniyeh must decide whether Hamas takes its orders from Tehran or continues to implement the understandings for calm formulated by the head of Egyptian intelligence Abbas Kamel,” the report, quoting an Egyptian intelligence official, said.
Egypt’s message represents a larger struggle for influence in Gaza. It is a struggle being waged between radical Shi’ite Iran and its terror proxies, and moderate Sunni Egypt. Iran is seeking to set Gaza alight with conflict, while Egypt is seeking to douse the flames and counterbalance Iran’s destabilization efforts. In this struggle, Israel and Egypt’s interests align—both are threatened by Tehran’s activities.
Hamas, for its part, cannot casually ignore Egypt’s demands since the Arab regional power is right on its doorstep, and controls the Strip’s sole crossing to the outside world.
After sealing it shut during the latest border violence, Egypt will reportedly open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, giving Gazans who wish to travel out of their repressive Hamas-run enclave an outlet, and allowing the movement of goods. Such a move is good for Gaza’s economy, and takes the pressure off Hamas.
When open, Rafah is a carrot that Egypt can offer Hamas as a reward for following Cairo’s directives. When it is shut, it turns into a stick or a chokehold, reminding Hamas that Iran is geographically distant and that Cairo’s influence is far more immediate.
‘The risks are all around us’
Still, all of these efforts represent short-term push back against Iran. The Islamic Republic continues to wield a significant influence on Gaza through its financial support of Hamas and PIJ, and the knowledge sharing it conducts with them on weapons manufacturing and combat doctrines. These have helped turn Hamas into a mass rocket and urban-warfare base.
In Syria, Iran has not given up its takeover ambitions.
The situation was well described by a senior Israeli military source last year, during a briefing to journalists.
“The risks are all around us. Whether it is instability in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon—also a forward Iranian division—or Hamas, which gets its support from Iran. Iran is all over, offensively trying to operate against Israel, and we have to weigh and assess the risks constantly as we operate against this aggression.”
The officer described a large-scale shadow war, saying, “we are operating around the Middle East against the Iranian buildup up force. The aim of our line of operations and our decisiveness is to deter and dissuade and counter Iranian activities in the region. What we see is very dangerous to regional stability.”
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly and JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.