EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: There is a prevalent view that in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran, Tehran’s proxies in Lebanon and Gaza – Hizballah and Hamas – would join in retaliation against Israel. A more likely scenario, however, is that those groups’ participation will be limited at best. Hizballah must consider its crumbling support from the weakened Assad regime, as well as popular opposition within Lebanon to its role in military conflict with Israel. Hamas’ recent feud with Iran over the group’s lack of support for the Assad regime could render it reluctant to assist in the fight against Israel.
The widely-expected response of Hizballah and Hamas to an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran includes military action against Israel. This thinking is logical in light of the fact that Iran is a major sponsor of both terror groups. This article, however, reaches the conclusion that one of two scenarios will play out, in which the two groups either respond on a smaller scale or stand down completely.
Hizballah – Not the Right Time for War
Hizballah represents an Iranian presence in Lebanon and possesses 80,000 missiles and rockets that can hit almost anywhere in Israel. It is not clear, however, if and how the Lebanese sub-state terror organization would respond to an Israeli strike on Iran. Hizballah might not dare refuse a direct order from Tehran to retaliate. Yet Iran might order Hizballah to launch a limited attack, as starting a full-scale war might not serve Iranian interests at the time. If Hizballah shells Israel, the Jewish state would launch a massive offensive aimed at
pounding the terror organization and reducing its capability to launch missiles and rockets from Lebanon. Iran might not be willing to take that risk, particularly since it might also lose Syria, which would undermine Iran’s grip in the Levant.
Iran is currently trying to help keep the Assad regime afloat. Iran might choose to concentrate its efforts in assisting Assad instead of waging war against Israel. On the other hand, Iran might conclude that it should encourage Assad to attack Israel while he still can, in order to divert the worldwide attention away from himself. If the Assad regime crumbles, Hizballah would not only lose an important ally but might have to deal with a sworn enemy, the Sunnis in Syria, if that group seizes power there. The Sunnis, as part of a revenge campaign against those who assisted Assad, might collaborate with anti Hizballah elements in Lebanon. Hizballah might need to save his resources for what could be its biggest test yet.
Additionally, Israel has warned several times that during a war with Hizballah the Lebanese infrastructure might be bombed. Therefore, following an Israeli attack on Iran, Hizballah might face a strong demand from within Lebanon not to respond to Israel. This demand would come from the many Lebanese who hate Hizballah and/or Iran, as well as from those who tolerate and even support Hizballah but are opposed to turning their country into a battlefield once again. In the next war the destruction in Lebanon could be worse than in 1982 and 2006.
Hamas – Better to Stay Out
Hamas refused to back the Assad regime’s attacks on its own citizens, although some of its leaders spent the past few years in Damascus, enjoying the government’s support. This refusal not only caused a rift between Hamas and Syria, but with Iran as well; therefore, Hamas might ignore Iran’s request to intervene in a war against Israel.
Hamas would not necessarily wish to provoke an Israel engaged in conflict with Iran. Even if Israel focuses on Iran and Hizballah in Lebanon there would be enough Israeli troops to deal with Hamas as well. The last major skirmish between Israel and Hamas in December 2008-January 2009 received world attention that limited the Israeli operation. In the case of a confrontation pitting Israel against Iran and Hizballah, a clash between Hamas and Israel would be an unwatched sideshow that would allow Israel to deliver a devastating and unrestricted blow to the Hamas.
Hamas’ policy largely depends on if the Arab world, particularly Egypt and its Muslim Brotherhood government, come to the rescue. Egypt, whose government is busy dealing with economic problems, might convince Hamas not to do battle with Israel, fearing that it would become entangled in the war. Egypt doesn’t want Hamas to risk itself, let alone Egypt, for the benefit of Iran unless it serves a vital Egyptian interest, such as the militarizing of the Sinai. Egypt could use an Israeli attack on Hamas as a justification to deploy forces in the northeastern Sinai. Yet this would be a dangerous move for Egypt and might not be worth it, considering the ramifications and its other priorities.
Without Hamas, Iran would be left with its last proxy in the Gaza Strip, the Islamic Jihad. This organization is much smaller than Hamas but could initiate a serious of strikes against Israel, hoping to drag Hamas into the brawl. Hamas would be caught in the middle, torn between trying to restrain Islamic Jihad from initiating a conflict with Israel and trying not to appear weak.
If Israel attacks Iran, Hamas would probably stay out of it. Hizballah and its Iranian patrons might hesitate because of Syria and the concern about the political future of Hizballah in Lebanon. Hizballah would open fire on Israel but would not start an all-out war. They might wait for a better opportunity, such as when Iran gets the bomb.
Dr. Ehud Eilam is the US representative of Israel Defense magazine. He is a former private contractor for the Israeli Ministry of Defense where, among other duties, he conducted research on different branches of the Israeli military. He recently published an article on a potential future war between Israel and Egypt.
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