As Israelis celebrated Passover during the first week of April, Iran — Israel’s deadliest enemy — opened a new phase in its protracted struggle against Israel.
The Islamic fundamentalist regime in Tehran, having long sought to bring its conflict with Israel to Israel’s borders, has promoted the idea of using Palestinian and Lebanese surrogates to pummel Israel on multiple fronts.
But it was not until this month that Iran managed to achieve this objective, if only on a small scale and temporarily. In rapid succession, Hamas and Hezbollah, two of Iran’s major proxies, bombarded Israel with rockets from Lebanon, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip, eliciting a proportional Israeli response.
Hadi Afghani, a former Iranian diplomat frequently quoted in Iran’s media, claimed these attacks were “a surprise for the Zionist regime.”
In fact, Israel was not really surprised by these flareups, having carried out exercises last May on the Golan Heights to prepare itself for the possibility of aggression emanating from Syria and Lebanon.
The latest upsurge of violence began in the wake of tensions on the Temple Mount in eastern Jerusalem during which masked Palestinians with explosive devices and rocks barricaded themselves in the Al-Aqsa Mosque with the apparent intention of assaulting Israeli police and civilians.
As a result, Israeli police stormed the building, beating and arresting Palestinians. Footage of this incident went viral on social media, sparking outrage and condemnations by Palestinians and Arab and Muslim states.
Israel’s debatable decision to storm the mosque reminded observers of a similar Israeli raid in 2021 that led to unforeseen consequences. It touched off the fourth cross-border Gaza war pitting Israel against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In addition, it led to a serious outbreak of inter-communal rioting in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab town near Ben-Gurion Airport.
The most recent uproar on the Temple Mount may well have emboldened Iran to carry out its plan to attack Israel from different fronts in a coordinated manner.
Iran was also encouraged to act against Israel after unprecedented mass protests convulsed Israel following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheme to overhaul the judicial system to his personal and political advantage.
This civil turmoil created a grossly misleading impression in Iranian ruling circles that Israel is weak and vulnerable and could be on the cusp of collapse.
Iran’s misunderstanding of Israeli society is hardly new. For decades now, Arab extremists have disseminated the unsupportable theory that Israel is an artificial entity, a Crusader state that has no future whatsoever.
Several years ago, in line with this wishful thinking, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted that Israel would somehow disappear within 25 years.
Last week, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi bought into this illusion when he told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Israel’s “crimes” are a sign of its “weakness and desperation.” Assad, whose country has been embroiled in a civil war since 2011, claimed that “the signs of collapse in the Zionist society have been revealed.”
Iran, too, was buoyed by the calculation that its recent reconciliation pact with Saudi Arabia, its regional rival, would be of strategic value in confronting Israel directly or indirectly. China, a rising power in the Middle East, essentially brokered the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia after seven years of mutual hostility.
Fired up by the Temple Mount troubles, uplifted by the false consensus that Israel is wobbling, and more confident than ever of its ability to confront Israel following its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, Iran urged its primary proxies in the Middle East — Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — to attack Israel from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria.
The Iranian government took this bold and consequential decision after two members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force were killed by Israeli air strikes near Damascus last month.
For the past decade, in what has come to be known in Israel as the Campaign Between the Wars, the Israeli Air Force has repeatedly bombed Iranian sites in Syria — Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world and a Russian client state — in a bid to smash its military entrenchment efforts, all aimed at harassing Israel. During these air raids, Israel has occasionally struck Syrian air defence batteries and Hezbollah arms convoys en route to Lebanon.
By way of retaliation, Iran has hacked Israeli websites, planned attacks against Israeli tourists in foreign countries, and carried out four drone strikes on Israeli-owned commercial ships in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the past two years, the most recent one having taken place last February
In accordance with its four-decade alliance with Syria, Iran recently smuggled weapons and military equipment into Syria on flights carrying humanitarian assistance to the Syrian government. Syria, still coping with the disastrous effects of last winter’s massive earthquake, requested this aid.
Iran, having decided to attack Israel on various fronts, turned to Hezbollah to initiate the latest installment of its proxy war. On April 1, Hezbollah operatives fired what is believed to have been a surveillance drone toward the Galilee. Having spotted it, Israel downed it by electronic means.
From April 5 to April 7, Palestinians in Lebanon, based in Tyre and affiliated with Hamas, fired 34 rockets at Israel, 25 of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system. Israel responded by bombing Hamas infrastructure in Gaza and Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, mocked Israel’s reprisals in Lebanon, claiming Israel had hit targets of absolutely no importance.
On April 8 and April 9, six rockets were launched from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, prompting Israel to carry out air, artillery and drone sorties in southern Syria.
The Arab attacks caused minimal property damage in Israel and injured three Israelis.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Esmail Ghaani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, conferred with the representatives of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad prior to the most recent coordinated attacks against Israel.
Ghaani, whose predecessor Qassem Soleimani was killed by U.S. drone strikes in Baghdad in 2020, greeted his allies at the Iranian embassy in Beirut in March and April. Apart from Nasrallah, he met Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, and his deputy, Salih al-Arouri.
On April 14, as Iran marked Jerusalem Day, Raisi spoke virtually to Palestinians in Gaza for the first time. Addressing supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad at a rally in a soccer stadium, he urged Palestinians to press on with their armed campaign against Israel. “The initiative to self-determination is today in the hands of the Palestinian fighters,” he said. “Let everyone know that we have no hesitation in supporting the resistance.”
On April 17, the Shin Bet intelligence agency announced it had arrested two Palestinians from the West Bank, Yousef Mansour and Marsil Mansour, that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force had recruited to carry out terrorist operations in Israel. The pair reportedly agreed to smuggle weapons and military equipment into the West Bank for use in such attacks.
According to the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, “Iran is displaying greater self-confidence — due to the effective suppression of internal unrest and the strategic connection to Russia and China — which is translating into agreements with Arab countries, primarily Saudi Arabia. Syria, Iran’s ally, is being reaccepted by the Arab world. Beyond that, Tehran — which is progressing toward accumulating fissile material for nuclear weapons — understands that the U.S. is busy elsewhere (Ukraine and China), and is reducing its involvement in the Middle East.
“This reality increases the freedom of action of Iran and its proxies to escalate military confrontation with Israel. These changes create a different security reality.”
It remains to be seen whether Iran, whose budding nuclear program has alarmed Israel, will attempt to take on Israel directly rather than indirectly through its array of proxies. Alluding to this possibility, Afghani praised the “axis of resistance” that currently faces Israel, but noted that Iran “must also gradually enter the field of fighting.”
If this happens, Israel’s current shadow war with Iran would almost certainly explode into a direct military confrontation which could have incalculable consequences throughout the Middle East.