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January 31, 2019 10:48 am

Iran’s Violent Influence Threatens Israel and Its Arab Neighbors

avatar by Yaakov Lappin

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Aug. 29, 2018. Photo: Official President.ir Website / Handout via Reuters.

Wherever violence and aggression flare up around Israel’s borders, Iran or one of its proxies will likely be found. Iran’s persistent subversion and promotion of terrorism is not only a threat to Israel, but also to its Sunni Arab neighbors, who stand in the way of Tehran’s radical designs for the Middle East.

This pattern has been on display in recent days. On January 21, the Israeli Air Force destroyed a number of targets in Syria belonging to the Quds Force, the elite Iranian expeditionary force that is led by General Qassem Soleimani.

The Quds Force has been trying to build an Iranian-run terrorist army in Syria, as well as missile bases to threaten Israel. But Israel has been able to thwart many of these efforts.

In an attempt to change the “rules of the game” and deter Israel from continuing to defend itself, a Quds Force cell recently fired a missile at Israel’s Golan Heights region, threatening civilian lives, before Israeli air defenses shot it down.

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Iran emerged from this latest round of fighting fairly poorly, losing valuable assets, including weapons storage facilities that it built at Damascus’s International Airport. Yet just a few days later, Iran’s chief proxy in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), began gun attacks on the Israel-Gaza border, threatening to plunge the Strip into a new conflict. A new Gaza war would endanger the security of Gazan and Israeli civilians alike.

“In recent weeks, we have monitored increasing attempts by the Islamic Jihad movement to destabilize the security situation in the Gaza Strip,” an IDF statement said.

When a PIJ sniper fired a shot at an IDF officer, striking his helmet, Israel responded with tank fire on Hamas outposts, killing a Hamas operative. Israel’s message to Hamas was simple: Get PIJ under control.

But it isn’t just Israel that delivered a warning to Hamas, which is itself a radical Islamist regime that has partnered with Iran. According to a recent report that appeared in Israel Hayom, Egypt delivered the very same message to Gaza’s rulers.

“Cairo has made it clear that [Hamas political chief Ismail] Haniyeh must decide whether Hamas takes its orders from Tehran or continues to implement the understandings for calm formulated by the head of Egyptian intelligence Abbas Kamel,” the story said, quoting an Egyptian intelligence official.

Egypt’s message represents a larger struggle for influence in Gaza. It is a struggle being waged between radical Shiite Iran and its terror proxies, and moderate Sunni Egypt. Iran is seeking to set Gaza alight with conflict, while Egypt is seeking to douse the flames, and counterbalance Iran’s destabilization efforts. In this struggle, Israel and Egypt’s interests align, because both are threatened by Iran’s activities.

Hamas, for its part, cannot casually ignore Egypt’s demands, since the Arab regional power is right on its doorstep, and controls the Gaza Strip’s sole crossing to the outside world. After sealing it shut during the latest border violence, Egypt will soon reportedly open the Rafah Crossing with Gaza, giving Gazans who wish to travel out of their repressive Hamas-run enclave an outlet, and allowing the movement of goods. Such a move is good for Gaza’s economy, and takes the pressure off Hamas.

When open, Rafah is a carrot that Egypt can offer Hamas as a reward for following Cairo’s directives. When it is shut, it turns into a stick or a choke hold, reminding Hamas that Iran is geographically distant and that Cairo’s influence is far more immediate.

Still, all of these efforts represent a short-term pushback against Iran. The Islamic Republic continues to wield significant influence in Gaza through its financial support for Hamas and PIJ, and the knowledge sharing that it conducts with them on weapons manufacturing and combat doctrines. These efforts have helped turn Hamas into a mass rocket and urban warfare base.

And in Syria, Iran has not given up its takeover ambitions. The situation was well described by a senior Israeli military source last year during a briefing to journalists.

“The risks are all around us, whether it is instability in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon — also a forward Iranian division — or Hamas, which gets its support from Iran. Iran is all over, offensively trying to operate against Israel, and we have to weigh and assess the risks constantly as we operate against this aggression,” said the source.

The officer described a large-scale shadow war, saying, “We are operating around the Middle East against the Iranian buildup of force. The aim of our line of operations and our decisiveness is to deter and dissuade and counter Iranian activities in the region. What we see is very dangerous to regional stability.”

Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence. A version of this article was published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism, which commissioned it.

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