Israel, Hamas, and the Iran Trap

By Julian Lindley-French

“There is nothing so likely to succeed as what the enemy believes you cannot attempt”.

Nicolo Machiavelli, The Art of War

Friday, October 13th. Do what your enemy least wants! That is the first dictum of war that has endured from Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu to Machiavelli and Clausewitz. My silence in the wake of the ‘710’ Hamas terrorist atrocity carried out by their Iranian-trained Nukhba commando-style force and which saw the murder of over 1000 Israeli was not in any way due to some moral equivalency on my part.  Hamas are as much a curse for the Palestinian people of Gaza as they are for Israel. First, I was directing a major conference on future war at which we discussed what had happened in Israel.  Second, I always take time to consider the geopolitical and strategic implications of such an atrocity, which are profound. Israel, Hamas, and the regime in Tehran are all engaged in a war of existence, even if it is often a proxy war of existence. That is why the US and Britain have moved to support Israel to stop any temptation the Iranians may have to attempt to widen this war.

Israel is also in the same place the Americans were in the immediate aftermath of 911 – trapped between anger and strategy.  My fear is that over the next 24 hours Israel will launch something like Operation Protective Edge.  In 2014, Israel invaded Gaza, one of the most densely packed urban environments on Earth, with a range of armoured vehicles including Merkava main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers and D9 bulldozers.  The idea was to minimise casualties amongst the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) but not only were over 500 Israelis killed, civilian casualties were horrendous.

This time most of Israel’s armoured vehicles will be protected against anti-armour weapons with the advanced Trophy Active Protection System (APS) which can defend a vehicle autonomously from its crew against shoulder-launched anti-armour systems. Together with lighter versions of the system called “Iron Fist” Israeli commanders will be confident that they can limit Israeli casualties but the likelihood they will “cut off the head of the Hamas snake”, is small.  The likelihood they will destroy Nukhba and its commanders is also small, whilst the casualties amongst ordinary Palestinians, which is already climbing, will be appalling. 

What then is in Israel’s interests to do?  A massive Israeli attack which kills potentially thousands of Palestinians will thus play directly into Tehran’s hands and destroy any chance of a strategic working relationship with the Saudis.  It will also turn much of the world against Israel. As with the Americans post 911 the Israeli need for vengeance will be overwhelming.  When British cities were bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and 1941 few in Britain questioned the RAF striking back at German cities and civilians, but neither response made for a great warfighting strategy.  First, the reason for the 710 attacks on Israel is different to previous attacks by both Hamas and Hezbollah.  Israel already has an effective working relationship with Egypt which has also closed its border with Gaza in the wake of the attacks.  Israel is also close to a regional-strategic rapprochement with the Saudis with profound implications for Israelis and the wider Middle East.  If such a relationship can be secured it will further isolate Iran and by extension Hamas and Hezbollah.

There is little question the Iranians are behind this attack.  At the conference I spoke with a senior practitioner who believes several elements of the attacks are becoming clear. First, the planning for the land, sea and air attack was so sophisticated it was clearly carried out in Tehran and bears all the hallmarks of the Quds Force.  Second, Israel’s normally effective Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence services completely missed the preparations for the attack.  Third, Iran provides Hamas with $100 million every year and Iranian engineers have been training Hamas in the construction of missiles.  Fourth, Quds keeps an increasingly tight control over proxies such as Hamas.  There is another reason, increased Israeli pressure on Hezbollah in the north of Lebanon. For Iran it is vital that Hezbollah is preserved as a force in being and the best way to achieve this is to force the Israelis to move the bulk of their effort southwards.

Apologists for the Nukhba attack are suggesting the highly trained commandos were not responsible for the attack on Israeli civilians but by others who swept over the security fence when they realised there was little Israeli military presence. This is nonsense.  Footage from the Supernova music festival clearly shows an aerial and ground assault by men wearing the same distinctive military uniforms.  

However, despite Israel’s understandable anger, the political damage done to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the Israeli tradition of an ‘iron fist’ response to all and any such attacks it is not in Israel’s interest to again kill large numbers of Palestinians or to deny them food, water, and medical treatment. That is precisely what Iran and Hamas want them to do.  Rather, Israel should rebuild the defences on its southern border with Gaza and go after the Hamas leadership over time and space in that time-honoured and highly effective Israeli way. 

The best way to defy Iran and Hamas is to build on Tel Aviv’s relationships with Riyadh and Cairo (and listen to Egyptian intelligence), and by so doing preserve the sympathy of those who support Israel’s right to exist and defend itself proportionately.  In other words, Israel will succeed in this struggle if it does what Hamas and Iran do not believe Tel Aviv will or can attempt: a proportionate and merciful response that respects the constraints of international humanitarian law.

Julian Lindley-French

Photo Credit: Taylor Brandon on Unsplash