Iran And The ‘Axis Of Resistance’ Vastly Improved Hamas’s Operational Capabilities – Analysis


By Colin P. Clarke

(FPRI) — For the past several years, Hamas has often been overlooked in discussions regarding the top global terrorist threats. The Islamic State and its worldwide network of affiliates occupy much of the counterterrorism bandwidth, along with al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Shabaab in Somalia. Even Lebanese Hezbollah has ranked higher on the agenda of terrorist organizations that the United States and Israel are chiefly concerned with. 

There are several important reasons why Hamas has been relegated to something of an afterthought, related to both its intent and capabilities. Israeli intelligence agencies had wrongly assumed that Hamas was content with enjoying the economic benefits of assistance to Gaza and had little desire to fight. This belief was reinforced when Hamas remained on the sidelines of recent fighting between Palestine Islamic Jihad and Israel in the West Bank, where the Israelis had shifted significant resources to deal with the rising threat in that territory. Relatedly, Hamas’s capabilities were believed to be limited. When skirmishes did break out, Hamas would fire rockets from Gaza, most of which were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. 

So how is it possible that Hamas was able to stage such a complex terrorist attack on October 7, an attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis and wounded hundreds more? Put simply: Iranian support. As journalist Kim Ghattas noted, “the highly choreographed, multipronged, day-long operations and incursion into Israel itself … required months of planning and training that only Iran and Hezbollah could have provided.” There is a long and sordid history linking Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. After Israel deported more than 400 Hamas figures to Lebanon in 1992, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force and Hezbollah worked closely with the Hamas fighters, training them on how to build and deploy suicide bombs, long a Hezbollah calling card. Cooperation between the triumvirate continued through the Second Intifada (2000–2005), when suicide bombings became a hallmark of Hamas attacks against Israel.

It is no secret that Iran has long supported a regional network of proxy groups that it funds, trains, and equips. Not only Hamas and Hezbollah, but also Palestine Islamic Jihad, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and a range of Iraqi Shiite militias groups known as Hashd al-Sha’bi. What was not apparent, however, was the extent and impact of training that Iran, via Quds Force, provides. Iran has helped develop Hamas into a formidable organization, growing it from a rag-tag militia into a force that now boasts 40,000 fighters, a naval commando unit, and cyber warfare capabilities. 

Hamas’s high-level operational security and extensive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for the attack point to the effectiveness of Iranian hands-on training, the result of tacit knowledge transfer that would be impossible to acquire remotely. Commenting on the value of Iranian support to Hamas, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force stated, “Instead of giving fish to our friends in the resistance axis, or teaching them how to fish, we taught them how to construct fishing gear and hooks.”

The head of the Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, the successor to Qassem Soleimani, has been extremely active in coordinating amongst Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance” by organizing meetings with the leaders of various militant groups under Tehran’s umbrella. One of Qaani’s primary objectives as commander of the Quds Force has been to push Hamas and Hezbollah to confront Israel more aggressively, particularly as Iran tracked domestic political turmoil within Israel and perceived it as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. 

Since August, the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestine Islamic Jihad have met on a regular basis with Qaani in Lebanon. This is also around the time when Hamas began working even more closely with Hezbollah, as the latter functioned in a train-the-trainer scenario where militants with extensive battlefield experience fighting in Lebanon and Syria shared lessons learned and best practices with Hamas fighters. The unification of Iran’s network of proxies under Qaani’s command and control has been a force multiplier and cemented Iran’s “unity of fronts” strategy as the most effective means of encircling Israel.

Hamas’s political leader, Ismael Haniyeh, has openly admitted that Iran provides approximately $70 million per year to his group and, in addition to financing, Tehran has also provided logistical support for weapons development, assistance that helped Hamas produce rockets and drones with sophisticated guidance systems. Iran has helped Hamas smuggle rocket components into Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula and into a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels, where they are then assembled at production facilities operated by Hamas. Tactical training, which would account for the complexity of Hamas’s combined arms siege of Israel, occurred in camps outside of Gaza. Hezbollah trained Hamas militants in both Lebanon and Syria, where terrorists learned how to use motorized hang gliders and storm mock Israeli settlements that had been constructed.

Interestingly, Hamas-Iranian cooperation has endured despite ideological differences resulting from the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict that has defined the Middle East for the better part of the last four decades. The relationship has hit several snags along the way, including in 2011 when Hamas backed the Sunni Arab opposition fighting against Iran’s main Middle Eastern client, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. When Hamas provided rhetorical support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis in Yemen, another Iranian proxy group, the relationship soured further. Things got back on track in 2017 following the appointment of Yahya Sinwar to lead Hamas in Gaza. Since that time, Hamas has continued to work closely with Iran, and the benefits for Hamas are clear.

Yet, even while Iran is complicit in funding and training Hamas, this still does not mean that the Iranian leadership micromanaged the Hamas attack. The Quds Force prepares various Iranian proxies by equipping them with the tools necessary to conduct high-profile terrorist attacks but leaves the details to operational commanders of these groups to strike at a day and time of their choosing. In any case, Hamas has a far better understanding of the terrain, as well as potential vulnerabilities in Israel’s defense, than Iran does.

The conflict between Hamas and Israel may just be getting started. As the Israel Defense Forces prepare for what many believe to be an imminent ground invasion, there are serious concerns about what awaits the Israeli military in Gaza. Given Hamas’s vastly improved capabilities, the expectation is that the group has planned extensively for the next phase of the war and will likely rely on a range of asymmetric tactics, including the use of improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, and suicide drones to bog down an Israeli ground incursion. Moreover, the “Gaza Metro,” as Hamas’s subterranean network of tunnels is known, will present a major challenge to the Israel Defense Forces, even with the latter’s decades of experience engaging in urban warfare. These tunnels will be booby-trapped, and simply destroying them with airstrikes is not an option, not only given how deeply they are below the surface, but also because of the presence of hostages that Hamas is holding.

Israel has declared its intention to destroy Hamas completely, but any attempt to do so will come at an extremely high cost and could spur other Iranian proxies like Hezbollah to join the fray, prolonging the conflict and increasing the likelihood of a region-wide conflagration. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

About the author: Colin P. Clarke is a non-resident Senior Fellow in the National Security Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is the Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group and a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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