Israeli-Palestinian tension over Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque and Temple Mount has been inflamed if not instigated by an Iranian-operated “nerve center” in Lebanon. Though Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) and Hezbollah (Iran’s surrogate Lebanese Shi’ite “Party of God”) contribute to the operation, management comes from Tehran.
That’s the view of Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and author of Gaza 2021—Israel and Hamas, 11 Days of War, a new book analyzing last year’s battle between the Gaza Strip-based Palestinian movement and the Jewish state. Hamas may not have replenished its weaponry and rebuilt enough of its infrastructure to resume open warfare with Israel just yet, but Iran seeks to distract Israel from its nuclear weapons development, Schanzer told more than 100 participants in a Jewish Policy Center webinar May 12. Iranians also assist Hezbollah in accelerating production of precision guided missiles.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Republic funds Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. Schanzer previously analyzed terrorism financing for the Treasury Department. He said, based on contacts with “senior Israeli officials,” that Iran’s headquarters in Lebanon “appears to be doing a good job keeping a low flame of terror attacks in Israel” burning,
Eighteen Israelis have been murdered in terrorist assaults—often by “lone wolves”—since March. Approximately 30 Palestinian Arabs have been killed by Israelis in response. Schanzer noted that although tension surrounding the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a years’-long property dispute in eastern Jerusalem and weak economies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip contributed to eruption of last year’s war, their persistence in 2022 has not spark general fighting.
Among the differences between 2021 and this year is that “right now we don’t see that competition [between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah, which dominates the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority] is that acute,” Schanzer said. Observing that Hamas has staged heavy rocket and missile fire at Israel to open general fighting every few years in recent decades, he added “this is not to say Hamas won’t decide tomorrow to launch rockets into Israel … but right now its rebuilding” and doing so with the support of Iran.
“Hamas is somewhat homeless” when it comes to foreign bases of operations, Schanzer said. During the May 2021 fighting Turkey blasted Israel diplomatically and hosted senior Hamas leaders. Criticizing neighboring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ankara “is not fanning the flames of conflict like it was last year.”
Even Qatar, which has backed the Palestinian movement, “may be a little bit more tentative” for the moment, Schanzer said. Nevertheless, he called the Biden administration’s granting of major non-NATO ally status to Qatar “disgusting,” since Doha is “behind all sorts of terrorism financing.”
“Malaysia has cropped up” as a possible location for Hamas operatives, Schanzer said. The further from Israel, the better he added, observing that Israeli forces reportedly have carried out targeted assassination in the southeast Asian country.
What’s next? “These low-level shadow attacks could be the ‘new normal’ for Israel, unfortunately,” Schanzer said. “Coordinated out of Lebanon … it’s hard for Israel to stop this activity.” Jerusalem’s intention to form a new police “national guard” including armed civilians to supplement security forces would not prevent such attacks but rather provide a more rapid response to limit them, he asserted.
The fatal shooting of Al-Jazeera television journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, during a “chaotic” battle between Hamas members and other gunmen and Israeli forces in Jenin on May 11 was a tragedy, Schanzer said. Israel called for a joint investigation, but PA President Mahmoud Abbas “wants to take it to the [United Nations’] International Criminal Court,” raising chain-of-custody questions about the bullet that killed Abu Akleh and using the ICC to foment an anti-Israel tale.
The West Bank city has been “a nightmare” for the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Jordan for 20 years, he added. None of them want to see Hamas use the city as a base for taking a swath of West Bank territory, Schanzer said.