The rocket fire overnight from Gaza may have been directed from Tehran or Iranian forces in Syria, according to Israel’s assessment. An IDF statement said that Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched rockets “under the encouragement of the terror-exporting Iranian regime
,” and IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said the rocket fire was conducted with “clear guidance from Iran” and the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force in Syria.
This is a serious allegation and means that what appeared to be several salvos of rocket fire have hands guiding them across the region. Iran’s policy in the Gaza Strip has been developing over the last two decades.
A paper released last year from the Institute for National Security Studies, by Sima Shine and Anna Catran, noted the close relations that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have with Iran. “For years this backing has taken primarily the form of military aid,” it said.
That included actual weapons and know-how for things like improving the range of rockets. This is important because Iran has also been accused of building rocket factories in Syria and Lebanon and sending precision-guided equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is part of a wider Iranian strategy in which Iran’s tentacles reach toward Israel on three fronts, in the Golan, on the northern Lebanese border, and in Gaza.
Iran has benefited from the chaos and instability of the last years in the region and built a crescent of influence or corridor to the Mediterranean Sea from Tehran that stretches through Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut.
Evidence for this is clear in each country. In Iraq, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been accused recently of transferring missiles to Shi’ite militias, and Iran has fired ballistic missiles at Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq. It has also fired precision ballistic missiles at ISIS in Syria, close to where US forces were battling ISIS. In Syria, it has dozens of bases and has sent thousands of fighters, both its own Iranian IRGC members, and those recruited abroad from Shi’ite communities.
In the last year, Jerusalem has increasingly warned of Iran’s role in Syria, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Iran to leave Syria in June. The US has also said that it will stay in eastern Syria and that Iran’s forces should leave the country.
Behind the scenes, Israel has struck at Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. The IDF said in September it had struck 200 sites in Syria, many of them connected to Iranian arms transfers. But in September, a Russian IL-20 plane was downed by Syrian air defense during an Israeli raid on Iranian sites in Latakia, and Russia transferred the S-300 system to Syria.
Israel has now warned about the precision guidance transfer to Hezbollah. And on October 25, Israel Hayom included a story about Hezbollah “working on establishing military infrastructure” near the Golan border.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is the last link in this puzzle. Over the years the smaller organization, which often fights alongside Hamas against Israel, has received millions of dollars from Iran, according to the INSS report. According to a separate report in August 2018, Iran transferred $30 million to Islamic Jihad.
The PIJ has also trained with the IRGC in Syria. They were provided details on how to use Iranian-made missiles. After a short crisis in relations in 2015, the PIJ continued to be a close ally of Tehran after 2016. Iran has also sought to improve its relations with Hamas, resuming financial support in May 2017. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is a key architect of this, the INSS paper argues.
The question is why Sinwar, who has been discussing a cease-fire
, and PIJ decided to fire dozens of rockets overnight. Is it as simple as an order from the IRGC in Syria or Tehran to heat up the southern border? It came after a day of riots along the fence, the 31st week of clashes with Israeli forces, and after five were reported killed in Gaza. Hamas is trying to wage a dangerous game of pressure to achieve a cease-fire and some reduction in Jerusalem’s blockade. According to a statement by Manelis, “Islamic Jihad did not wait to get a green light from Hamas” to fire.
Iran may be trying to sabotage the cease-fire agreement that Egypt was working on or trying to respond to Netanyahu’s trip to Oman last week. This is Iran’s way of showing it can do what it wants. Oddly, Islamic Jihad called a cease-fire after the IDF struck eight of its terror sites, claiming it had also spoken to Cairo about the need for renewed calm. But what was the point then of the salvo of rockets and then putting its hands up and saying, “Okay, now cease-fire?” It is similar to the May incident in the Golan when the IRGC fired 20 rockets at Israel, only to have them all intercepted and for Jerusalem to conduct a massive raid on Iranian sites, which was said in foreign reports to have impacted between half and all the Iranian sites in Syria. The difference is that the PIJ has indicated it wants a cease-fire, while the IRGC in Syria and Iran’s activities across the region continue.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.