“Shield and Arrow”: Yet another Gaza conflict
May 12, 2023 | AIJAC staff
Update 05/23 #02
Despite hopes for a ceasefire, Israel is currently embroiled in yet another conflict with Gaza after the IDF responded to a barrage of more than 100 rockets from the Iranian proxy Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) last week, and intelligence of further impending terror attacks, by targeting and killing three key PIJ leaders on Tuesday, May 9. The basic facts of these Israeli strikes – labelled “Shield and Arrow” by the IDF – were laid out in an AIJAC factsheet published on Wednesday.
Since then, PIJ has launched at least 860 rockets at Israel – though about 25% of these have misfired and fallen into Gaza – and Israel has hit back at PIJ targets in Gaza, including killing some additional senior PIJ commanders. Israel’s Iron Dome defence system has helped prevent most rocket attacks from causing serious damage, but last night, a rocket struck an apartment building in the city of Rehovot, killing one man and injuring several others.
This Update leads with an excellent summary of all that has happened over the past few days, as well as the background to these events and their future implications, from Jonathan Ruhe and Ari Cicurel of the Washington-based JINSA think tank. The piece does a good job of explaining the key strategic realities behind what is happening – including an Israeli determination to strengthen its deterrence against both PIJ, and the wider multi-front alliance of Iranian proxies of which it is a part. Ruhe and Cicurel also explain the complex relationship between PIJ and Hamas, the also Iranian-affiliated group which actually rules Gaza, as well as the pre-conditions for a ceasefire. For all the basics you need to know about the current conflict, CLICK HERE. More on the strategic realities behind the current Gaza war – and the lack of any real hope of doing more than managing the conflict – comes from AIJAC Research Associate Dr. Ran Porat, writing in Monash University’s The Lens.
Next, noted former British military officer Col. Richard Kemp takes on the UN and other bodies which have been critical of the civilian casualties caused by Israel’s strikes on the PIJ. Kemp describes the Israeli operation so far as exhibiting “breathtaking effectiveness”, and takes strong issue with claims the IDF has not been adequately careful to minimise civilian casualties when targeting PIJ, terming such claims a “grave slur”. Kemp also offers some sound advice about what the international community could be doing that would be more effective in protecting both Israeli and Palestinian lives. For the very well-informed views of this experienced military veteran, CLICK HERE.
Finally, US-based expert Jonathan Schanzer looks in some more detail at the wider “multi-front” assault on Israel that Iran is currently trying to arrange via its proxies, of which PIJ, and its recent attacks, are a vital part. He emphasises that Israel has been pretty effective in defanging much of this effort, especially via its “Campaign Between Wars” attacks on Iranian agents and proxies in Syria, which also tries to prevent key proxies like Hezbollah from getting precision-guided missiles. He suggests that, whatever happens in the current conflict, a major Israel-Iran confrontation remains very likely in the not-very-distant future. For all of Schanzer’s keen insights and analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- More on the Palestinians, including at least three children, who have been killed by the 200 or more PIJ rockets that fell short and landed in Gaza. Plus, blogger David Lange looks at some Palestinian statistics which suggest that most Palestinian civilians killed or injured in the current conflict were likely victims of these errant PIJ rockets.
- An IDF video showing PIJ rockets falling back into Gaza.
- Another IDF video of a planned strike on a PIJ target that is aborted at the last minute after a child approaches the target area.
- Veteran Palestinian affairs journalist Khaled Abu Toameh offers his take on how Hamas – which has not fired any of its extensive arsenal of rockets and has not been targeted by Israel – is feeling about the current round of conflict.
- Herb Keinon on the politics of the current round of conflict for embattled Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
- Muslim scholar Bassam Tawil reflects on the real meaning of the chant all too often heard at pro-Palestinian events: “From The River To The Sea, Palestine Will Be Free”.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Oved Lobel’s look at where the PIJ fits into the Iranian system of proxies – and the “shell game” Iran plays to pretend that these proxies are independent actors, when they are actually controlled from Teheran.
- Lobel also had a valuable analysis on the likely fate of Yemen, as Saudi Arabia apparently prepares to withdraw support from the recognised government and leave the country to the Houthis, another Iranian proxy.
- Allon Lee’s reply, in the Hobart Mercury, to an article that compared the Palestinians to Indigenous Australians, claiming both were victims of European colonialists who came and stole their land.
- AIJAC’s statement congratulating Julia Gutman, the Jewish Australian who won this year’s Archibald prize.
- Video of AIJAC’s webinar earlier this week with distinguished historian Prof. Martin Kramer, on the topic “75 Years Young – Israelis celebrate amidst domestic controversy.” A short excerpt in which Kramer explains how Israel’s Declaration of Independence has become so iconic in the current wave of protests and controversy over judicial reforms is here.
Israel’s Operation Shield and Arrow
Jonathan Ruhe and Ari Cicurel
JINSA, May 11, 2023
Israeli rescue workers in the city of Rehovot, near Tel Aviv, where an apartment block was hit by a rocket last night, killing one resident and injuring several others (Photo: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Israel initiated Operation Shield and Arrow on May 9 with airstrikes that killed three senior members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), an Iranian proxy in Gaza, a week after the terrorist group fired over 100 rockets at Israel. Following that attack and a multi-front offensive by Iranian-backed groups in April, Israel is determined to enforce redlines and rebuild deterrence specifically against PIJ—and its Iranian patron. Israel also appears to be pursuing a relatively new strategy of trying to separate PIJ from Hamas, explicitly targeting only the former. So far, this strategy appears to be working as Hamas has avoided becoming directly involved. The United States should ensure that Israel has the time to pursue its objectives, rapidly resupply it with air defense interceptors should its stocks become low, and protect its partner at the United Nations Security Council against spurious accusations
- Israel launched Operation Shield and Arrow in the early hours of May 9, beginning with separate, simultaneous airstrikes that killed three senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commanders who allegedly posed an immediate threat to Israeli civilians.
- On May 2, PIJ militants in Gaza launched over 100 rockets at Israel. That attack was a response to the death of PIJ official Khader Adnan after an eighty-seven-day hunger strike in Israeli prison. Israel had also targeted a Hamas training camp and weapons storage facility on May 3.
- During the strikes that targeted the three PIJ commanders, at least ten civilians were also killed.
- The IDF conducts careful checks to minimize collateral damage, but in this operation a greater freedom of action was permitted so that it could conduct the airstrikes simultaneously to prevent any of the targets from fleeing.
- Also on May 9, Israeli aircraft struck ten PIJ weapons manufacturing and military facilities, and later that day hit an anti-tank missile cell preparing to launch an attack.
- On May 10, Israel renewed its strikes on PIJ rocket launch sites to preempt attacks by the militants, striking over 150 targets. Militants from PIJ in Gaza fired roughly 500 rockets, mortars, and anti-tank missiles at southern Israeli cities and Tel Aviv. Israel responded to these attacks with further strikes against PIJ rocket launch sites.
- With the Iron Dome short-range air defense system intercepting most of the incoming projectiles, there were reports of some injuries but no deaths in Israel.
- Israel’s David’s Sling air defense system made its first successful operational interception by neutralizing a rocket over Tel Aviv.
- Later on May 10, Egypt reportedly negotiated a ceasefire, but a heavy barrage of rockets in southern Israel and Tel Aviv continued after the ceasefire was said to have gone into effect.
- The United States and United Kingdom blocked an effort by China at an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on May 10 to pass a resolution expressing concern about the fighting, which would have drawn equivalence between Israel and PIJ.
- Despite reports of ceasefire negotiations, Israel and PIJ continued to exchange sporadic fire overnight into May 11. This included an Israeli strike that killed Ali Ghali, the commander of PIJ’s rocket force in Gaza responsible for attacks against Israel.
Why Is It Important?
- Aside from its operational importance of demonstrating Israel’s ability to strike multiple key targets simultaneously, Operation Shield and Arrow’s major strategic implication is Israel’s determination to enforce redlines and rebuild deterrence specifically against PIJ—and its Iranian patron. Israel also appears to be pursuing a relatively new strategy of trying to separate PIJ from Hamas, a larger and more capable Gaza-based terror organization.
- PIJ’s recent attacks from Gaza, along with multifront strikes Israel faced in April, indicate an erosion of Israeli deterrence against Iran-backed groups on its borders. Operation Shield and Arrow was an attempt to reverse this trend and reestablish Israeli redlines.
- Iranian-backed terrorist groups seek to capitalize on possible weaknesses and distractions from Israel’s internal political turmoil, persistent strains in its bilateral partnership with the United States, and Washington’s own perceived retrenchment from the Middle East.
- In just four days last month, Israel was attacked on multiple fronts from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza in an unprecedentedly coordinated effort by Iranian proxies.
- Since the conclusion of the May 2021 Gaza conflict, Hamas and PIJ have taken different approaches, leading Israel to adopt differing strategies for dealing with each group.
- Up to and through the 2021 conflict, Israel generally held Hamas, which controls Gaza, responsible for all attacks originating from the territory, even if not carried out by Hamas.
- Since that conflict, however, Hamas has largely been deterred from launching more attacks against Israel from inside Gaza.
- Instead, Hamas has been actively funding, recruiting, and initiating terrorist attacks in the West Bank that target Israelis.
- It also engaged in a coordinated round of rocket and drone attacks on Israel from Lebanon.
- Tellingly, Hamas has remained conspicuously on the sidelines during the current operation, indicating it remains deterred and seeks to avoid another round of escalation. This despite JINSA Distinguished Fellow MG (ret.) Yaakov Amidror indicating that PIJ asked for Hamas assistance and involvement in responding to Israel’s initial May 9 airstrikes.
- PIJ, on the other hand, has grown increasingly more aggressive over the last two years, frequently attacking Israel. – Notably, from August 5-7, 2022, Israel launched Operation Breaking Dawn to preempt PIJ plans to launch anti-tank missiles against Israel. The terrorist group fired 1,100 rockets during this short round of hostilities.
- During the May 9-11 airstrikes of Operation Shield and Arrow, the IDF targeted PIJ leaders and capabilities and explicitly avoided striking Hamas or holding it responsible for PIJ attacks.
- At the start of the operation on May 9, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant claimed Israel “wiped out the leadership” of PIJ and “dealt a significant blow to the assets of this murderous terrorist organization” by destroying hundreds of weapons production and storage facilities.
- On May 10, IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari made clear that Israel’s focus is on PIJ, not Hamas, and that the IDF is “striking those who are launching rockets at us…. Islamic Jihad is leading this rocket fire. If other factions join, we will respond against them too.”
- In contrast to Hamas, whose de facto control of Gaza gives it more to lose in any escalation—and thus makes it more deterrable there—upholding deterrence against PIJ is more difficult for Israel.
- PIJ’s chief decision-makers are more ensconced in Lebanon than in Gaza (compared to Hamas), making them feel less directly vulnerable to current Israeli operations and giving them fewer equities to fear they could lose in any escalation of fighting in Gaza.
- Relative to Hamas, which receives funding and training from Iran, PIJ is more a direct creation of the Iranian regime and depends more wholly on Tehran for largesse.
- With efforts to negotiate a ceasefire ongoing, the duration of this operation will be determined by two key factors:
- Israel’s satisfaction that it has restored deterrence and degraded PIJ capabilities; and
- Whether Hamas joins PIJ in directly launching projectiles at Israel from Gaza
‘A grave slur against IDF’: UN plays right into Islamic Jihad’s hands
Opinion: In ynetnews exclusive, former UK commander rejects accusations leveled at Israeli army, which adheres to — and goes beyond — international laws of war in this conflict fueled by Iran; No country can sit back and watch while its enemies lash out
Colonel Richard Kemp
Ynetnews.com, May 11, 2023
IDF graphic illustrating its efforts to stop or intercept Palestinian Islamic Jihad rockets from Gaza – the “Shield” element of the operation (Image: IDF).
Operation Shield and Arrow has been carried out to date with breathtaking effectiveness. The shield of Iron Dome and David’s Sling have prevented major loss of life among the civilian population, although so far one man has been tragically killed and some have been injured, despite a barrage of 547 deadly rockets fired at Israel at the time of writing.
The arrows of target intelligence, air strikes and missile attacks have decimated the Gaza terrorist leadership and destroyed many of their weapons. No other military is capable of defending its people with the ferocity and precision the IDF has been showing.
Unfortunately, some of Israel’s arrows have also killed uninvolved civilians. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said yesterday that the civilian deaths in Gaza are “unacceptable” and called on Israel to “abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law”.
This amounts to a grave slur against the IDF which is known by all Western military commanders to be more effective than any other force in the world in preventing the deaths of civilians in enemy territory. Instead, Guterres should have held the Gaza terrorists directly responsible for the killing of their civilians, for it is they who have a deliberate policy of using human shields — a war crime. Not least, Islamic Jihad commanders keep their wives and children close to them as proper military commanders would wear their body armor and helmet.
Guterres’s comments — and their echoes in the media and among human rights groups — also play directly into the hands of terrorists whose prime operational objective, short of its destruction, is international vilification of Israel. The UN Human Rights Council’s condemnation of the IDF that will follow this conflict as night follows day, flowing from thinking such as the Secretary General’s, will help ensure that Islamic Jihad and terrorists everywhere continue to use human shields and will cost many more lives.
Knowing the IDF as I do I can be confident that they are closely adhering to — and going beyond — international laws of war in this conflict. But there is another question as well. Should they have been given political direction to conduct offensive operations in Gaza, knowing that innocent civilian lives would be lost? Some argue, following Guterres’s line that civilian deaths are unacceptable, that Israel’s shield is sufficient to blunt the rockets and protect its population without the accompanying arrows.
Former British Army commander Colonel Richard Kemp (Photo: twitter)
Of course, the reality is that no defensive system can provide 100% protection, as we have seen from deaths, wounding, and property destruction in Israel during this conflict and previous rocket attacks; and no country can sit back and watch while its enemies lash out. On top of that the stakes in the current round of violence are much higher even than 547 rockets fired out of Gaza in two days.
Islamic Jihad bought and paid for by Iran
Islamic Jihad, behind the present violence, is an Iranian proxy, bought and paid for by Tehran. The ayatollahs are intent on the destruction of Israel: by nuclear weapons when they have completed the capability, and meanwhile by a multi-front proxy war.
They have been encircling Israel with weapons and fighters, spending millions of dollars. In Lebanon, they have positioned tens of thousands of missiles and UAVs, including precision-guided systems. In Syria, they have been working to build another front for attack although so far the IDF has been disrupting their efforts with almost weekly strikes.
inside Israel and in Judea and Samaria Iranian proxies have been fomenting, funding, and directing violent attacks against civilians and military. And, since Israel’s total withdrawal from the territory, they have helped turn Gaza into a war machine of attack tunnels, fortifications, and rocket bases, supplying funds, materiel, munitions and direction
As the current conflict began, the Iranian leadership exerted heavy pressure on their other Gaza terrorist client, Hamas, to join Islamic Jihad in the onslaught against Israel’s civilian population. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — a central organ of the Iranian government — has been the main mover in these malign efforts and has set up a war room in Beirut to coordinate their terrorist proxies more effectively.
How should the West respond? Not by trotting out the usual condemnations of an ally under assault, with the standard moral equivalence drawn between a sovereign state and its terrorist assailants such as is never drawn with any other conflict in the world —“we call on both sides to exercise restraint.”
Instead, the US, the UK and Europe should focus entirely on the head of this rabid wolf that has its teeth sunk into so many conflicts from Yemen to Gaza to Ukraine and beyond. Rather than appeasing Iran by desperately attempting to resurrect Obama’s deeply flawed nuclear deal, it should be branded for what it is, condemned, isolated and comprehensively sanctioned.
At the same time the US in particular should be working to bolster and give confidence to Iran’s prey, reversing its current policy that has seen its influence disastrously ceded to China and Russia.
Colonel Richard Kemp is a former British Army commander.
Iran’s Multifront Strategy Against Israel
The war after the ‘campaign between wars’ could soon erupt
by Jonathan Schanzer
Commentary, May 10
Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters – the group acts very much as part of a wider Iranian-led axis whose actions are coordinated through a “nerve centre” in Beirut. (Photo: Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo)
Rockets from Gaza flew toward Tel Aviv on May 10, only a few weeks after Israel celebrated its 75th anniversary. Against all odds, the country has survived despite multiple wars with its neighbors, a dearth of natural resources, and countless other challenges. But the rockets are a reminder that there are no permanent victories in the Middle East. Only permanent battles. There is a real possibility that Israel will be facing a serious war with enemies coming at it from various sides for the first time in nearly half a century—one coordinated out of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but fought along Israel’s borders by Tehran’s terror proxies. Indeed, just a day before the rocket barrage, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly spoke of “an attempt by Iran to start a multi-front campaign against us.”
Israel has forestalled this war for a decade by waging a so-called gray-zone campaign—a wide range of operations against Iran and its proxies just below the threshold of war. But after a particularly tense month of Ramadan in 2023, during which dozens of rockets pierced Israeli airspace from both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, Israeli military officials are now openly warning that Israel’s first multi-front war since the 1973 Yom Kippur War may be imminent.
Israel’s “Campaign Between Wars” began in 2013, though its origins can be traced to the destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 and the deployment of the powerful Stuxnet computer worm that targeted Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010. Both operations were carried out without retribution; neither triggered an open conflict. But it was in 2013 that Israel adopted a formal policy of consistently operating in the gray zone against Iran with the goal of forestalling a major war.
Some in Israel describe the Campaign Between Wars as a limited advance against Iranian activity in war-torn Syria, where thousands of Israeli air strikes have destroyed valuable regime assets over the course of a decade. Others take a wider view. They point to foreign press reports suggesting a sprawling campaign targeting Iranian capabilities (with only rare instances of Iranian retaliation) on the high seas, in cyberspace, in the financial and psychological spheres, in Syria, inside Iran, and beyond.
Israel has scored significant successes in Syria. Efforts by the Israel Defense Forces have thwarted Iranian designs to create a new Hezbollah-like terror proxy on the Golan Heights. The Syrian regime has repeatedly tried to move assets and personnel to the border. Israel has repeatedly destroyed most, if not all of it. Iran-backed militias still operate in Syria, but they are generally deterred.
Concurrently, Israel has been working to prevent Iran from arming Hezbollah (which operates in Lebanon) with what the IDF calls “game-changing weapons.” Over the past decade, Iran has been smuggling advanced-weapons parts and even entire systems into Syria en route to Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. These are precision-guided munitions (PGMs), and no non-state actor ever possessed them in the past. Tehran and Hezbollah are willing to suffer significant losses (transporting anything in the middle of a shooting war is hazardous stuff) to acquire even small quantities of these weapons. Unlike the “dumb” or unguided rockets that Hezbollah and Hamas have fired at Israel in the past, these rockets are equipped with navigation systems. They can strike an intended target with a 10-meter margin of error.
Fears of a successful precision strike on the Dimona nuclear facility or the chemical plant in Haifa have kept the Israelis busy. The IDF has done a remarkable job using its vast intelligence resources to destroy nearly all the PGMs and PGM parts that Iran has tried to sneak into Lebanon. The problem for Israel is that “nearly” is not “all.” Israeli officials quietly cede that Hezbollah now possesses “several hundred” PGMs. The group’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, openly boasts of his arsenal. New reports suggest that Hezbollah has at least one PGM production facility. The PGMs will augment Hezbollah’s existing arsenal of well over 150,000 rockets (despite UN resolutions explicitly prohibiting this), with the aim of overwhelming Israel’s defenses in a coming conflict.
Precision-guided munitions are not the only challenge in Lebanon. Hamas, primarily based in Gaza, recently demonstrated that it has both the personnel and the capability to attack Israel from the north as well. In 2017 and 2018, Israel lodged formal complaints with the United Nations, noting that “Hamas has been colluding with Hezbollah and its sponsor in Tehran to expand its malicious activities…within Lebanon.” For several years, there was little evidence to support this claim. However, during the 11-day war between Hamas and Israel in 2021, unknown “Palestinian radicals” fired a total of 13 rockets at Israel on three separate occasions. The rockets were either neutralized by Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system or fell into the Mediterranean Sea, and the culprit was never named.
Earlier this year, amid flaring tensions during the Ramadan holiday in April, Hamas brazenly shot more than 30 rockets at Israel, wounding three. The IDF fired artillery at the positions from which the rockets had flown, but stopped there. Admittedly, if Hamas’s goal was to draw Israel into a two-front war, it failed. But some security hawks in Israel were dismayed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to hold Hezbollah to account.
Days later, on April 9, the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah met in Beirut to discuss their joint strategy against Israel. They released photos depicting their conversations held beneath photos of former Iranian supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini and current supreme leader Ali Khamenei. The message was unmistakable: the Iran-led axis is preparing for a multi-front war with Israel.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah (third from left) meets with a delegation of senior Hamas officials in Beirut, April 6, 2023 – sending a message to Israel that the Iranian proxy threat has evolved (Source: Twitter).
Releasing the photo was an audacious message to send to the Israelis, who have an impressive track record of removing threat actors from the battlefield. But the photo served a deeper purpose. It confirmed to Israel that the Iranian proxy threat has evolved. For several years, sporadic reports have pointed to the existence of a “nerve center” in Beirut. Participants include senior figures from Iran’s IRGC—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—as well as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other groups. The nerve center is reportedly designed to coordinate the activities of the Iran-backed terrorist groups, to target Israel more efficiently.
Hints of this nerve center’s existence were first apparent during the 2021 rocket war between Israel and Hamas. Violence simultaneously erupted in several Arab-Israeli towns, suggesting a modicum of coordination. After the war’s end, Israeli officials began noting an uptick in West Bank violence. New terrorist groups, including one called the Lions’ Den, suddenly announced themselves. Concurrently, pockets of the West Bank, including in major towns such as Jenin and Nablus, were growing lawless. Palestinian Authority security forces failed to gain control, forcing the Israeli army to operate with greater frequency.
The combination of PA fecklessness and West Bank lawlessness put Israel in a lose-lose situation. If Israeli forces did not operate in these areas, the threat would metastasize. At the same time, the presence of Israeli forces in these places inspired greater radicalization among rank-and-file Palestinians. According to data collected by Foundation for Defense of Democracies, more than 1,500 terrorist attacks have targeted Israelis in the West Bank and over the Green Line since March of last year alone.
Israeli security services believe that Hezbollah (by way of Iran) is the primary source for the weapons flooding the West Bank. But there may be others. In April, a Jordanian parliamentarian was caught at the Allenby Bridge, between Jordan and the West Bank, with a jaw-dropping amount of weaponry along with more than $6 million in gold. The Hashemite Kingdom has been a fount of anti-Israel vitriol in recent years, and even an opponent of the Abraham Accords, but it is unlikely Amman would back such an audacious attempt to arm the Palestinians.
The Gaza Strip has been the source of horrific violence ever since the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas took it by force in the Palestinian civil war of 2007. The coastal Mediterranean enclave has witnessed pitched battles between Israel and Hamas in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021, with sporadic flare-ups between. Over the last two years, however, Hamas has demonstrated rare restraint.
Israeli security officials told me in October 2022 that this relative calm is the result of a new Hamas strategy. The group seeks to export violence to the West Bank, rather than sustain its regular beatings by Israel on home turf. It’s a logical strategy. Using the West Bank in this fashion weakens Hamas’s political rival, the Palestinian Authority, while also destabilizing Israel. This likely explains why only a few dozen rockets were fired out of Gaza during Ramadan this year.
However, it would be a mistake to view Hamas as more pragmatic. First, it is clearly taking the quiet as an opportunity to rebuild its military assets from the 2021 war and wars prior. Moreover, as we’ve seen, the Iran-backed group now has assets in the West Bank and Lebanon. From all appearances, it could touch off a three-front conflict at will. In this scenario, Hezbollah would join the battle from Lebanon, Shiite militias could join from Syria, and Iran could fire its own rockets from afar.
Once a group that was widely viewed as merely a tactical threat to Israel, Hamas has evolved into a transnational threat. It could not have achieved this without the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, Hamas leaders have become willing tools in Iran’s plans for war with Israel. It’s likely that several of them could soon pay the ultimate price.
The American role in this unfolding drama is fuzzy. On the one hand, amid the rockets of Ramadan, the Pentagon dispatched the USS Florida to the region. A nuclear submarine equipped with more than 150 tomahawk missiles, the Florida’s very presence in the waters off Iran sent an unmistakable message of deterrence. In January, the United States also conducted the Juniper Oak 23 exercise with Israel—the largest in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Here, too, the intended audience was Tehran.
At the same time, however, the Biden administration continues to twist itself into knots trying to convince the regime in Iran to reach a new nuclear agreement to succeed the 2015 deal brokered by Barack Obama and cancelled by Donald Trump two years later. What is reportedly on the table now is a “less for more” deal that makes Israeli officials decidedly nervous. Such an agreement would place fewer restrictions on Iran’s increasingly bold nuclear advances in exchange for more Western concessions. Such an arrangement could very well enable an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Israel continues to plead with the White House to step away from the negotiating table. Other regional actors see the pleading as a fool’s errand. Some have given up on Washington. The Saudis went so far as to ink an agreement with their nearly nuclear Iranian arch-rivals. That deal sent shock waves through Washington, primarily because the Chinese government brokered it.
The Israelis were concerned for other reasons. Saudi-Iran rapprochement could stymie Israel’s quest for normalization with the Saudis. The Biden administration’s ugly rhetoric toward Riyadh (some deserved and some utterly gratuitous) had already rendered such a deal highly unlikely. Beijing’s diplomatic triumph may have been a death knell.
The Israelis refuse to give up on Riyadh, though. A deal with the custodian of Islam’s two holiest mosques could trigger a domino normalization effect for other Muslim nations that have been fence-sitting about their ties with the Jewish state. Some Israelis even believe that the Saudis are attempting to draw their likely opponents closer in advance of a normalization deal. But this may be wishful thinking. Several Arab countries (notably, the UAE and Jordan) have followed the Saudi lead in engaging with the Islamic Republic. Exactly what this means for Israel is not yet known. But when key regional American allies start hedging with a uranium-enriching rogue state that has vowed repeatedly to annihilate Israel, it’s hard to find the silver lining. The question Israelis are asking: Has America lost the Middle East?
Benjamin Netanyahu returned as Israel’s premier in December 2022 with unfinished business. He was prime minister when Iran began to pursue its illicit nuclear program. He was the toughest critic of Barack Obama’s wrong-headed 2015 deal. And he presided over some of the most daring Mossad operations against the regime, including the aforementioned Stuxnet worm but also several high-profile assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and the 2018 warehouse raid that exfiltrated hundreds of thousands of secret Iranian nuclear files. The files proved that Iran was lying about its genocidal intentions.
Upon reassuming office, however, Netanyahu set the Iran file aside to pursue a different agenda: judicial overhaul. The Israeli left and center erupted in protest. Thousands took to the streets for weeks, snarling traffic and causing chaos. The government refused to bend, prompting some in Israel to threaten to refuse to serve in the military. In the days just before Ramadan began, with the threat matrix blinking red, Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant called upon Netanyahu to pump the brakes. “The legislative process should be halted” for several weeks, he said, noting that Israel was facing “great threats—both near and far.” His comments were reportedly informed by officials from Israeli military intelligence.
Netanyahu promptly announced that Gallant was fired for breaking ranks. Within a few hours, hundreds of thousands of angry Israelis flooded the streets. In an effort to defuse the unprecedented domestic crisis, Netanyahu agreed to halt the reform process and to engage in talks aimed at compromise. He even reversed his decision to fire Gallant. Soon after, rockets began to fly out of Gaza and Lebanon. Iran and its proxies believed they were exploiting the chaos in Israel, perhaps even hastening the demise of the Jewish state.
Somehow, Israel escaped a Ramadan war in 2023. The month-long holiday ended with only minor skirmishes. But the regime and its proxies have flashed their cards. A multi-front war potentially looms.
In the meantime, Israel’s campaign between wars continues nearly every night. And Iran continues to position assets around Israel’s borders, pursuing its strategy of encirclement, with the ultimate goal of “turning Tel Aviv into Seoul”—a reference to North Korea’s strategy toward its southern neighbor. None of this has crossed the threshold into outright conflict. But that cannot last forever. Iran continues to prepare for Israel’s destruction. Israel will not wait for the regime to make the first move.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.