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The 2021 Gaza War 2021: Iran, Hezbollah and the ‘Axis of Resistance’

For Iran, “Palestine” is only one part of a complex strategy aimed at Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon; each arena has its own blueprint, a toolbox of hostile insurgency actions and the guidance of Hezbollah, the Quds Force and well-trained militias.

A long-exposure picture showing Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system firing interceptors at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, as seen from Ashdod, May 15, 2021. Photo by Avi Roccah/Flash90.
A long-exposure picture showing Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system firing interceptors at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, as seen from Ashdod, May 15, 2021. Photo by Avi Roccah/Flash90.
Shimon Shapira and Michael Segall

A few hours after the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza on May 21, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a “victory message” praising “the cooperation between the West Bank, Gaza, and Israeli Arabs for showing the path for the Palestinians in the future.” Israel, he said, “will now be weaker in light of the rising power of the Palestinians and the jihad organizations.”

The Iranian leader called for Israel to be indicted for its “shocking crimes,” and said its actions had caused a “wave of hatred around the world” which had spilled over to its allies, in particular the United States. He also urged Muslims to pressure their governments to donate money to rebuild Gaza.

During the 11 days of fighting in May between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip, senior Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders maintained telephone contacts with Iran’s top brass, including Khamenei and the heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah spoke with Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the IRGC, who promised, on behalf of the Islamic Republic, that “Iran would not desert the Palestinians and will stand by their side and support them with all the means at its disposal, up until the final, impending destruction of the enemy [Israel].”

Both Nakhalah and Haniyeh traveled to Iran to attend the Jan. 7, 2020 funeral of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh delivered a eulogy, and he and Nakhalah were given places of honor right behind Khameini, President Hassan Rouhani, and president-elect Ebrahim Raisi.

“The Martyrs of Resistance.” Source: Website of Iranian leader Ali Khamenei.

Following the May conflict, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor as commander of the Quds Force, sent letters to the “commanders of the Palestinian resistance,” including Hamas military commander Muhammad Deif. In one letter to Deif, the “Living Martyr” [because of his many battle wounds], Ghaani praised the resistance organizations’ deployment for the campaign and “preparing the tools necessary for the crushing victory,” despite the harsh conditions.

Ghaani, in the spirit of the Supreme Leader’s remarks, also praised the cohesion of the Palestinian people, “the Muslims in Palestine—in Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank and the Palestinian cities occupied since 1948” (referring to the Arab riots in Acre, Lod, Ramla, Haifa and Jaffa). He stated that the Palestinians “demonstrated that they are a dynamic and living nation making its way toward victory.”

Arab riots in the central Israeli city of Lod, May 12, 2021. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

In his letter to the commander of PIJ’s military wing, Ghaani praised the organization’s firm stance, that “destroyed the arrogance of the Zionist enemy and demonstrated that Jerusalem is not alone in the campaign.” He also wrote that PIJ had weapons “beyond the imagination of the Zionist enemy.” He blessed Soleimani’s memory and his contribution to the “resistance” struggle, and vowed to continue in his path.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (right) embraces Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Source: Khamenei’s Twitter account, posted May 24, 2021.

During the rocket barrages on Israel, PIJ revealed an improved Kassam rocket, each of which had been “signed” in memory of Soleimani. After the round of fighting, Iran unveiled an unmanned aerial craft called “Gaza” and a radar system called “Quds” to demonstrate their solidarity with the Palestinians.

Hamas Political Bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh delivers a eulogy for assassinated Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Tehran on Jan. 6, 2020. Source: Iran press.

PIJ’s spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Abu Hamza, issued a statement at the end of the campaign in which he praised Iran and the rest of the “Axis of Resistance” for helping to fight in Gaza. Their weapons, as well as their provided expertise, he said, brought strength and abilities to the resistance brigades (Muqawama), both materially and technically. “You share our victory, and together we will victoriously enter al-Aqsa [mosque],” he said. PIJ leader Al-Nakhalah sent a congratulatory letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader noting Iran’s support of the organization and its role “in the victory achieved.”

Hezbollah’s response

In a May 25 speech marking “Resistance and Liberation Day,” commemorating Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah praised “leaders of the Palestinian resistance movements and their military wings” for their “brilliant moves” during the Gaza war. “The [final] goal is Palestine. The resistance victory in May 2000 was dedicated to Palestine and was a strategic turning point in the struggle with Israel. From now on, we will celebrate two great victories in May—the 25th of the year 2000, and the 21st in 2021— marking Gaza’s victory,” said Nasrallah.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah delivers an address marking “Resistance and Liberation Day,” on May 25, 2021, commemorating the “liberation of Lebanon’s south” in 2000 and the “Palestinian victory” in 2021. Source: Al Manar.

The Hezbollah leader said Israel’s “dangerous activity in Jerusalem” had pushed the leaders of the Palestinian organizations to take a “historic, decisive and new stance.” The war, he said, had erupted as a response to “the foolishness of Israel’s leadership, its arrogance, underestimating the resistance, and miscalculations.” Gaza, he added, had surprised both its friends and its enemies with its decision to “fulfill its threat in response to [Israel’s] Judaizing [of] al-Quds [Jerusalem].”

He warned that in future, “activity in al-Quds against Islamic holy sites” by Israel would spark a regional war.

Echoing Khamenei’s statement about Palestinian unity, Nasrallah said that one of the Gaza terror groups’ most important achievements during the conflict “was the mobilization of Palestinians inside 1948 lands, which terrified Israel.” Israel, he said, had failed to predict the response of the “1948 Arabs.”

An Israeli policeman fends off an angry Arab mob swarming an Israeli motorist, pelting his car with stones and driving him off the road, outside Jerusalem’s Old City, May 10, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

The conflict had also impacted the normalization trend between Israel and Arab states, the Hezbollah leader said.

Nasrallah said that the “Sword of Jerusalem,” as Hamas called the conflict, had severely damaged the normalization process between Israel and the Arab states. The Trump administration’s peace plan had “collapsed and disappeared” since “Israel’s real face and its apartheid regime were exposed,” he said. Nasrallah also stressed the steadfast stance of the “Axis of Resistance” in the various countries that constituted the “backbone that supported the victory in Palestine,” and particularly emphasized the support of Iraqi Shi’ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the Houthis of Yemen.

A joint command center in Beirut

Meanwhile, sources close to Hezbollah revealed that the IRGC, Hamas and Hezbollah had established a joint military operations center in Beirut during the Gaza war. Ibrahim al-Amin, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, said during an interview with Al-Manar TV on June 2 that officers from all three groups coordinated the military confrontation in Gaza, adding that the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, had visited Lebanon twice to attend the command center meetings.

Hezbollah transmitted weaponry and ammunition to Gaza, and also moved Hamas and PIJ officers out of the Strip during the fighting, according to Al-Amin. The “Islamic Resistance” also provided the Palestinian factions with the needed data about the movements of the Israeli “occupation” military, he said.

During the war, Hezbollah did not respond militarily, satisfying itself with organizing demonstrations near the border fence with Israel and in several areas of Lebanon. Hezbollah also allowed limited and symbolic rocket fire into Israel to show support and solidarity with the Palestinians during the war.

Hezbollah’s response reflects its sensitive and complicated situation in Lebanon following the massive explosion at the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, and the country’s dire economic situation. Furthermore, Hezbollah continues to be involved militarily in Syria and is subject to domestic criticism on this issue as well. An all-out confrontation with Israel is also impossible, of course, without a green light from Tehran.

Buildings damaged in the massive explosion in the Beirut port on Aug. 4, 2020. Photo by Zaatari Lebanon/Flash90.

As the Gaza operation unfolded, Iran held nuclear talks in Vienna with the remaining signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement regarding the possibility of returning to the JCPOA framework. Thus, a round of escalation in Lebanon involving Hezbollah would not serve Iran’s broader interests now. Iran does not want to put the issue of its malign activity in the region on the agenda during the nuclear talks, giving the United States the option to disrupt the negotiations. If an agreement is signed and the United States rejoins the JCPOA, which it left under Trump in 2018, Iran will then feel freer (and richer) to unleash its Axis of Resistance throughout the Middle East.

Hezbollah’s lessons from the Gaza war

For offensive operations, Hezbollah will seek to:

1. Strengthen its rocket and missile arm and accelerate its guided-missile project. In its view, rocket and missile weaponry is a “tiebreaker” and changes the rules of the game against Israel; it identifies Israel’s home front as a central weak point. This process is the continuation of the implementation of the Iranian doctrine of asymmetrical warfare.

2. Disrupt Israel’s missile defense systems.

3. Prepare for the occupation of territory in the Galilee, including the use of invasion tunnels. In this context, it was recently reported that Hezbollah had established a network of tunnels spanning hundreds of kilometers, including command and control complexes, from Beirut to southern Lebanon, aimed at attacking IDF forces in the event of a ground maneuver in Lebanese territory.14 In light of Israel’s new ability to identify tunnels and the damage done by the IDF to Hamas’s tunnels in Gaza during the May conflict, Hezbollah may be required to rethink their use during combat.

4. Damage Israeli facilities and strategic economic and military infrastructures.

An Israeli soldier stands in a Hezbollah tunnel that crosses from Lebanon to Israel, on the border between Israel and Lebanon in northern Israel, on May 29, 2019. Photo by Basel Awidat/Flash90.

For defensive operations, Hezbollah will seek to:

1. Design a new deterrence equation vis-a-vis Israel: “Activity in Jerusalem will lead to a regional war,” warning Israel not to repeat the “Gaza miscalculation” with Lebanon.

2. Obtain anti-aircraft systems. Hezbollah will make efforts with Iran to place improved and concealed anti-aircraft systems in Lebanon to protect against possible airstrikes in Lebanese territory.

3. Protect against targeted killings of senior Hezbollah figures.

Iranian aid will continue and even increase

Iranian aid to Hamas and PIJ is constant and flows through various channels, regardless of the economic situation in Iran and Lebanon. The know-how and weaponry Iran transfers to Hamas through the Quds Force and Hezbollah—as well as training in Lebanon (as Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem admitted) or on Iranian soil—also have a decisive influence on how Hamas and PIJ conduct their operations. This includes setting objectives (strategic infrastructure and energy infrastructure), efforts to overcome Israel’s Iron Dome with Hezbollah’s support, and the maritime activities that were exposed in the latest conflict.

An Iron Dome anti-missile battery stationed near the Israeli-Syrian border, in the Golan Heights in northern Israel, on Jan. 3, 2020. Photo by Basel Awidat/Flash90.

In this context, the Hamas naval force and attempts to damage the Israeli gas rigs in the Mediterranean must be mentioned. Here we see an effort by Hamas and PIJ, supported by Iran and Hezbollah, to copy the capabilities of the Houthis in Yemen in their attacks against Saudi Arabia, and the Shi’ite militias in Iraq in attacks against the United States. These efforts involve long-range attack drones, GPS-guided, unmanned suicide vessels, underwater guided weapons and long-range missiles. The Houthis are using these capabilities against oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and against civilian infrastructure such as airports, power plants and desalination facilities.

Israeli soldiers on guard near Metula, on the border between Israel and Lebanon, May 15, 2021. Photo by Basel Awidat/Flash90.

The Iranian objective is to duplicate the military capabilities it develops from arena to arena (as in the case of roadside bombs [IEDs] that originated with Hezbollah in Lebanon and were used in attacks against coalition forces in Iraq). Yemen serves today as the largest testing ground for new weapons in the region. Lebanese Hezbollah advisers serve as instructors in aerial weaponry (ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aircraft and drones) as well as naval weaponry (unmanned underwater vehicles [UUV], explosive-laden boats, and submarine platforms). Iran seeks to develop these capabilities and test them in the military arena against Israeli civilian targets, strategic infrastructure and military targets.

In the 2021 fighting, Hamas attempted to launch drones, unmanned aircraft, and naval weapons alongside more traditional Iranian-backed techniques such as Kornet anti-tank missiles, which were supplied to Gaza by Iran, as well as “Sayyad” sniper rifles, an Iranian knock-off an Austrian sniper rifle, the Steyr HS.50.

In the event of a comprehensive conflict in the north, Hezbollah, which refrained from involvement in the Gaza war, may be expected to bring to bear against Israel air and sea capabilities similar to those of the Houthis.

In the end, the Gaza war, like other operations in Gaza and Lebanon, constitutes a “Divine event” for Iran, proving the justice of its ways and that Israel can be eliminated with patience and endurance.

Iran’s resistance and revolution all begin with Khomeini

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s activist interpretation of Shi’ite Islam and the revolution in Shi’ism that he led are constantly being validated, especially for Iran’s current leaders. They connect Khomeini’s teachings to the successes in the Iranian national-ideological dimension (confronting sanctions, surviving the Trump administration and ex-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu); maintaining an active military nuclear program; overthrowing Saddam Hussein; Shi’ite revival in Iraq; the “victories” of the Palestinian organizations and Hezbollah against Israel (with Iran’s support); and in the religious dimension (the “Mahdi hand” and Divine intervention).

Ruhollah Khomeini in Neauphle-le-Château, northern France, some time between Oct 5, 1978 and Feb. 1, 1979. Credit: via Wikimedia Commons.

All of these achievements strengthen and shape their belief in the righteousness of their path and the rationale which demonstrates resilience and the need for continued resistance by the Iranian people.

Iran believes that the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the Palestinian resilience in Jerusalem and Gaza follow Khomeini’s previous “prophecies” about the collapse of the Soviet Union (Communism) and Saddam’s fall. They believe his prophecy regarding the destruction of Israel will eventually be fulfilled, and that Iran has the power to bring it about. Iran’s current leader, Khamenei, follows in his predecessor’s footsteps. He stated in September 2015 that Israel would not exist in 25 years. In this regard, Khamenei’s recent Quds Day speech, prior to the clashes in Jerusalem and the subsequent Gaza war, is touted as “prophetic” and demonstrates that the Supreme Leader’s prophecies of Israel’s annihilation are materializing.

People wave Hamas flags outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, May 7, 2021. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90.

For Iran, “Palestine” is only one part of a complex strategy of building the Axis of Resistance from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon, aimed at Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon; each arena has its own blueprint, a toolbox of hostile insurgency actions, and the guidance of Hezbollah, the Quds Force and well-trained militias.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s newly elected president, who is part of the system and who was shaped by it, will further strengthen this predicament by defying the West, calling for the destruction of Israel (using Jerusalem as a common denominator), and pursuing regional hegemony through subversion, ballistic missiles, and Iran’s nuclear program.

IDF Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as military secretary to the prime minister and as Israel’s Foreign Ministry chief of staff. He is the editor of the Jerusalem Center eBook “Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.”

IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.

This is an edited version of an article first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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