May 17, 2021

Gaza in spring is vertiginous. Half-bombed tower blocks dot the cityscape like broken Lego; satellite dishes cluster on roofs; the streets are thick with people. They drive cars and motorbikes and scooters. They ride horses and, occasionally, carts pulled by donkeys. They walk, talk and gesticulate; they smoke furiously.

Piles of rubble — the result of Israeli bombs — are interspersed with symbols of defiance. Murals of Palestinian resistance heroes adorn almost every surface; no one, it seems, is more popular than Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the former head of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs Gaza, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2004.

I was told, when I last visited, that another war was inevitable. And everywhere they reminded themselves of it. Driving through the city one day, I pulled up at a roundabout at the centre of which is a monument of a rocket. On it is painted the number R-160 — the Palestinian designation of the Chinese-designed and Syrian-made M-302 rocket. Cocked at a 45-degree angle, it points squarely at Israel.

Hamas rockets attacks and Israeli strikes have now entered their seventh day. Palestinian officials say at least 148 people have been killed in Gaza. Israel has reported 10 dead, including two children. The pattern of violence (strike counter and strike) and its accompanying rhetorical war (each side condemns the other and Twitter froths with uninformed hysteria) are timeless. But Hamas’s methods of violence are showing signs of evolution. And there is one overarching reason for that: Iran.

A guiding ideological goal of the Islamic Republic, especially in its first decade or so, has been to export its Islamic Revolution; it has courted Islamic across groups the region for almost 40 years. Iran supported Hamas from its beginnings in in 1987 as an offshoot of the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was only when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) began to consider peace with Israel in the 1990s that their relationship really blossomed. Mousa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas leader, visited Tehran and reportedly extracted a promise of $30 million annually — as well as military training for thousands of Hamas activists at Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) bases in Iran and Lebanon.

When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 the relationship was sealed; Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections meant a terror group, supported by Tehran, was now in charge of Gaza. International aid dried up, so the Iranians pumped in money, and with it of course, an influence that was now unrivalled.

It has been that way ever since. In the words of Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority that governs the West Bank: “Hamas is funded by Iran. It claims it is financed by donations, but the donations are nothing like what it receives from Iran.”

More important than cash for Hamas, though, is Iranian military know-how and tech. The Iranians have a Manichean view of the world. It is Haq versus Batel, (truth and righteousness against falsehood) and Dar al-Islam (realm of peace and belief) versus Dar al-Harb (realm of war and disbelief). They perceive themselves to be underdogs in a just battle against overwhelming odds — and they fight accordingly.

This means they avoid direct conflict in favour of terror; they seek some form of deniability, and they always, always try to avoid the battlefield. Iran fights throughout the Middle East through a variety of proxy groups to strike at its adversaries: the Shia militias in Iraq to strike against the United States; the Houthis in Yemen to strike at Saudi Arabia; and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza to strike at Israel.

Now the skies over Israel throb not just with rockets but drones. Last Thursday Israel said it shot down a UAV (Unmanned Aerial vehicle) that had flown over the border from Gaza. Hamas now boasts about its drone capabilities in videos online; they call them “Shebab”. But as Nick Waters, an investigator for Bellingcat has suggested, they look very much like Iran’s Ababil 2 drone, which is also remarkably similar to the Qasef drone used by Houthis in Yemen.

According to Seth Frantzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Post and author of Drone Wars, Iran is now “a drone mini superpower”. He explains: “Iran is clever. It won’t export its own drones but it is very smart packaging that knowledge so it can be replicated. Now Hamas has clearly been able to copy the designs to make its own version indigenously, dramatically increasing its threat to Israel. Make no mistake: this is the equivalent of a state sending a terror groups tanks or planes.”

When I speak to Palestinians about Iran, it’s highly telling that they don’t want to say too much. And of course religious tensions remain. The Palestinians are overwhelmingly Arab Sunnis; it’s not lost on them that the Iranians are Persian Shias. Like Israel, Iran is isolated in the Middle East: it needs allies and one way it can get them is to champion the Palestinian cause — not least because so many Arab rulers have “sold out” to Israel in the eyes of their people. As with most things in the Islamic Republic, strip away the mosaic of ideology and you find the cold steel of strategy.

“We’ve been fighting these [Iranian] bastards for a thousand years,” said one local politician to me in the West Bank a few years back. “They were a problem for us long before the Jews.” In Gaza especially, people tend to be reticent. But there, where Iran’s military support is vital fact of life, they know the debt they owe. Over coffee one day a young activist I asked about Iran simply put his finger to his lips, smiled, and pointed to the sky — where the missiles fly.

It’s not just tech and cash that Iran funnels to Gaza, but expertise. Iran’s Quds Force, the branch of its IRGC that deals in unconventional warfare and intelligence operations, has long advised Hamas’s military wing. Now it’s ramping things up. According to IRGC-linked Tasmin News, Quds Force chief Ismail Qaani met with Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas last weekend where he claimed that Israel’s air defence systems — specifically the Iran Dome system that intercepts the rockets — are vulnerable to large barrages of rockets. Overwhelming it, he said, is the key.

Not long after, Hamas launched an unprecedented rocket barrage (reports say around 150 rockets in five minutes) at Israel. “This was about as clear and direct advice as one can get,” says Frantzman. “In future wars, which could be multifront, especially if Hezbollah starts launching missiles from Lebanon, the direct message from Tehran via Iranian state media is unambiguous: we can overwhelm the Iron Dome.”

How long this deadly iteration of the conflict lasts remains unclear. Will it die down once both sides feel they have saved sufficient face to mollify their respective constituencies, or will it descend into another full-blown war in Gaza and intifada inside Israel? Either way, both sides cannot now help but look forward. Hamas knows that right now it cannot inflict serious casualties on Israel because of the Iron Dome. Israel knows that for the time being, it can largely keep its population safe. But the more Hamas fires, the more it probes, the more it can discern weakness. Nothing is infallible, and certainly not forever.

Both sides know this. Both sides know that next time will be different. And both sides know that in the background, as always, will be Iran. Peace between Hamas and Israel now runs, at least to some degree, through Tehran. For at the end of the day, Iran, by enabling Hamas, can, if not reverse, then at least affect the balance of power between the two, and with that events across the entire region.Tehran is playing a sophisticated and deadly game in the Middle East — and whether it wins or not, it seems guaranteed that the innocent citizens of Israel and Palestine will continue to lose.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.