Israel Wary of Iran Allies Spreading War Beyond Gaza

As the Israel Defense Forces conduct operations against Palestinian fighters firing hundreds of rockets in the midst of a severe intensification of the decades-long conflict, Israeli troops are also keeping a watchful eye on the country's other borders, including in the north with Lebanon, where another powerful enemy lies—Hezbollah.

"As always, we're watching those areas, both the Syrian front, as well as the Blue Line with Lebanon," IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus told Newsweek during a press briefing on Wednesday, "and we're tracking Hezbollah movements, and we're tracking activities in Syria as well."

"So far," he said, "the situation is stable, and there are no abnormal events in those areas."

But Hezbollah, which has fought two past wars with Israel, insisted the absence of action today does not reflect a lack of support from the powerful Shiite Muslim movement for Palestinian resistance groups such as the Sunni Muslim Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Rather, the organization believes its services aren't yet necessary, given the scale to which forces in Gaza are waging the explosive battle.

"Of course, we are supporters," a Hezbollah spokesperson told Newsweek. "But I don't think they're in need of our people. The numbers are available. All the rockets and capabilities are in the hands of the resistance fighters in Palestine."

Hezbollah leadership also felt there was more to come.

In remarks recently aired by the group's affiliated Al Manar outlet, Hezbollah Executive Council head Hashem Safieddine said "the resistance today outlines the equations of victory and the upcoming conquests, and the spirit of resistance is manifested in Gaza today, in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and all of Palestine is witnessing resistance today."

In a statement shared with Newsweek by Hezbollah, the group's leader, Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah wished "victory for Palestine and its people." He added: "Jerusalem is closer."

Lebanon, Hezbollah, Palestinians, flag, border, Israel
Members and supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and Palestinian refugees raise a Palestinian flag on a hill facing the Israeli northern town of Metula by the border in the country's south as members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeping group monitor, during a ceremony to mark Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, on May 7. This year's celebrations were marred among Israelis and Palestinians as they clashed over a Jerusalem housing rights dispute that escalated severely when Israeli security forces stormed the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque. ALI DIA/AFP/Getty Images

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups have fired well over 1,000 rockets toward Israel, a number of which have been intercepted by advanced Iron Dome batteries, and the IDF has conducted hundreds of airstrikes on the densely populated Gaza Strip, which has no air defense. The death toll mounts as neither side shows any sign of abating, and countries in the region are following the events closely both for their tactical and geopolitical significance.

Both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah which was hit Wednesday with new U.S. sanctions, are backed by Israel's top regional foe, Iran, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei encouraged the Palestinian side on Tuesday to "continue down this path" of armed resistance.

The following day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed the issue during a trip to Syria, with which Israel shares another hostile border. In his meetings Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad, both sides railed against Israeli "aggression" against the Palestinian people and "violations" of international law.

Iran and Israel have often linked one another to regional plots aimed at thwarting each other's interests. As Israel faced one of its most serious assaults in years, however, officials were hesitant to directly tie the current threat to the Islamic Republic.

"Although I will be very happy to talk about the threat of Iran, and how Iran is a force of the instability of the Middle East, and all the bad things that they are doing, I don't think this is the right moment to talk about it," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat told Newsweek during another press conference on Wednesday. "I don't have any intelligence that shows the direct connection of Iran now to the situation."

Haiat did, however, draw a relationship between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Iran, which he said, "is connected to the Islamic Jihad in its ideology, and also is supporting their military infrastructure and terroristic infrastructure."

Conricus came to a similar assessment in a later press briefing.

"No clear, specific evidence of direct Iranian control of what's happening," Conricus said. "Of course, Iran has deep influence, they are the ones who provide Islamic Jihad with almost all of their weaponry. They are the ones who provide either funding for, or sometimes directly provide weaponry for Hamas, they are the ones who have been aiding Hamas engineers in how to design and produce rockets. So there's a clear Iranian involvement, but in terms of what we call force deployments on the operation side, no such indications yet."

One Palestinian Islamic Jihad official recently extolled the extent to which Iran supported his group and other armed factions in Gaza and Lebanon.

"Iranian weapons are used by the mujahideen in Gaza to strike the Zionist enemy, and are used by the mujahideen in Lebanon to strike the Zionist enemy," Palestinian Islamic Jihad official Ramez al-Halabi said during an interview aired Friday by Iraq's Al-Ahd TV.

Halabi outlined the "Axis of Resistance" extending from Jerusalem to Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, Sanaa and, "first and foremost," Tehran, which he said oversaw and trained the vast network of partnered fighters. He said the rockets used to strike Tel Aviv bore the signature of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, who was slain in a January 2020 U.S. airstrike at Baghdad International Airport.

"I ask God to reward Iran, in my name and the name of the Palestinian people," Halabi said. "They are the ones who support us with weapons, they are the ones who support us with money and they are the ones who support us with food."

The Revolutionary Guard emphasized Soleimani's role in forging ties between Iran and Palestinian groups in a statement Wednesday, and pledged to provide assistance in way even "stronger and more intelligent than before."

Both Palestinian Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Ziyad al-Nakhalah and Hamas Political Bureau Chair Ismail Haniyeh have also expressed gratitude for Tehran's support in recent calls with Iranian officials.

In past decades, such sentiments were expressed by Palestinian groups toward fellow Arab states, coalitions of which went to war with Israel on three occasions since the country's 1948 establishment on territory also claimed by Palestinians. The traditional Palestinian leadership, embodied by the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has struggled to drum up widespread regional support as a handful of Arab states normalized relations with Israel over the past six months.

With tensions mounting in recent weeks as Israelis attempted to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in the contested city of Jerusalem, Abbas postponed what would have been the first Palestinian elections since 2006. The move infuriated Hamas, whose gains in the last vote 15 years ago led to a rift among the rival Palestinian factions, and the group appeared to take matters into its own hands when Israeli forces cracked down on Palestinian protests and stormed the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque.

"The reason for the demonstrations and the firing of the rockets is trying to deter the Israeli occupation and its settlers and extremist Knesset Members who insist on desecrating Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is the third holiest place for all Muslims around the world and the holiest site for us as the Palestinians," a Hamas spokesperson recently told Newsweek toward the outbreak of hostilities. "In addition, to deter the Israeli authorities which have been working along with the settlers' organizations to expel the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah from their homes and replace them with settlers."

But an Israeli official speaking to Newsweek at the time also saw a power play to outdo Abbas, a theory Haiat also expressed during Wednesday's press conference.

Hamas taking control of Palestinian leadership is seen by Israel as a potential threat with widespread ramifications. Always keeping its history of conflict in mind, Israel has remained concerned about fighting another multi-theater war, and especially so today with one front already raging.

"I think the reason that Hamas started this military operation is an internal political conflict within the Palestinian people, they are trying to show themselves as the guardians of Jerusalem and their holy places," Haiat said. "They are playing a zero-sum game against the Palestinian Authority, trying to undermine the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, and may cause destabilization of the entire region, not only in Israel, today in Judea and Samaria, but also in the countries around us."

Concerns over a broader conflict breaking out as Israel simultaneously underwent widespread sectarian violence were also expressed Tuesday by United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland, who warned the situation is "escalating towards a full scale war" and called for an immediate ceasefire in remarks referred to Newsweek by his office.

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Rockets are launched towards Israel from Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, on May 12 amid the most intense Israeli-Palestinian hostilities since a 2014 war that lasted seven weeks and killed thousands, most of them Palestinians. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

While the vast majority of the Arab countries maintain a boycott of relations with Israel, even the six that do have normalized relations expressed condemnation of Israel's raid on Al-Aqsa, and the Arab League as a whole criticized Israel's ongoing airstrikes against the Gaza Strip. The outrage comes just as Iran has pursued what Zarif called on social media Wednesday "comprehensive plans to expand ties with & coordination among neighbors."

The campaign has brought Iran together for quiet talks with another longtime rival, Saudi Arabia, which severed relations with the Islamic Republic amid a spat between the two countries five years ago. The feud was exacerbated by former U.S. President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, but the Kingdom's tone has softened as his successor, President Joe Biden, pursued diplomacy with Tehran as part of a potential U.S. reentry into a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned under Trump three years ago.

Israel has opposed a U.S. return to this agreement and the lifting of sanctions against Iran, and the Biden administration has since sought to offer its ally security assurances, including against the perceived threat poses by Iran, along with its vast missile arsenal and partnered paramilitaries operating across the region.

When it comes to the immediate fight with Hamas and other Palestinian forces, U.S. officials have condemned the rocket fire and backed Israel's right to self-defense, a sentiment most recently expressed in a call Wednesday between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The U.S. president "also conveyed the United States' encouragement of a pathway toward restoring a sustainable calm," "shared his conviction that Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace" and updated Netanyahu on U.S. diplomatic talks "with regional countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar, as well as with Palestinian officials."

The Israeli leader, concurrently dealing with an election crisis at home as both and rivals failed to gain enough support to form ruling coalitions, has vowed to step up his campaign in the face of the threats surrounding his country. Visiting those wounded by the rockets still raining on Israel, he announced the elimination of a number of senior Hamas commanders and warned, "This is just the beginning."

Israel's warnings also extended to other foes who might seek to join in on the conflict, as Conricus earlier told Newsweek.

"We're prepared for a wide range of scenarios. And as we saw earlier, we see this attack by Hamas as a very severe attack, and we intend to hold them accountable for their aggression against Israel," he said. "And I really don't recommend for any of our enemies to join Hamas, because then they will be on the receiving end of the same type of attacks on military infrastructure that Hamas is now receiving and will be receiving."

israel, airstrike, building, gaza, hamas
This combination of pictures created on May 12 shows the Al-Sharouk tower before it collapsed in an Israeli air strike, and the same tower as it collapses after being hit by an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City. The IDF said the building "housed Hamas military intelligence offices, as well as infrastructure used by the terror organizations to communicate tactical-military information," but Hamas has disputed this. MOHAMMED ABED/MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

This article has been updated to include additional quotes.