Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Saturday, November 12. Convened to address the ongoing war in Gaza, the meeting occurred during a joint summit of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation.
The meeting was unique because both the Iranian President and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended. Several years ago, it would have been inconceivable for Iranian and Syrian leaders to discuss regional policy with the Saudis in Riyadh. This illustrates how the Hamas attack on Israel in early October and Israel’s response could lead to shifts in the region that may benefit Iran and, by extension, Hamas. Hamas is hoping this is the case, and its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, has met with Iran’s foreign minister twice, has traveled to Iran, and then on to Turkey and Egypt in the last month. Israel’s campaign in Gaza will need to take into account regional strategy and wider Hamas threats in the Middle East if it plans to defeat Hamas in the long term.
Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 in a massive surprise attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel. Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza also kidnapped 240 people from Israel, including foreign workers and people with foreign citizenship. Israel launched a war in Gaza in response. Thousands of targets have been struck by Israel’s air force, navy, and artillery. Three Israel Defense Forces divisions began a ground operation on October 27. The IDF said on November 11 that “since the beginning of ground operations in Gaza, the Air Force, with the assistance and direction of the ground forces, has struck approximately 5,000 targets in the Gaza Strip to eliminate threats in real time.”
There is no doubt the IDF can triumph over Hamas on the tactical level in Gaza. The IDF has immense firepower knitted together with the latest technology. This includes new drones and active protection systems for tanks, new armored personnel carriers, and new corvette ships off the coast. For instance, the IDF announced that in over two weeks of fighting since the ground invasion, “approximately 3,300 strikes were carried out by fighter jets, 860 strikes were carried out by combat helicopters and over 570 strikes were carried out by UAVs.”
What is the Hamas game plan? Hamas has faced Israel before in Gaza, in ground battles in 2009 and 2014, and numerous other clashes. The terror organization would have known that a massive attack like October 7 and the taking of hundreds of hostages would result in Israeli retaliation. Hamas filmed its atrocities on camera and posted some of them online.
When Hamas launched its attack, it called on Palestinians to attack Israel in the West Bank and other areas of Israel. After almost a month and a half of war, Hamas has a different message. In a statement from last weekend, Hamas rallied for international support: “We call on the Arab and Islamic worlds and free peoples across the globe to act now and mobilize the masses to stop the ongoing Israeli aggression against hospitals in the Gaza Strip and to open the Rafah crossing to bring in aid and necessary medical materials.”
Backers of Hamas said in Riyadh that they don’t see the massacre of around 800 civilians in Israel as a terrorist attack. Iran, which backs Hamas, had a message as well: “There is no other way than to resist Israel, we kiss the hands of Hamas for its resistance against Israel.” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “They want us to classify Hamas as a terrorist. No, it is not a terrorist. They are fighting for their homeland and struggling to obtain their rights.”
Iran’s assessment appears to be that it can benefit from the war in Gaza. Iranian proxies seem to believe they will reap rewards as well. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah said in Lebanon on November 11 that if the war in Gaza continues, then Hezbollah could also attack U.S. forces. This statement coincides with more than forty attacks by Iranian-backed groups on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since October 7. In addition, an Iranian proxy in Syria or Iraq even launched a drone that targeted Eilat in southern Israel. Iranian media even boasted of this attack.
Hamas wouldn’t likely gamble its future on one major attack. The actions of its leadership and Iran since October 7 suggest a more complex goal. Hamas first gained popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, opposing the Oslo Accords and seeking to benefit from the Palestinian Intifada that began in 1987. Hamas presented a political Islamic alternative to the secular nationalist Fatah party. Hamas also became more violent as time went on, ousting Fatah from Gaza and stockpiling thousands of rockets. However, its goal is to rule over the Palestinians, not just Gaza. If the war in Gaza goes well for Israel, Hamas leaders could nevertheless see a kind of Pyrrhic victory. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is aging. He was born in 1935. While his security forces enjoy U.S. and Western backing, he has already lost control of some Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank over the last year. Jenin, for instance, is now the scene of clashes between Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the IDF. The Palestinian Authority struggles to maintain its rule.
After Israel defeats Hamas in Gaza, there will be questions about whether the PA can run Gaza. Gaza could end up being too much of a piece to chew on, and it could result in both Israel and the PA getting entrenched in the Gaza Strip in a complex, chaotic conflict. There is talk of what comes next in Gaza, and Israel and the Palestinian Authority are sending mixed messages. Hamas could leverage this chaos to re-enter the West Bank as it leveraged the Oslo peace accords to launch a campaign of attacks in the 1990s. The current trend in the Middle East is that countries such as Turkey, Russia, China, and Iran appear more sympathetic to Hamas. The joint Arab League and Islamic summit in Riyadh didn’t showcase backing for the Palestinian Authority or Abbas in Ramallah.
While it doesn’t appear that Hamas has a foothold in the West Bank yet, the overall trend already sees Hamas taking advantage of the war in Gaza to get foreign backing abroad. This has included major protests in the West and the extraordinary meetings Haniyeh has attended in the region. The end goal of Hamas may be to draw Israel into a quagmire in Gaza, hoping to come out of it stronger than on October 6. This was what happened after Israel went into Lebanon in 1982. Israel vanquished Palestinian terror groups during that war but ended up with Hezbollah, which is now much stronger than those groups were in the 1980s. Israel also defeated terror threats in Gaza in the 1970s and the 2000s, only to end up with Hamas. Iranian-backed groups think in the long term, not in terms of short six-month conflicts. Iran has proven this in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Israel’s campaign in Gaza will need to take into account regional strategy if it is to prevail.
Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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