Iran and Hamas gained from the two-week escalation in violence, with Israeli-Palestinian peace losing.

It has been a little more than 100 days since the Biden administration has been in office and yet despite its announcement of an American geo-strategic pivot to China and Russia, Middle Eastern affairs have proven to consume Washington’s foreign policy agenda twice so far. 

The first use of military force by the administration in February 2021 targeted a site allegedly affiliated with one of the Iranian-linked Iraqi militias in Syria, which had earlier launched rockets at American military forces in Iraq. 

America’s first diplomatic intervention during a conflict was its support of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. With a ceasefire in place at the moment, however, the US does not seem to have an agenda, will, or strategy to address the decades-old structural problems that led to the conflict in the first place. 

The recent bout of violence is demonstrative of a larger pattern in the Middle East. First, it demonstrated that despite America’s claim of a new pivot to the Pacific, the Middle East is still pivotal to global security. Second, the Hamas that engaged Israel with a larger rocket arsenal was able to achieve a set of aims that proved elusive in previous escalations. Third, in the struggle between the US and Iran, the Islamic Republic ultimately benefitted from this two-week conflict, achieving a regional gain from a relatively modest investment in Hamas and Islamic Jihad. 

Hamas’ Endgame

This round of violence was sparked by controversies surrounding the expulsion of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem. This issue lead to Palestinian protests and a heavy-handed Israeli police response, that spilled into the al-Aqsa mosque during the end of Ramadan. This area sacred to both religions, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif) and to Jews as Temple Mount, had sparked the second Intifada in 2000, when then Israeli politician Ariel Sharon mounted a defiant march on the grounds near the Dome of the Rock mosque, also located in the Noble Sanctuary. The area served as a flashpoint close to two decades ago and proved to do so again in 2021. 

In the Financial Times, Martin Indyk, an American diplomat tasked to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict in the past, wrote more than a week before the recent cease fire that Hamas would agree to it as the group achieved its limited aims.

First, from Gaza, Hamas could claim solidarity with the Palestinians clashing with Israelis in Israel itself, in towns such as Lod. 

Second Hamas demonstrated that it has the military means to reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, disrupting air traffic at the international airport between these cities, while simultaneously demonstrating that some of its rockets were able to evade Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. 

Hamas also claimed it targeted Israeli military bases. While no independent confirmation has been provided of the success of these volleys hitting such military facilities, the possibility of such a claim based on its recent long-range rocket attacks would nonetheless inspire Hamas’ followers and sympathisers. 

Third, Hamas, via its rocket arsenal, was able to project an image as the defender of the Muslim holy sites in in Jerusalem, essentially outflanking its rival, the PLO based in the West Bank, an attempt to appeal to Palestinians beyond Gaza. 

Yet, indirectly, Hamas allowed Iran to claim all these goals at the same time and more. The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, signatories of the Abraham Accords with Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia, which has tilted to Israel, are in an awkward situation due to the violence. 

Iran, on the other hand, can claim this recent space of violence as a vindication to Arab and Muslim demographics of the righteousness of its anti-Israel stance. Iran’s Arab rivals, on the other hand, could do little to temper or mitigate the behavior of incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and the right-wing fringe in the Israeli Knesset which he relies upon. 

Iran’s Endgame

Just as Israel bombarded Hamas from the air, the US air force has targeted Iraqi militias, and the Saudi air force did the same with Houthi militias. All three national air forces are technologically superior to the three non-state actors they targeted. Yet all three non-state actors (NSAs), with unguided rockets or domestically made drones based on Iranian designs, can wreak significant havoc upon their targets. 

These three NSAs have used rockets and drones to target Israeli and Saudi military bases, and US forces housed in Iraqi bases. The Houthis and Hamas demonstrated they can also strike urban centres in Saudi Arabia and Israel respectively. The fourth NSA, Hezbollah of Lebanon, has a vast rocket arsenal that has the potential to strike Israel as well. 

What unites all these NSAs is their connection to Iran. With the blockade against Gaza, it is uncertain how much Iranian technology and weaponry was involved in the latest conflict. Regardless, this ambiguity works to Iran’s advantage. 

Ultimately, the very accusations against Iranian involvement in this conflic, or in Yemen and Iraq serve as a tacit admission by the Islamic Republic’s adversaries, the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, that it has means to strike all three, while Iran can claim plausible deniability. 

Were a two-state solution to the achieved, it would deprive the Islamic Republic of the rhetorical oxygen it deploys against Israel. The latest conflict and American equivocation in terms of resolving this conflict demonstrates how elusive this goal is, indicating that Iran will have the upper hand in the region’s war of words, while the Abraham Accords of its rivals does little to stabilise the Israel-Palestine. 

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