The crisis in Gaza is a direct confrontation between Israel and Hamas’ Palestinian leadership, with a few other players—Egypt, Turkey and the U.S.—hovering around the edges, trying to arrange a cease-fire.
The Iranian factor rears its head in multiple ways. Iran, most analysts believe, provided the longer-range rockets that have set this round of hostilities apart from others. Those rockets—likely versions of Iran’s Fajr-5—have given Hamas, for the first time, the ability to reach at least the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. That has raised the stakes, to say nothing of the tensions inside Israel.
Hamas probably had relatively few of those longer-range rockets at the outset—a small fraction of an overall stockpile that one intelligence official estimates still includes about 8,000 rockets—and that limited supply of longer-range rockets already may have been either used up or destroyed by Israel. What’s left behind are cruder and shorter-range rockets, some of the homemade variety, analysts believe. Still, the Hamas-Israel standoff has taken on a new character as a result.
But the Iranian relationship to the crisis doesn’t stop there. Israeli officials don’t rule out the possibility that Iran’s leaders may have helped prompt Hamas to step up its firing of rockets into Israel in recent weeks as a way to distract and tie down Israeli forces on the country’s western border. That, Iran might calculate, could reduce the chances Israel would direct its military attention eastward, toward Iran and an air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The flip side of that possibility is intriguing as well. By opening the way to a harsh Israeli reprisal in coming days, Hamas might simply be giving Israel an excuse to take down much of the Hamas military capability, at least for now. And that would weaken Hamas’ ability to launch any reprisal attacks on behalf of its Iranian allies later on, should Israel choose to go after that Iranian nuclear sites. If that’s the case, Hamas might in the long run, and quite unintentionally, be allowing Israel to reduce one worry as it contemplates action against Iran.