For more than a decade, Iran’s primary tactic for pursuing power in the Middle East has been to empower proxy groups. Most of these proxies have shared a religious or ideological affinity with the Islamic Republic. In Iraq, Arab Shiite factions that believe faith runs thicker than ethnicity have cozied up to Iran. The same is true for Hezbollah and its members in Lebanon. The Assad clan, still in charge of most of Syria, is Alawite – a Shiite offshoot in a sea of Sunnis.
But one of Iran’s proxies has always been a little different: Hamas. Hamas is a Sunni organization, an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also a thorn in Israel’s side, and that has been enough of a reason for Iran to look past doctrinal disagreements and send Hamas money and weapons. That will soon change.
Israel has sought to neutralize the threat posed by Hamas since the day Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005. “Disengagement” was supposed to be the first step in a broader plan to pull Israel back to more defensible borders. But in 2006, the plan’s most important supporter, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was felled by a stroke, and no Israeli politician after him could summon the gravitas to push through the unpopular next steps in the West Bank. Partly that was because of the unimpeachable security credentials of Sharon, a former general. But it was also because soon after Israel disengaged from Gaza, Hamas took over and began attacking Israel with rockets and cross-border raids.
In the years since, Israel has tried several approaches to limit Hamas’ capability to attack it. It fought three wars with Hamas in Gaza – every time the group got too powerful, Israel intervened. It invested heavily in missile-defense technology, like Iron Dome and David’s Sling. It leaned on Egypt to put pressure on Hamas, even approving large Egyptian military deployments in the Sinai Peninsula so that Egypt might help crack down on weapons smuggling into and out of the Gaza Strip. And in recent years, Israel has even had quiet, unofficial contacts with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, all of which (except Qatar) see Iran as an enemy and therefore are willing to work with Israel to curtail Iranian influence in Gaza.
Were it not for Iran’s deployment of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers and advanced weaponry in Syria to defend the Assad regime, this state of affairs might have continued indefinitely. The occasional outburst from Hamas was manageable when the threats on Israel’s borders were dormant. But the turning of the tide in the Syrian civil war in 2015 changed matters for Israel, and the threat to the north is no longer dormant. Hezbollah, which was greatly weakened by its participation in the Syrian war, is now pulling back and trying to recuperate. Iranian military bases, soldiers and weapons are now present throughout Syria – and are especially prevalent on the Israel-Syria border.
Given this state of affairs to the north, Israel can no longer afford to have an Iranian proxy in the south capable of creating a second front. Rather than invade Gaza, however, Israel is attempting to quarantine the problem. Israel has discussed building an advanced border wall around Gaza since 2014. In October, Israel stopped talking and started digging, approving the use of around $800 million to construct a new barrier around Gaza. At the time, estimates suggested it would take two years for Israel to complete. In January, however, Israel announced it was accelerating construction with an eye toward completion by the end of the year.
The new barrier also extends deep into the ground to neutralize attack tunnels that Hamas has dug under both the Israeli and Egyptian borders. In addition, Israel is building a maritime obstacle between itself and Gaza, all while installing new sensitive detection systems, investing in naval capabilities and training Israeli military forces to prevent both infiltration into Israel and smuggling into Gaza by land and sea. Israel’s goal is not simply to make it harder for weapons and money to reach Gaza – it wants to cut off the supply entirely. In the past, Israel has knocked out Hamas rockets and missiles, only for Hamas to find ways to resupply itself. The next time Israel intervenes in Gaza, it aims to make it the last.
In effect, the walls are closing in on Hamas. The Gaza Strip borders two states – Israel and Egypt – and both distrust Hamas, and Iran even more. (Egypt, which is dependent on Saudi Arabia for its economic livelihood, has subordinated much of its policy on Iran to Riyadh’s desires.) This is why Hamas, via the United Nations, Egypt and Qatar, has been loudly trumpeting that it is interested in a long-term cease-fire with Israel. Hamas realized that if Israel can complete its various obstacles and make Iranian support for Hamas rhetorical, it will be only a matter of time before Hamas is destroyed – either by Israeli intervention or Gazan popular revolt against worsening conditions and tactical impotence against the enemy Hamas is sworn to defeat. Hamas can no longer afford to be an Iranian proxy if it wants to survive.
Hamas officials claimed on Aug. 3 that they had accepted a long-term truce with Israel. Details remain hazy, but most reports suggest that they involve easing restrictions on goods in and out of Gaza, reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, a surrendering of Hamas’ weapons and a prisoner exchange. Israel has not confirmed that an agreement was reached, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a trip to South America scheduled for Aug. 6-9 to convene his security Cabinet and discuss possible new developments. The Jerusalem Post and other Israeli newspapers reported on Aug. 4 that Hamas and Israel were close to an agreement on a long-term truce. It seemed as if Israel might be on the verge of neutralizing Hamas without firing a shot.
But progress hit a roadblock on Aug. 7, when Israeli forces shelled a Hamas position and killed two Hamas fighters. The Israel Defense Forces said Israeli tanks mistook a Hamas naval exercise for an attack against Israel. The exercise was intended to show off Hamas’ military forces to a visiting delegation of Lebanon-based Hamas political leaders who had traveled to Gaza specifically to discuss the truce with local leaders. An Al-Monitor report said even Egypt had assured the Hamas leaders that Israel would not try to assassinate them during the visit as they tried to sell the truce to officials in Gaza. Hamas retaliated by firing almost 200 rockets at Israeli targets on Aug. 8, and Israel responded in kind with airstrikes on key Hamas positions throughout the Gaza Strip.
Hamas declared a unilateral cease-fire, effective Aug. 10, while U.N. officials traveled to the region over the weekend attempting to put the broader truce back together. Israel, however, maintains it has not agreed to any cease-fires – not to the current round of hostilities or to the longer-term deal that has been in the works for months. Netanyahu convened his security Cabinet again on Sunday, and before the meeting, he told the media that Israel was now in the midst of a wider campaign against Hamas in Gaza. As for a cease-fire, Netanyahu said Israel had one demand – a complete cease-fire – and that as long as Israeli demands were unmet, Israel would continue its operational preparations for an extended campaign.
Israel has not called up any reserves, nor does it appear Israel is preparing to go in on the ground despite the harsh rhetoric coming out of the security Cabinet. Even so, Israel is indeed engaged in a wider campaign against Hamas. Israel can no longer tolerate an Iranian proxy on its southern border. Whether by blockade, diplomacy, invasion or some combination, Israel aims to cripple Hamas and any other potential threat emanating from the Gaza Strip as quickly as possible so it can focus on the emerging threat to the north. As for Hamas, it is out of options. The harder it gets for Hamas to receive weapons and money from Iran, the more Hamas is forced to seek a face-saving compromise with Egypt and Israel. Israel may be willing to let Hamas save face, but it can’t let Hamas save its missiles. Either way, Hamas’ days as a credible Iranian proxy group are numbered.