By Moshe Klein
Shortly after an Israeli airstrike killed Abu al-Ata, a senior commander of a Gaza militant group, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, rockets began firing from Gaza into Israel. Although Israel is no stranger to rocket attacks, the most recent barrage was different because unlike previous shellings, it was not Hamas. Instead, it was the organization’s smaller, Iranian-backed, regional companion the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Raining down rocket fire seems to have been a direct response to the loss of Abu al-Ata, but there is more to the situation than meets the eye.
According to Israeli analysts, unlike Hamas operating semi-autonomously, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a proxy group that Iran frequently uses to send messages to Israel. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad has received millions of dollars from Iran, weapons, as well as training, and has a close relationship with Hezbollah (another Iranian backed proxy group in Lebanon). Because of these relationships, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad may have been directed by Iran to distract from Lebanese anti-government protests and retaliate against general Israeli airstrikes in southern Syria.
Israeli airstrikes in southern Syria
Iran has been attempting to establish a strong presence in southern Syria both through the use of its military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and via Hezbollah. With a significant Shia population in southern Iraq, a presence in southern Syria would allow Iran to turn the “Shia crescent” into the “Shia full moon” and surround Israel’snorthern border. Currently, Iran must take a circuitous route to smuggle weapons into Lebanon by having to enter through northern Iraq and travel down the Assad-controlled Syrian coastline to northern Lebanon. However, while the Iraqi government is recovering from the aftermath of the Islamic State, Iran can now take a more secure and direct route through Shia dominated southern Iraq into Lebanon. Now, the only obstacle is the approximately 150-mile stretch of southern Syria, which is primarily an uninhabited desert.
Establishing this land route would be a significant victory for Iran and could pose a national security issue for Israel. Acting proactively, Israel has been regularly bombing Iranian outposts in the primarily Sunni and Druze regions near Damascus and the Golan Heights. On the same day as Abu al-Ata’s assassination, Israel killed several Islamic Jihad fighters, including the son of its leader, Akram al-Jouri, in Damascus. These assaults have been massive strategic headaches for Iran who continue to lose men, weapons, and funds in the attempted establishment of a shorter land route. To this end, Iran may be using what happened on Nov. 12 as cover to send a message to Israel to discourage airstrikes in southern Syria. However, Israel has been operating in the country for some years now, so it is unclear why Iran decided to address this now.
Iran is managing a second major issue in the region, as massive anti-government protests have erupted in Lebanon with accusations of government corruption and frustrations with rampant inequality. Being implicated in these allegations, Hezbollah, primarily a political party, have their popularity in the region declining significantly. Hezbollah has already attempted to cast blame on Israel for the protests and has accused them of being behind them.
Although Hezbollah is losing popularity among the Lebanese population, its citizens still do not look favorably upon Israel, and previous escalations between Palestinians and Israelis have engendered massive outrage. In this way, Iran may be trying to distract the Lebanese people from their protests by escalating a situation in Gaza and redirecting anger in Israel’s direction. This would allow Hezbollah, who has a reputation in Lebanon of successfully resisting Israel, to take a leadership position in anti-Israel activities and regain its popularity.
Currently, Israel has de-escalated the situation and has continued with the occasional airstrikes on Iranian targets in southern Syria. However, as Israel nears its third election in just over a year, it will be tempting for Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to project strength and security and respond with greater force should more rockets be launched. If this happens, Israel may find itself in a more precarious situation on its northern border. Israel must continue to be strategic about where and how it operates in the region—especially in the Gaza Strip—or it may inadvertently help Iran regain a foothold in southern Syria and consolidate power in Lebanon.
Moshe Klein is a graduate student studying terrorism analysis at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). His research focuses on the ideologies of hate-based groups, recruitment strategies, and counter-messaging. He has also conducted research for the George Washington University, Program on Extremism and START. The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not represent any of the aforementioned institutions.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.