Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza were in contact with Iran’s top brass, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, during the 2021 Gaza War. Sources close to Hizbullah revealed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hamas, and Hizbullah coordinated the military confrontation in Gaza from a military operations center in Beirut. The commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Esmail Qaani, visited Lebanon twice to attend meetings at the joint command center.
- Iranian aid to Hamas and Islamic Jihad is constant and flows all the time through various channels, regardless of the economic situation in Iran and Lebanon. Iranian influence could be seen in Hamas’ efforts to attack Israel’s strategic and energy infrastructures, including efforts to damage Israeli gas rigs in the Mediterranean. This copies the efforts of the Houthis in Yemen to attack similar targets in Saudi Arabia.
- These efforts involve long-range attack drones, GPS-guided unmanned suicide vessels, underwater guided weapons, and long-range missiles. The Houthis in Yemen are using these capabilities against oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and against civilian infrastructure such as airports, power plants, and desalination facilities. Iran seeks to develop these capabilities and test them against Israeli civilian and military targets.
- From their perspective, Iran’s leaders see a string of successes, including confronting sanctions, surviving the Trump administration and ex-Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, maintaining an active military nuclear program, overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the Shia revival in Iraq, and the “victories” of the Palestinians in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon against Israel with Iran’s support.
- They believe that the prophecy of the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, regarding the destruction of Israel will eventually be fulfilled, and that Iran has the power to bring it about.
- For Iran, “Palestine” is only one part of a complex strategy of building the Axis of Resistance from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon, aimed at Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon; each arena has its own blueprint, a toolbox of hostile insurgency actions, and the guidance of Hizbullah, the Quds Force, and well-trained militias.
Ayatollah Khamenei Hails the “Martyrs of Resistance”
The events in Jerusalem during the Ramadan month and the planned Israeli flag march celebrating Jerusalem Day (the reunification of Jerusalem) triggered the Hamas rocket attack on the city and led to the 2021 Gaza War (Operation Guardians of the Walls). These events coincided with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s annual International Quds (Jerusalem) Day speech on May 7, 2021, on the last Friday of Ramadan.1
Khamenei stressed that the” treasonous” agreements [the Abraham Accords] between several Arab countries with “the Zionist regime would never change reality, and the Palestinians will never forget their brave (resistance) path.” He also emphasized, “Israel is weaker than ever…because the balance of power has changed for the benefit of the Muslim world.” Khamenei even allegedly “predicted” the events that took place afterward, saying that “the Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem, and the West Bank are one body.”2
In his Quds Day speech, Khamenei hailed the “Martyrs of Resistance” who sacrificed their lives on this path, in particular, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (Hamas); Sayyid Abbas Musawi (Hizbullah); Fathi Shaqaqi (Islamic Jihad); Imad Mughniyeh (Hizbullah); Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi (Hamas); Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis (Iraqi militia); and the most prominent martyr, Qasem Soleimani of Iran.
Even after their fruitful and blessed life, with their martyrdom, each of these personalities exerted a deep impact on the resistance …. Resistance martyrs have managed to increase the internal power of Palestinian jihad by a hundred times. One day, the Palestinian youth used to defend themselves by throwing stones, but today, they respond to enemy attacks with precision missiles.
In this spirit, a few hours after the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, Khamenei issued a “victory message” on May 21, 2021, asking Muslim countries to support the Palestinians in Gaza with military and economic aid.
Khamenei also addressed the issue of Israeli Arabs and praised “the cooperation between the West Bank, Gaza, and Israeli Arabs for showing the path for the Palestinians in the future.”
Khamenei said he expects “Israel will now be weaker in light of the rising power of the Palestinians and the jihad organizations.” He also urged Muslims to pressure their governments to donate money to rebuild Gaza.3
The Iranian leader added: “Israel’s inability to deal with the Palestinians led it to act madly and caused a wave of hatred around the world. Israel’s allies in the West, especially the United States, are also hated more in the world in light of their support for Israel.” Khamenei also called on the world’s courts to put pressure on Israel and indict it for its “shocking crimes.”
Tightening Ties between Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Iran
During the war, senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders maintained telephone contacts with Iran’s top brass, including the Supreme Leader and the heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, during which they thanked their Iranian patrons for their support. Ismail Haniyeh (Hamas) and Ziad Nakhalah (Islamic Jihad) spoke with Gen. Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who promised, on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran, that “Iran would not desert the Palestinians and will stand by their side and support them with all the means at its disposal, up until the final, impending destruction of the enemy (Israel).”4
Both Nakhalah and Hamas Chief Haniyeh attended Soleimani’s funeral in Iran. Haniyeh delivered a eulogy. At the funeral, Haniyeh and Nakhalah were given places of honor right behind Leader Khomeini, President Rouhani, and President-elect Raisi.
Gen. Esmail Qaani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, sent letters to the heads of the “commanders of the Palestinian resistance,” including Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif, and Abu Mohammad, who heads Saraya al-Quds, the Islamic Jihad’s military wing. In a letter to Deif, the “Living Martyr” [because of his many battle wounds], Qaani praised the resistance organizations’ deployment for the campaign and “preparing the tools necessary for the crushing victory” despite the harsh conditions. Qaani, in the spirit of the Supreme Leader’s remarks, also emphasized the cohesion of the Palestinian people, “the Muslims in Palestine – in Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Palestinian cities occupied since 1948” (referring to the Arab riots in Acre, Lod, Ramla, Haifa, and Jaffa). He stated that the Palestinians “demonstrated that they are a dynamic and living nation making its way toward victory.”
In his letter to the commander of the Islamic Jihad’s military wing,6 Qaani praised the organization’s firm stance that “destroyed the arrogance of the Zionist enemy and demonstrated that Jerusalem is not alone in the campaign.” He also stated that they have weapons “beyond the imagination of the Zionist enemy.” Qaani blessed the memory of his predecessor, Qasem Soleimani, and his contribution to the resistance-front struggle. Qaani pledged that he would continue in his path. During the rocket barrages on Israel, the Islamic Jihad revealed an improved Qasem rocket, with each rocket “signed” in memory of Soleimani.7 After the operation, Iran unveiled an unmanned aerial craft called “Gaza” and a radar system called “Quds” that demonstrated their solidarity and partnership with the Palestinian struggle.
The Islamic Jihad spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Abu Hamza, issued a statement at the end of the campaign in which he praised Iran and the rest of the Axis of Resistance for helping to fight in Gaza. Their weapons, as well as their provided expertise, were a substantial source of power, which brought strength and abilities to the resistance brigades (Muqawama), both materially and technically. “We tell them,” Abu Hamza said, “You share our victory, and together we will victoriously enter al-Aqsa.”8 Islamic Jihad’s Secretary-General, Ziad Nakhalah, sent a congratulatory letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader noting Iran’s support of the organization and its role “in the victory achieved.”9
Nasrallah Warned: “Aggression against al-Aqsa or Holy Sites Will Lead to a Regional War for al-Quds (Jerusalem)”10
In a speech marking the “Holiday of Resistance (in Palestine) and the liberation (of southern Lebanon),” Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah praised “leaders of the Palestinian resistance movements and their military wings” for their “brilliant moves” during the Gaza war. He linked it to the withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon in May 2000. According to Nasrallah, “The (final) goal is Palestine. The resistance victory in May 2000 was dedicated to Palestine and was a strategic turning point in the struggle with Israel. From now on, we will celebrate two great victories in May – the 25th of the year 2000, and the 21st in 2021 – marking Gaza’s victory.”
Nasrallah stressed that the “dangerous activity in Jerusalem” pushed the leaders of the Palestinian resistance organizations to take a “historic, decisive, and new stance.” The war erupted as a response to “the foolishness of Israel’s leadership, its arrogance, underestimating the resistance, and miscalculations….Gaza surprised [its] friend and enemy in its decision to fulfill its threat in response to Judaizing al-Quds.”11
Hizbullah’s secretary-general explained that “Gaza protected Jerusalem and its people. The people in Gaza were willing to make sacrifices for al-Quds and the al-Aqsa Mosque.” Nasrallah warned Israel: “The response to harming Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque (from now on) will not be confined to the borders of the resistance in Gaza….The resistance groups in Gaza have created a new equation: Activity in al-Quds (Jerusalem) against Islamic holy sites versus regional war.”
When Israel recognizes that it faces this al-Quds vs. a regional war equation, it will realize that any step will lead to its elimination….When the holy places of Islam and Christianity are in serious danger, red and artificial lines no longer matter.
In the spirit of Ayatollah Khamenei’s messages about the unity of the Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank, and among Israeli Arabs, Nasrallah said that the whole world noticed during the last campaign that Israel was facing “one Palestinian people moving as one soul for one goal….One of the most important achievements of the Al Quds Sword Operation was the mobilization of Palestinians inside 1948 lands, which terrified Israel.” Nasrallah also stressed that Israel also failed to assess the response of the “1948 Arabs.”
Nasrallah referred to the sequence of rocket launches, the launch capabilities, and the improved rockets that caused insecurity among the Israelis and their desire to emigrate from Israel. Militarily, Nasrallah said that the latest campaign illustrated that “Israel is incapable of conducting a ground maneuver….This is a strategic failure….Another failure is lack of intelligence, particularly in preventing the rocket launches and discovering launching sites and getting to the inventory of missiles that have not been launched yet.”
The Hizbullah leader warned Israel not to make the same mistake it did in Gaza regarding Lebanon:
Resistance in Lebanon is improving daily in terms of readiness and equipment….Do not err in your assessments of Lebanon as you did with Gaza and think that the situation (in Lebanon) is different….Resistance in Lebanon is at its peak.
Nasrallah “opened an account” with Israel with the “blood of the martyr Muhammad Tahan,” who was “killed on the way to Jerusalem” (on the Lebanese border) during demonstrations in support of the Palestinians. “We will not forget him, and he will join the blood of the martyr Ali Kamel Mahsan,” a Hizbullah operative killed in Syria in July 2020.
Nasrallah said that the “Sword of Jerusalem” had severely damaged the normalization process between Israel and the Arab states. “The ‘deal of the century’ collapsed and disappeared” since “Israel’s real face and its apartheid regime were exposed.” Nasrallah also stressed the steadfast stance of the Axis of Resistance in the various countries that constituted the “backbone that supported the victory in Palestine,” and particularly emphasized the support of Iraqi Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the Yemen Houthis’ contribution to Palestine, despite the ongoing siege over Yemen.
Hizbullah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem also praised the Palestinian resistance during the Gaza war. According to Qassem, the May 2000 IDF withdrawal from Lebanon was a turning point in the struggle with Israel and the Gaza war will play a similar role.
The (Palestinian) victory revived and restored the determination of the Palestinian people to fight and confront. This is a strategic juncture and a historic turning point. This is not a simple victory. This is an important foundation on which we will now base the struggle against Israel. This is a new stage whose characteristics were not previously clear.
Hizbullah’s deputy secretary-general also relayed messages from Tehran on the unity of the Palestinian people (regarding the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and 1948) and said it was a “blow to Israel.” He explained: “Palestine has fought four wars in Gaza and succeeded. The last campaign maintains a special place in the history of Palestine.” Naim Qassam added that Hizbullah is in daily contact with the various organizations in Palestine and assists them as much as it can. As for their military capabilities, Qassam said,
The Palestinians have acquired an important production capability, and I am sure that the ability to smuggle missiles into Gaza is also at its peak. There are minds in Palestine that help in the production of various weapons and capabilities and who have been trained and are in constant contact with the various components of the Resistance Axis. The aid will not stop but will intensify.
A Joint Command Center in Beirut
Meanwhile, sources close to Hizbullah revealed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hamas, and Hizbullah established a military operations center in Beirut during the Gaza war.13 Ibrahim Al-Amin, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, said during an interview with Al-Manar TV on June 2, 2021, that officers from Hizbullah, IRGC, and Hamas coordinated the military confrontation in Gaza, adding that the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Esmail Qaani, visited Lebanon twice to attend the command center meetings.
Hizballah transmitted weaponry and ammunition to Gaza and moved Palestinian resistance officers out of the Strip during the fighting, according to Al-Amin. The Islamic Resistance also provided the Palestinian factions with the needed data about the movements of the Israeli “occupation” military.
During the war, Hizbullah did not respond militarily. It was satisfied with organizing demonstrations near the border fence with Israel and in several areas of Lebanon. Hizbullah also allowed limited and symbolic rocket fire into Israel to show support and solidarity with the Palestinians during the war.
Hizbullah’s response reflects its sensitive and complicated situation in Lebanon following the massive explosion at the port of Beirut and the dire economic situation in Lebanon. Furthermore, Hizbullah continues to be involved in some of the fighting areas in Syria and is subject to domestic criticism on this issue as well. An all-out confrontation with Israel is impossible, of course, without a green light from Tehran.
As the Gaza operation unfolded, Iran held nuclear talks in Vienna with the remaining signatories of the nuclear agreement (P5+1) regarding the possibility of countries returning to the JCPOA framework. It is for this reason that a round of escalation in Lebanon involving Hizbullah does not serve Iran’s broader interests now, especially since any sign of Iran’s negative involvement in the region would undermine the nuclear negotiations. Iran does not want to put the issue of its malign activity in the region on the agenda during the nuclear talks and give the United States the option to disrupt the negotiations. If an agreement is signed and the United States rejoins the JCPOA, Iran will then feel freer (and richer) to unleash its Axis of Resistance throughout the Middle East.
Hizbullah’s Lessons from the Gaza War
In addition to Hizbullah’s praise for the Palestinian organizations during the operation and referring to Muhammad Deif as a “living martyr” and comparable to its former commander Imad Mughniyeh, it is likely that the organization, with Iran’s close guidance, will learn from the war and look toward the possibility of a confrontation with Israel:
For offensive operations, Hizbullah will seek to:
- Strengthen its rocket and missile arm and accelerate its guided-missile project. In its view, rocket and missile weaponry is a “tiebreaker” and changes the rules of the game against Israel by identifying Israel’s home front as a central weak point. This process is the continuation of the implementation of the Iranian doctrine of asymmetrical warfare.
- Disrupt Israel’s missile defense systems.
- Prepare for the occupation of territory in the Galilee, including the use of offensive invasion tunnels. In this context, it was recently reported that Hizbullah had established a network of tunnels spanning hundreds of kilometers, including command and control complexes, from Beirut to southern Lebanon, aimed at attacking IDF forces in the event of a ground maneuver in Lebanese territory.14 In light of Israel’s new ability to identify tunnels and the damage to the Hamas tunnels during the operation, Hizbullah may be required to rethink their use during combat.
- Damage Israeli facilities and strategic economic and military infrastructures.
For defensive operations, Hizbullah will seek to:
- Design a new deterrence equation vis-a-vis Israel: “Activity in Jerusalem will lead to a regional war,” warning Israel not to repeat the “Gaza miscalculation” with Lebanon.
- Obtain anti-aircraft systems. Hizbullah will make efforts with Iran to place improved and concealed anti-aircraft systems in Lebanon to protect against possible airstrikes in Lebanese territory.
- Protect against targeted killings of senior Hizbullah figures.
Iranian Aid Will Continue and Even Increase
Iranian aid to Hamas and Islamic Jihad is constant and flows all the time through various channels, regardless of the economic situation in Iran and Lebanon. The know-how and weaponry that Iran transfers to Hamas through the Quds Force and Hizbullah – as well as training in Lebanon (as Hizbullah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem admitted) or on Iranian soil – have a decisive influence on the nature and concept of warfare by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This includes setting the objectives (strategic infrastructure and energy infrastructure), efforts to overcome Israel’s Iron Dome with Hizbullah’s support, and the maritime activities that were exposed in the latest conflict.
In this context, the Hamas naval force and attempts to damage the Israeli gas rigs in the Mediterranean must be mentioned. Here we see an effort by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, supported by Iran and Hizbullah, to copy the capabilities of the Houthis in Yemen in their attacks against Saudi Arabia, and the Shi’ite militias in Iraq in attacks against the United States – and against Israeli strategic targets. These efforts involve long-range attack drones, GPS-guided, unmanned suicide vessels, underwater guided weapons, and long-range missiles. The Houthis in Yemen are using these capabilities against oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and against civilian infrastructure such as airports, power plants, and desalination facilities.
The Iranian objective is to duplicate the military capabilities it develops from arena to arena (as in the case of roadside bombs [IEDs] that originated with Hizbullah in Lebanon and were used in attacks against coalition forces in Iraq). Yemen serves today as the largest testing ground for new weapons in the region. Lebanese Hizbullah advisors serve as instructors in aerial weaponry (ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aircraft, and drones) as well as naval weaponry (unmanned underwater vehicles [UUV], explosive-laden boats, and submarine platforms). Iran seeks to develop these capabilities and test them in the military arena against Israeli civilian targets, strategic infrastructure, and military targets.
In the 2021 fighting, Hamas attempted to launch drones, unmanned aircraft, and naval weapons alongside more traditional Iranian-backed techniques such as Kornet anti-tank missiles, which were supplied to Gaza by Iran, as well as “Sayyad” sniper rifles, an Iranian knock-off an Austrian sniper rifle, the Steyr HS.50.
In the event of a comprehensive conflict in the north, Hizbullah, which refrained from involvement in the Gaza war, may be expected to bring air and sea capabilities similar to those of the Houthis in a campaign against Israel.
In the end, the Gaza war, like other operations in Gaza and Lebanon, constitutes “Divine events” for Iran. They prove the justice of its ways and that Israel can be eliminated with patience, toughness, and armed struggle.
Iran’s Resistance and Revolution All Begin with Khomeini
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s activist interpretation of Shi’ite Islam and the revolution in Shi’ism that he led are constantly being validated, especially for Iran’s current leaders. They connect Khomeini’s teachings to the successes in the Iranian national-ideological dimension (confronting sanctions, surviving the Trump administration and ex-Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu), maintaining an active military nuclear program, overthrowing Saddam Hussein, Shia revival in Iraq, the “victories” of the Palestinian organizations and Hizbullah against Israel (with Iran’s support), and the religious dimension (the “Mahdi hand” and the Divine intervention). All of these achievements strengthen and shape their belief in the righteousness of their path and the rationale which demonstrates resilience and the need for continued resistance by the Iranian people.
Iran believes that the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the Palestinian resilience in Jerusalem and Gaza follow Khomeini’s previous “prophecies” about the collapse of the Soviet Union (Communism) and Saddam’s fall. They believe his prophecy regarding the destruction of Israel will eventually be fulfilled, and that Iran has the power to bring it about. Iran’s current leader, Khamenei, follows in his predecessor’s footsteps. He stated in September 2015 that Israel would not exist in 25 years. In this regard, Khamenei’s recent Quds Day speech, prior to the clashes in Jerusalem and the subsequent Gaza war, is touted as “prophetic” and demonstrates that the Supreme Leader’s prophecies of Israel’s annihilation are materializing.
For Iran, “Palestine” is only one part of a complex strategy of building the Axis of Resistance from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon, aimed at Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon; each arena has its own blueprint, a toolbox of hostile insurgency actions, and the guidance of Hizbullah, the Quds Force, and well-trained militias.
Ibrahim Raisi, Iran’s newly elected president, who is part of the system and who was shaped by it, will further strengthen this predicament by defying the West, calling for the destruction of Israel (using Jerusalem as a common denominator), and pursuing regional hegemony through subversion, ballistic missiles, and Iran’s nuclear program.
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14 In 2006, a garrulous officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard revealed to the Arabic publication Sharq al Awsat that Iranian diplomats smuggled North Korean experts into Lebanon under the guise of “domestic workers.” They joined “hundreds of Iranian engineers and technicians to build a 25-kilometer tunnel.”