Tony Badran

One of these things is not like the others

Ignoring Hamas’s role in the ongoing conflict with Israel is a mistake

A sculpture of an Israeli soldier standing guard is seen next to a sign for tourists showing the different distances to Jerusalem, Baghdad, Damascus and other locations, at an army post in Mount Bental in the annexed Golan Heights on January 31, 2013 (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

There's a curious phenomenon in Arab commentary reacting to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. The customary hyperbole and poetic odes to Palestine aside, there's also a trend in drawing a comparison between Israel's military response against Hamas in Gaza and Bashar al-Assad's systematic slaughter in Syria. Leaving aside the problematic moral aspect of the juxtaposition, this position is not only confused about the place of Israel and Hamas in the broader geopolitical picture, but it also plays straight into the hands of the Iranian regional axis. 


Equating Israeli military action and Assad's killing machine has several functions in Arab discourse, depending on the commentator's primary objective. For some, since Palestinian suffering has long been privileged in Arab consciousness, by adjoining Syrian and Palestinian suffering, they seek to elevate victimized Syrians to the same position of primacy, so as not to be forgotten or overshadowed by Gaza. Another angle, closely related, has to do with the mythological place reserved for the idea of Israeli brutality. Hence, by saying that Assad's brutalization of his people equals or, better still, exceeds that of the magical Israeli standard, one can assert Assad's exceptional evil. 


A variant on this trope is to suggest that Assad and Israel are, and have always been, allies, and herein lies the main analytical problem with this overall position.


But this is the reality: insofar as Hamas (to say nothing of Islamic Jihad) – irrespective of its stance on the Syrian uprising – is, along with Assad, part of the Iranian regional axis, the group stands opposite Israel on the regional divide.


Whatever the motivation for Hamas’s decision to provoke this latest conflagration, in the regional context, its military activity is dependent on Tehran’s backing and is in line with Iranian interests. One need only recall Israel’s interception of the Iranian arms vessel, the Klos-C, last March. The ship was carrying Iranian and Syrian-made rockets destined for Iran’s clients in Gaza. As I have argued before, Gaza represents but the southern front – Lebanon being the northern counterpart – of an Iranian strategy to deploy long-range rockets and missiles on Israel’s borders capable of targeting all of its cities. Sure enough, Iranian Revolutionary Guards officials emphasized on Monday how Gaza demonstrated that all of Israel was now within range of the rockets they supply.


But beyond targeting Israel, Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s actions in Gaza afford Iran the possibility of threatening Egyptian national security, a point recognized by Saudi commentator Tariq al-Homayed. Homayed noted that one objective of Hamas’s provocation was to embroil Egypt (much like its previous attempt in 2012). “This latest Gaza war is now being used to inflame Arab and Muslim passions, and to rearrange humanitarian priorities – which also mean political positions – in the region,” Homayed wrote last Sunday. “All this is in Iran’s interest.”


Of course, the Lebanese ought to be the best placed to recognize Iran’s cynical game. It has now become widely acknowledged that Hezbollah’s true mission is, and always has been, to advance Iranian interests. Thus, were Hezbollah to do what Hamas has done and provoke a war with Israel today, there would be little doubt among most Lebanese as to the Shiite group’s agenda. Most would also blame it for the devastation that would follow, like most do for the carnage it caused in 2006.


What is left unsaid, however, is the role Israel plays in keeping Iran’s adventurism in check, whether in Egypt or in Lebanon. There is close Israeli coordination with Cairo in order to prevent destabilization in the Sinai Peninsula and to impede Iran’s clients in Gaza. And it was, after all, Israel that intercepted the Klos-C before the arms it was carrying made it through to Sinai.


And although no Lebanese will acknowledge it, it was the deterrence that Israel established in 2006 that has since prevented Hezbollah from engaging in belligerent acts across the border. Over the past eight years, such irresponsible acts would have likely resulted in hundreds of dead Lebanese and tremendous material losses, especially as Hezbollah’s doctrine deliberately blurs the lines between the “resistance” and the “people,” turning civilian areas into military zones.


It is likewise telling that the Lebanese are lamenting the absence of a similar deterrence of Hezbollah’s involvement on the Syrian front, which has had terrible consequences for Lebanon. Even those who today criticize the contradiction in Hezbollah’s “resistance” rhetoric and its engagement in Syria, rather than against Israel, are quick to add that they by no means wish for Hezbollah to start lobbing rockets at Israel.


The deterrence that Israel established in Lebanon is what it is trying to recreate in Gaza, in cooperation with Egypt. In fact, it is not far-fetched to say that, insofar as it intercepts destabilizing Iranian weapons, or strikes them before entering Lebanon or Egypt, Israel is acting as a guarantor of Arab national security in the eastern Mediterranean.


Nobody expects Arab commentators to acknowledge this fact. But by continuing to mythologize and elevate Israeli force and Palestinian suffering above all else, while brushing aside Hamas's role, this particular strand of Arab discourse, as Homayed rightly noted, is not only morally suspect; it also plays into the hands of the Iranians, who have no qualms about fighting Israel to the last Gazan and Lebanese. 


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay

Israel helps curb Iranian adventurism, says the author. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Were Hezbollah to do what Hamas has done and provoke a war with Israel today, there would be little doubt among most Lebanese as to the group’s agenda."

  • Jacob the aggressive watcher

    This is a real and serious take which finally says Israel is not the enemy but an ally

    July 22, 2014