Hamas’s Expanding Reach Escalates Iran-Israel Shadow War
Saud Abu Ramadan and Amy Teibel, Bloomberg News
(Bloomberg) — Hamas, the small Palestinian militant group once confined to the Gaza Strip, is growing in influence, making inroads against its enemy Israel while rebuilding ties across the Middle East.
After its sponsor, Iran, re-established relations with arch-rival Saudi Arabia, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and his deputies visited the kingdom this week for the first time in years. It’s also re-established ties with Syria after a decade-long rift, and set up bases in Turkey, Lebanon and Qatar.
Earlier this month, Hamas launched the biggest volley of rockets at Israel from Lebanon since those countries were last at war in 2006.
“Hamas has a way of being able to draw a wide range of actors into its conflict with Israel,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. “They are now the means, the delivery system for the Iranian strategy of bringing war to Israel’s borders.”
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was also invited to Saudi Arabia. But his credibility with his people in the West Bank is at rock bottom after failing to deliver a Palestinian state in almost two decades in power, and Hamas is trying to speak for the entire movement.
When Israeli police and Palestinians clashed recently at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, it was Hamas that barraged Israel from Gaza and Syria, as well as Lebanon, while arming groups in the West Bank.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has warned that Iran is waging a multifront war of attrition against Israel. And Tehran’s hand may be strengthening, as reconciliation with Saudi Arabia comes alongside ongoing support from Russia and high oil prices. The Arab world’s re-acceptance of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad provided another boost, as he is strategic ally.
U.S. involvement in the Middle East has meanwhile diminished, and Iran has advanced its nuclear program.
“One gets a sense that the organization may be experiencing a sort of resurgence,” Schanzer said of Hamas. “I’m not saying they’re an all-powerful operation. But they’re enjoying greater acceptance than what we’ve seen, and that has to do with the changing landscape of the region.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on Hamas’s widening reach.
Realigning ties “put Hamas at the heart of things, and perhaps it is looking for a foothold in some important capitals, such as Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, Tehran, and of course Damascus and Beirut,” said Adnan Abu Amer, professor of political science at Al-Ummah University in Gaza City.
“Hamas believes that its political work, diplomatic relations and external contacts with Arab and Islamic countries and other nations promote its narrative with regard to the Israeli occupation, and serve to legitimize its armed resistance,” he said.
For most of its existence, Hamas was a local Palestinian group supported by Qatar, but regarded with hostility in other parts of the Arab world because of its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, considered a terrorist organization.
In recent years, Hamas moved several of its top leaders out of Gaza, where they’d been penned up under Israel’s tight watch, giving them freedom of movement. The group tightened ties with Iran ally Hezbollah, which controls the most powerful armed force in Lebanon, giving it an additional base against Israel.
The changing regional landscape “increases the freedom of action of Iran and its proxies to escalate military confrontation with Israel,” the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, a conservative think tank, wrote in a recent paper.
“The chances of deterioration into a wider conflict are more significant today than before” — at a time when Israel is seen from the outside as a “torn society, gradually losing its ability to function” because of the fierce domestic controversy surrounding the government’s proposal to weaken the country’s courts, it said.
For Schanzer, the real question is whether Hamas has access to what Israel has termed a game-changer: the precision-guided missile program that Hezbollah and Iran have created in Lebanon.
Such missiles are navigable and can be guided toward a specific target. If there is significant collaboration and cooperation between Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, “I think it’s fair to ask, is Hamas now part of this,” Schanzer said.
“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be if Iran’s goal is to encircle Israel and endanger it with advanced weaponry.”
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