JERUSALEM (AP) — Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel and the war it launched has raised new questions about the influence of its main sponsor, Iran, and whether it had anything to do with the assault.
From Tel Aviv to Washington, however, no one is willing to directly blame Iran as they say they lack direct evidence. Tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West remain high over its rapidly advancing nuclear program. In Tehran, even its supreme leader has denied the country being involved while praising what he described as the “capable, smart and courageous” militants who killed more than 1,000 Israelis and for the first time took over 100 civilians and soldiers as hostages.
Yet the suspicion of Iranian involvement remains — and how it shakes out could threaten to morph what has been the most-shocking deadly attack on Israel in 50 years into a wider regional war that drags in the United States.
Hamas grew out of the the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which was marked by widespread protests against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1987. Its name is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement and an acknowledgment of its early ties to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Sworn to Israel’s destruction, it has launched numerous suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, leading Israel and other nations including the U.S. to describe it as a terrorist organization.
Although Sunni, it has grown increasingly close to the Mideast’s Shiite powerhouse, Iran. For Tehran, Hamas fits into a pattern it has followed since its 1979 Islamic Revolution of backing regional proxies as a hedge against the superior firepower of archenemy Israel and its main backer, the U.S.
Sunday’s attack showed a level of sophistication and scale so far unseen in previous Hamas attacks on Israel. Airborne militants flew into southern Israel on paragliders. Bomb-carrying drones dropped ordinance precisely on Israeli robotic gun positions. Within hours, militants detonated bombs to tear open Israel’s separation fence, body cam footage showed.
Some of these militant techniques have been used by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, whose Quds, or Jerusalem, force serves as an expeditionary unit that long has liaised with proxy militia groups across the Middle East.
As of now, no government worldwide has offered direct evidence — whether images, electronic surveillance or satellite imagery — supporting that Iran orchestrated the attack. However, many have pointed to Iran’s long sponsorship of the group through extensive training, funding and smuggled rockets.
“On Iran, let me start by saying no question that there’s a degree of complicity here. Iran has been supporting Hamas for many, many years,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday. “That said, we haven’t seen hard, tangible evidence that Iran was directly involved in participating in or resourcing, planning these sets of complex attacks that Hamas pulled off over the weekend.”
Even Israel, which long has been suspected of carrying out out a covert campaign of sabotage and targeted killings to slow Iran’s nuclear program, hasn’t directly blamed Tehran.
“We have no evidence, no intelligence proof of Iranian involvement in this situation,” said Maj. Nir Dinar, an Israeli military spokesperson.
Dinar, however, hinted at Iranian involvement in the same breath. “You have to be very naive in order to think that someone in Iran woke up at 6:30 on Shabbat, on Simchat Torah, and was surprised to see this,” he said, referring to the Jewish holiday that was commemorated last Saturday.
Ali Barakeh, a member of Hamas’ exiled leadership in Lebanon, denied that Iran helped plan the attack or gave the go-ahead for it in an interview with The Associated Press. However, the extent of Iranian influence on Hamas was at one point a source of “internal conflict” that got “papered over in the last few years” as Iran became the group’s “main funder,” said Randa Slim from the Washington-based Middle East Institute. Iran remains closer to Hamas’ military wing than its political wing, Slim added.
For Israel, it already appears to be gearing up for what looks like a massive military operation including a possible ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. That urban fighting is incredibly dangerous for its troops, as well as the Palestinian civilians inevitably caught between them and Hamas fighters. Israel also has faced some sporadic missile fire and fighting from Hezbollah, Iran’s main regional partner in neighboring Lebanon since the violence erupted. The conflict expanding into a two-front war would make the situation even more dangerous.
Adding Iran into the mix would escalate it further. Keeping that from happening is likely an American priority. The Washington-dispatched aircraft carrier group USS Gerald R. Ford reached the eastern Mediterranean on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden warned other countries not to get involved the conflict in hopes of exploiting the chaos. “For any anyone thinking advantage of the situation,” he said in a speech Tuesday, “I have one word: Don’t.”
However, given the grief and outrage in Israel over Saturday’s attack, anything linking Iran to the assault would drastically increase pressure on long-embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to retaliate against Tehran. Netanyahu, who has campaigned as being Israel’s self-described protector, has pointed at Iran as his nation’s No. 1 regional enemy. He has repeatedly warned he wouldn’t allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon — something his nation possesses.
And while Iran maintains its program is peaceful, it enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels. That makes those facilities, as well as military bases in Iran and abroad, possible targets for Netanyahu.
“Citizens of Israel, we are at war, not in an operation or in rounds, but at war,” Netanyahu told the nation after Saturday’s attack. How wide that war will become remains in question.
Associated Press writers Abby Sewell in Beirut, Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.