What caused the latest Gaza war between Israel and Hamas? If you’re a consumer of U.S. media, the answer neatly follows an established plot of one of the longest-running TV dramas in America: the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
According to this storyline, a simmering decadeslong local property dispute over three homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah exploded into a bloody war in which thousands of missiles were fired and hundreds of Palestinians died, in turn sparking an international crisis.
But how exactly did a potential eviction result in a war? Well, six Palestinian Arab families faced removal from homes which had been appropriated from Jewish families by the Jordanian army in 1948, and where the more recent Palestinian residents had refused to pay rent going back to the 1980s. The prospective eviction is the consequence of legal challenges backed by a “secretive” “U.S.-based settler organization,” the story’s villain who represents the injustice, indeed the racism of Israeli law governing occupied territories. According to this plot line, the cruelty of these “settlers” led to peaceful protests, which later became widespread rallies that drew in other Palestinian communities. Aided by the provocation of settlers and Israeli riot police, including an assault by the Israelis against Palestinian worshippers who were also throwing stones and fireworks from the Al-Aqsa mosque on the last night of Ramadan, the protests then became communal clashes, compounded by the mishandling of religious sensitivities during the Muslim holy month, and by planned marches for the Jerusalem Day celebrations.
In this American television version of events, a pan-Palestinian movement swelled, with expressions of solidarity spreading to Israel and to the diaspora, as Hamas—the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that rules in Gaza—decided it could not stand idly by. After all, not only does Hamas aspire to be the principal representative of the Palestinian people, but as a religious movement, it could hardly remain silent in the face of Israeli attempts to “Judaize” Jerusalem and desecrate the Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan. Palestinian anger and dignity demanded action. So Hamas provided it: It fired some rockets from Gaza. When the Israelis responded, Hamas had no choice but to up the stakes, and blanket all of central Israel in rocket fire. Israel responded by leveling buildings in Gaza. And so the open sore of Israeli occupation restarted the cycle of violence once more, with tragic losses of life.
Western reporters, analysts, and diplomats pride themselves in their fluent ability to regurgitate this convoluted storyline. Many of them even believe it. In these intersectional times, the “both sides” “cycle of violence” narrative is a mark of sophisticated moderation, especially when compared with the more emotive narrative of an “apartheid” Zionist state that bears sole responsibility for the war through the unrelenting use of occupation and oppression.
At first glance these appear to be different narratives for the same event—one elegant, the other simplistic—but what they share in common is a soap opera-like script masquerading as geopolitical analysis. Neither bears any relationship to the real world.
A war of this scale doesn’t just “happen.” One hundred rocket salvos targeting major population centers are not an organic “response” to perceived “humiliation” by “the Palestinian street”; they are strategic choices made by people with the resources to produce, deploy, and fire large numbers of weapons of war. The account of internal Palestinian competition—of Hamas trying to one-up Fatah after Mahmoud Abbas canceled elections in the West Bank for the fourth time in recent memory—is likewise not a convincing explanation for the outbreak of armed conflict.
In order to understand the outbreak of the Gaza war, and who won or lost, it is necessary to understand the strategic aims of the actors involved.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad (PIJ) fired over 4,300 rockets in this latest round of fighting, more than in all of Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war that lasted more than five weeks longer. Rockets are provided to Gaza by Iran, and stockpiled over years. The infrastructure supporting the war effort in Gaza—including extensive tunnels, drones, and facilities for rocket production, assembly, and storage—are likewise overseen and technically supported by Iran, as Hamas leaders like Yahya Sinwar have acknowledged. “If not for Iran’s support,” Sinwar recently gloated, “we would not have obtained these capabilities.” At the end of the fighting in May, the Doha-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh also thanked Iran for its support.
Iran’s investment in Gaza goes well beyond the tens of millions of dollars it costs to build and maintain armaments and tunnels. Iranian assistance extends to the training of armed cadres that deploy these assets, and the organizational structures that maintain these cadres, support their families, recruit more terrorists, and put down rivals. In short, Hamas is the kind of strategic asset that requires immense amounts of money, materiel, training, effort, and support from a patron; once expended it can take many years to rebuild. No patron can afford to treat such an expense lightly, or to create that kind of asset without exerting some measure of control over its use.
Iran’s ties to the various factions in Gaza are longstanding and extensive. Whereas PIJ is more widely recognized as a direct proxy of the Iranians, Hamas’ portfolio of diplomatic and economic relations with countries like Qatar and Turkey tend to obscure the exclusivity of its military dependence on Iran. Moreover, as Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shimon Shapira told Tablet in 2014, Iran has bypassed Hamas’ political leadership, which is largely dependent on the assistance of foreign countries, by developing direct relationships with its military commanders, who actually manage the arsenal of Iran supplies. Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on Hamas and head of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (where we are colleagues), concurs that “the top commanders and fighters of Hamas have all trained in Iran.” Consequently, he added, “it is hard to say the group is not a full proxy. There is ongoing and careful coordination with Tehran.”
The framing for the latest Gaza war was in fact provided not by Jerusalem or Gaza City but by Tehran. Four days before the rocket fire started, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, set the tone in his Quds Day speech by attacking the “normalization of relations” between Arab states and Israel as a failure. “Today,” Khamenei declared, “the balance of power has swung.”
The connection between rockets from Gaza and “Israeli provocation in Jerusalem” was thus made by the Iranian government. Muhammad Deif, Hamas’ military commander who works directly with the Iranians, came out with the threat that Israel’s activities in Jerusalem would incur a “heavy price.” The last time Deif had made a public statement was during the 2014 war. Hamas’ representative in Iran, Khaled al-Qaddumi, later explained that “the resistance will not allow Israeli occupation forces to attack civilian targets in Al-Quds,” further highlighting the Iranian imprint.
If any doubt remained that the Gaza war was part of an Iranian strategic framework, it was put to rest when the Islamic Republic’s most prominent regional commander, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, personally addressed Israel’s leadership after the fighting ended, formalizing the threat equation of “the Al-Aqsa mosque and Al-Quds for an armed confrontation.” Nasrallah repeated Khamenei’s message, attacking “the project of [Arab-Israeli] normalization, the path of normalization, and the normalizing states.”
Iran’s emphasis on Jerusalem raises a key question: Why did a major war erupt under the pretext of defending that city only now, in the first few months of the Biden administration? Why didn’t it happen when the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which was widely seen as a certain catalyst of violence? Or why not in response to repeated Israeli pledges to build thousands of new housing units in East Jerusalem?
The answer lies in the international context of the war, referenced in the public remarks of the Iranians and their proxies. As with the war in 2014, the strategic backdrop is the pivot being executed by the same U.S. team—let’s call it Team Obama-Biden—to seal a wide-ranging partnership with Iran, which Michael Doran and I have called the Realignment. Tellingly, the war in Gaza erupted while U.S. and Iranian negotiators were finalizing the details, just before the U.S. announcement of lifting sanctions on Iran and returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal.
The Iranian framing of a new “balance of power” fits seamlessly with the U.S. administration’s declared priorities. As part of its regional Realignment doctrine, the Biden administration has moved away from the Abraham Accords as fast as it can, openly denigrating the agreements as a sideshow or failure. At times, the public disdain the administration shows for the accords has reached comic and almost pathological extremes, as officials—including State Department spokesman and former Obama White House aide Ned Price—refuse to even utter the words “Abraham Accords.” Instead, the administration pointedly uses the same terminology as Khamenei and Nasrallah: “normalization.”
How did peace between Israel and the Gulf states become such an obstacle to U.S. Middle East policy? As all the actors involved understood, the Abraham Accords represented the framework for a U.S.-led camp of regional allies to cooperate in the face of common challenges, specifically those posed by Iran. This security architecture is what Team Obama-Biden’s Realignment doctrine fundamentally rejects. Either you are for the Abraham Accords, in which the Gulf states and Israel unite under the U.S. security umbrella to contain Iran, or you are for the Iran deal, in which the U.S. shifts its weight behind Iran as the future American-backed nuclear power in the Middle East.
The point of Realignment is to create the opposite regional order of that imagined by the Abraham Accords. In this new order, the United States and Iran are partners, and Washington recognizes Iranian spheres of influence. Consequently, the Biden administration shares with Iran the goal of burying the Abraham Accords, and consigning its remnants to the dustbin as fast as possible. More specifically, the Biden administration wants to torpedo any prospect of an Israeli-Saudi agreement—the unfinished piece of the Abraham Accords framework. The administration’s shared goal with Iran of preventing an Israeli-Saudi agreement was therefore served by the Iranians’ war in Gaza.
The major actors in Middle East power politics are not ‘peoples’ or ‘streets’ but states.
What the conventional Israeli-Palestinian “cycle of violence” narratives fail to comprehend is the basic fact that the major actors in Middle East power politics are not “peoples” or “streets” but states—and the most powerful states determine the range of political possibilities. In this context, the key actors aren’t the Palestinians, who are a divided, subject polity, or Israel, which had no interest in a Gaza war. The actors that really count are Iran and the United States.
By reemphasizing the centrality of the Palestinian quest for statehood, the Biden administration advances its shared aim with Iran of boxing in Israel and its Gulf state allies. Elevating the Palestinian issue is a way to block any movement forward between the Israelis and the Saudis, keeping Israel off balance and preoccupied in a dead-end process, while legitimating the Iranian claim to regional primacy. It is no coincidence that the twin initiatives that cemented President Barack Obama’s legacy—and which he tried to lock in through United Nations Security Council resolutions on his way out of the White House—were the Iran nuclear deal (UNSCR 2231) and endorsing the rejectionist Arab position on Israel and the 1967 lines (UNSCR 2334).
The Biden administration’s determination to implement Obama’s Iran doctrine and bring the Palestinians back to the forefront of regional priorities is a return to a familiar script. Historically, using the Palestinians as a device to keep moderate Arab states from cooperating with Israel is a well-established template for rejectionist regimes like Assad’s Syria. Iran has taken over and mastered the leadership of this rejectionist camp. As for the Palestinian factions, they know the play by heart, as it encompasses nearly the entire history of the Palestinian national movement.
With the concomitant abandonment of the Abraham Accords and the revival of the Palestinian national sideshow, Realignment places the United States firmly on the side of its erstwhile foes and opposite the interests of its traditional friends. The U.S. regional policy shift to which Khamenei and Nasrallah alluded, and which Iran sought to assist with the Gaza war, requires not only recognizing Iranian spheres of influence, but also funding through the lifting of sanctions and providing “civilian” U.S. support to “rebuild” Iranian satrapies like Gaza and Yemen.
The most curious part of all this is watching the United States assume leading sponsorship of the rejectionist Arab camp—which, practically speaking, contains no Arabs.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.