The real reason for the recent round of violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip is rooted in the nature of the relationship between Hamas and Iran — a country directly involved in what happens in the Strip.
Ever since Saddam Hussein was ousted from the Iraqi rulership in April 2003, Iran served as Hamas’ main benefactor. That is because Hamas continued the jihad against Israel, as opposed to the PLO that signed the Oslo Accords. From the Iranian point of view, Oslo meant that the PLO waived the [fight for the] liberation of Palestine.
For years, Iran sent weapons, ammunition, money and equipment to the Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip. Their northern smuggling route was via Syria, Lebanon and the ocean; their southern route was via Sudan, Egypt and Sinai. Syria provided Damascus as safe asylum to Hamas leaders headed by Khaled Meshaal, allowing them to conduct the jihad against Israel. There was full coordination between the Syrian regime and Hamas. Hezbollah was recruited to assist Hamas in any way needed. Thus Hamas became an integral part of the coalition created by Iran in the Arab world. Neither side cared that Hamas is Sunni while Iran and Hezbollah are Shiite.
While Hamas has a tight rule over Gaza, it allows other organizations to operate, train, arm themselves and occasionally strike Israel. Thus we find organizations such as the [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad [PIJ], Popular Resistance Committees, and the “Nation’s Army” in the Gaza Strip. So long as the activities of these organizations against Israel were within acceptable limits, the Hamas government closed its eyes because it did not want to be viewed as Israel’s border guard.
Meantime, Hamas established a governmental administrative system in Gaza with all the associated implications: a police force, an army, a military industry with the ability to produce rockets, a legal system, an Islamic legislative apparatus, health ministries, an educational system and infrastructures. Hamas chiefs circulate around the world as heads of state and as accepted, desirable guests in Moscow and most of the Arab capitals. Not infrequently, Hamas leaders even visited Iran. The ties to Iran continued, and Iran continued to arm Hamas with missiles. It was clear to everyone that these were earmarked to wreak havoc on Israeli citizens.
An impossible dilemma
The turning point in Hamas-Iran relations began in March 2011, when demonstrations against Assad’s regime burst out in Syria. The regime used much violence in its fight against the protests; it fired at the demonstrators, thus causing causalities among the unarmed civilians.
Most of the slain citizens were Sunni Muslims, while the Alawite regime is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Within a few months the events in Syria had developed into violence from both sides, and the Syrian regime demanded that Hamas leaders support it and even provide fighters against the demonstrators, similar to the way Hezbollah sent sharpshooters to Syria for this purpose.
But the Sunni leaders of Hamas could not provide support for a heretic Alawite regime that was slaughtering Sunni citizens with Shiite support, for two reasons: First, because Hamas did not want to betray their Sunni brothers; second, they feared that Sunni citizens would avenge themselves by attacking Hamas members and Palestinian refugees in Syria. Also, they could not express support for the Sunni population because the regime would then harm them and their refugee brothers.
For a few months, Khaled Meshaal sat on the fence in the hopes that the demonstrations would cease, thus saving him from having to decide which side to support. But the opposite occurred: Hostilities between the warring sides in Syria only intensified, as did the pressures on him from both sides. The Iranians and the Syrian regime expected Meshaal to pay them back for the long years in which Syria had provided Hamas with weapons, ammunition and money. But Meshaal did not give them this backing.
Therefore Meshaal was forced to leave Damascus and vacate the Hamas offices in the city. From then on he has been wandering — mainly in Qatar and Egypt. Other reasons that Iran has downscaled its support of Hamas are because Hamas hung the jihad flag on its wall and has been busy in recent years creating a state in Gaza. Thus Iran directed its assistance to rebellious organizations headed by the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, and these made trouble for Hamas, just as Hamas had done in its time to the PLO.
Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis developed into a regional conflict in which a Shiite coalition — Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah — assist Assad’s regime, while a Sunni coalition — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt — assist Sunni citizens. Qatar is the engine that pushes this coalition, mainly in order to repulse the Iranians who threaten the Gulf Emirates. Qatar’s emir, the strongest man in the Arab world, conducted a royal visit to the Gaza Strip a month ago, on Oct. 23. This visit symbolized the acceptance of the “Gaza state” under Hamas rule as a full member of the Sunni coalition. In return, Qatar’s emir promised a grant of $450 million to Hamas in order to develop Gaza infrastructures.
The Qatari visit and money was an additional nail in the coffin of what had been Iran-Hamas relations. This is because the money signaled a long-term commitment of the Hamas government to remain part of the Sunni, anti-Iranian coalition headed by Qatar’s emir. Hamas’ betrayal of Iran aroused the ire of the Iranians, and the result was that Iran instructed its new friends in Gaza — the members of the Popular Resistance Committees and the Islamic Jihad – to escalate the situation with Israel so that Israel would take out its ire on the Gaza landlord — Hamas.
On Nov. 10, these [rebellious] organizations fired an anti-tank missile into an Israel patrol jeep traveling on a road inside Israel, wounding three soldiers. The Iranian plan succeeded beyond expectations: Israel opened an extensive air operation against Hamas infrastructures, exactly as the Iranians had intended.
Of course, the Iranian spokesmen expressed opposition to the “barbaric steps” taken by Israel, and even professed support for Hamas. But it was clear that this was only hypocritical lip service: As far as the Iranians are concerned, Israel is doing their dirty work of taking revenge on Hamas for betraying them, after having supported them for years.
The Sunni coalition understood exactly what was happening, and went to the aid of their brothers in Gaza. Last Saturday, [Nov. 17] the coalition heads assembled in Cairo — Qatar’s emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Turkey’s Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi — to discuss how to extricate Hamas from between the Israeli hammer and the Iranian anvil; in other words, the organizations opposing Hamas in Gaza.
At that point, Israel had to decide between two contradictory courses of action. According to the first option, Israel would understand that in truth, Hamas really serves Israeli interests by dismantling the Palestinian Authority and establishing a Palestinian state in Gaza. Thus Israel should not act against Hamas but focus its attacks on the rogue organizations. The second approach holds that since Hamas assumed jurisdiction to rule Gaza, it should be viewed as responsible for everything coming out of Gaza. Thus if a missile is fired on an Israeli jeep, then Hamas is responsible, even if it did not want it to happen. According to this approach, Gaza is already an actual state, thus its rulers must accept the bill for all attacks on Israel — because if it really wanted to, Hamas could shut down all the rogue organizations and confiscate their weapons.
Once Israel made the decision to conduct an extensive operation against Hamas and the other organizations, it must ensure in an agreement that Iran will no longer be able to arm its friends in Gaza. In addition, Egypt should start to take serious action against the smuggling of weapons and missiles from its territory to the Strip. If Morsi decides to open the Rafiah Crossing [between Egypt and the Gaza strip], he must check every truck to make sure that rockets are not hidden under foodstuffs.
If the Hamas state in Gaza will live quietly next to us, it can be part of an anti-Iranian alignment. It is desirable that Israel conduct a dialogue with the Egyptian regime, behind the scenes of course, on how all the region’s residents, including the Hamas organization, should deal with the great threat — Iran and its allies — instead of walking head-first into traps that Iran lays for its opponents and for those that abandoned and betrayed it.