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Did Iran instigate latest Gaza escalation?

Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip deny reports that Iran pushed for the latest round of escalation, despite Tehran's close ties to both Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
A picture taken on May 20, 2021, from the northern Israeli town of Metula near the border with Lebanon, show people raising Palestinian, Lebanese and Iran-backed Hezbollah flags during a rally in solidarity with the Palestinians, on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese village of Kfarkila, near a United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) armored personnel carrier. The Israeli-Palestinian ongoing military conflict has many eyes trained on the Lebanese border for a reaction from the Iran-backed Hezbo

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Jerusalem Post revealed May 15 Palestinian concerns that Iran would thwart efforts to reach a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip.

These concerns emerged after Iran recently praised Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and pledged to continue its support for the Palestinian resistance amid Arab, US and international efforts to negotiate a cease-fire. On Thursday evening, Israel and Hamas announced that they had agreed to an Egypt-brokered ceasefire beginning at 2AM Friday local time.

According to Palestinian sources quoted by The Jerusalem Post, Iran did not want the US administration or Egypt to take credit for succeeding in ending the fighting.

Following the announcement of the ceasefire, Iranian state media reported that Tehran offered its "sincere congratulations" to the Palestinians on a "great victory." On Friday, Iran also revealed a new domestically-produced drone it had named "Gaza" in honor of the Palestinians.

A Palestinian Authority (PA) source pointed to a growing concern in Ramallah prior to the ceasefire that the conflict between Israel and Hamas could lead to a “new intifada” in the West Bank. “We believe that Hamas, Iran and other parties are trying to ignite an intifada in the West Bank,” the official was quoted as saying.

In the same context, an official source in the Islamic Jihad movement who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity denied that Iran was calling the shots in the latest conflict.

“These allegations aim to mislead international public opinion and cover up for Israel's crimes against the Palestinian people and its continuous aggression against the city of Jerusalem and its Palestinian Muslim and Christian residents,” the source argued.

The source said that Israel’s storming of Al-Aqsa mosque and evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem had prompted Hamas to respond to “defend it’s people."

"How can the resistance be attacked for defending itself and accused of escalating the situation at the request of Iran?” he said.

Asked about rockets being named after Iranian leaders, the source said the al-Quds Brigades have "yet to reveal the reasons behind naming one of their rockets 'al-Qasem missile.’"

He added, “Some analysts and politicians linked the name of al-Qasem missile to the slain Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, who contributed to developing the capabilities of the resistance in Gaza.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on May 18 that one of the goals of this operation and the use of force in Gaza is to deter Hezbollah and Iran. “Let Netanyahu say what he wants,” the source said. “But what is happening on the ground shows a major failure of his military operations and his inability to confront or weaken the resistance’s capabilities.”

On May 20, Netanyahu said that a drone shot down earlier in the week near the border with Jordan had been sent by Iran.

Hamas leader Mahmoud Merdawi denied to Al-Monitor any Iranian pressure on Hamas or any conditions by Iran to stop the escalation. “How can we accept the continuing escalation for personal or political considerations of foreign states while Palestinian blood is being shed?” he asked.

Merdawi did however praise the positive and supportive stance Iran has shown toward the factions in Gaza. He affirmed that “Iran does not interfere in the management of the political and military battle [in Gaza]. Tehran is ready to support the military effort, but this is geographically impeded. The battle is being managed by Palestinians based on the interest of the Palestinian people.”

He claimed that these accusations come as part of a smear campaign spearheaded by the Israeli political system, which aims to influence the popular base of the resistance and claim that it has an external agenda.

Hassan Abdo, a political analyst close to the Islamic Jihad, said the resistance named one of its missiles al-Qasem as a message of gratitude and appreciation for what the Iranian leader Soleimani offered Jerusalem and the resistance. He said Iran's support for the resistance is overt and public. “Naming the missile al-Qasem is not an indication that Iran is fighting Israel in Gaza,” he said.

Regarding Iran’s interest in the escalation, Abdo explained that “the Palestinian resistance is the one who fights and defends the rights of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian resistance is not concerned if this falls in favor of the interests of some states.”

Meanwhile, Naji Shurrab, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor that Iran has a direct interest in the current escalation. He ruled out, however, that Iran may have instructed the Gaza factions to launch at Israel the rockets that caused the outbreak of the war on Gaza. “This does not mean Iran was not aware in advance of future possibilities of escalation,” he said.

Shurrab said the escalation erupted against the backdrop of the events in Jerusalem since the holy city has a religious and historical significance for the Palestinians.

He noted that “accusing Iran of being behind the escalation may pin on the resistance accusations of terrorism. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are now in need of financial resources. Using the name al-Qasem could be a veiled message to Iran to send them money.”

Shurrab ruled out any Iranian role in the conditions the resistance is imposing for accepting the cease-fire. He explained that all Iran has to do is deliver a message that it is able to influence the resistance and the progress of the negotiations. “Iran has no direct role in the cease-fire; rather, it acts behind the scenes,” he noted.

Shurrab concluded, “Oddly, Hezbollah did not participate in supporting Jerusalem or Gaza. This would have had a direct impact on Iran's presence in Lebanon and Syria. Iran cannot afford human and military losses in Hezbollah but can bear the financial losses in Gaza."

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