Hamas’ operation against Israel on October 7 was a major step in the Iranian effort to take control of the Palestinian cause.
There seems little doubt that Hamas’ tactics were coordinated with Iran and Hezbollah, which several years ago prepared itself for offensive actions against towns in Galilee by digging tunnels under Lebanon’s border with Israel. Contacts between Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad have been highly visible in recent months, as senior leaders of the two Palestinian organizations are now based in Beirut. By planning such a devastating operation, all these parties have provided an alternative model to that of the hapless Palestinian Authority, which has lost public support and is shriveling under an aged and corrupt leadership.
The recent rounds of fighting in the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Ain al-Hilweh, between Fatah, the main Palestinian organization, and smaller Islamist groups, should be understood in this context. While Fatah, which has long dominated the camps, was not defeated, its strength appears to have eroded. Hamas denied any role in the fighting, but many observers in Lebanon believe the Islamist groups benefited from Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ quiet assistance. Moreover, Hamas was a key mediator in the conflict reinforcing its role. Doubtless Hamas and Hezbollah realize that, given the extent of Fatah’s support, the process of weakening it will take time and will be affected by what happens in Ramallah, especially if the succession of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas widens rifts within Fatah.
There are those who argue that the Hamas offensive was linked to what appears to be an imminent peace deal between Riyadh and Israel. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent remarks to Fox News certainly pointed in that direction. At the same time, various news reports have suggested that securing concessions for the Palestinians was not a priority for the Saudis. Derailing further Arab-Israeli agreements is a vital Iranian objective, since Tehran does not want to face a united regional front opposed to it.
However, things go beyond that.
The Palestinian cause is at a crossroads. Abbas is now 87 and his popularity is at an all-time low. This sour mood was reflected in a poll conducted in June 2022 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which also showed that 55 percent of Palestinians supported a return to an armed intifada. Iran and Hezbollah carefully monitor the displeasure in Palestinian areas. What they have sought to do is to create a counter-narrative to that of the peace process and a two-state solution. They want to show that Israel can be defeated, therefore that what Palestinians need is a leadership which can bring about such an outcome.
So, Iran appears to be engaged in a three-stage process—weakening Fatah, providing an alternative model for Palestinian action, and pushing Hamas forward as an organization that can ultimately become the principal representative of the Palestinian people. A small hint of this ambition came in a recent article on the fighting in Ain al-Hilweh in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which acts very much as a mouthpiece for Hezbollah. In an article headline, the paper observed that Hamas had taken away from Fatah the attribute of “sole and legitimate representative” of the Palestinians, over a piece that otherwise didn’t directly address this question.
The next stage, once the violence dies down, will involve negotiations to secure the return of the dozens of Israelis abducted by Hamas. It’s hard to imagine that this will not lead to the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners in exchange. These negotiations will place Hamas in the driver’s seat and humiliate Israel and the Palestinian Authority even more. What Hamas gains will be lost to Fatah, which finds itself beleaguered on all sides. It’s difficult to see how Fatah will emerge from its predicament, especially if Palestinian elections are eventually held again.
The Iranians are simply exploiting the decades-long deadlock in the “land for peace” formula, and its eventual failure. Both Palestinians and Israelis can be blamed, but the current Israeli government has sought to move definitively beyond any two-state solution by rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state and considering the annexation of large segments of the West Bank. For Palestinians, the absence of any horizon beyond their indefinite subjugation to Israeli occupation, and the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness, or inability, to alter this situation, have become a source of seething resentment. Iran took note of this.
When Arab countries and Israel signed the so-called Abraham Accords, Palestinians believed they were being abandoned by their Arab brethren. This created a major opening for Tehran to play on the fact that Arab publics, whatever the preferences of their leaderships, remained deeply opposed to peace with Israel. In light of this, it’s fair to say that many Arabs will have approved of what took place on October 7. This will put added pressure on all Arab regimes that concluded peace agreements with the Israelis, but especially Saudi Arabia, which is still thinking of doing so.
For Iran, the fight is part of a regional struggle for influence. Where the Americans and Europeans, encouraged by Israel, were all acting as if the fate of the Palestinians was secondary to settlements between the Arab states and Israel, Tehran adopted a contrary approach. It caught the Abraham Accord Arab states in a contradiction, because all of them had approved the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which set conditions for Arab recognition of Israel. What the Abraham Accords emphasized was that the Arab signatories were now willing to recognize Israel for nothing in exchange, undermining the Arab initiative.
Iran’s hypocrisy is that the path it is outlining, namely a renewal of the Palestinian armed struggle, is unlikely to bring Palestinians the rights they merit. On the contrary, an outbreak of armed violence in the West Bank, along the lines of what happened in Gaza, will probably lead to a terrible conflict that provokes a mass Palestinian exodus across the Jordanian border. Those Palestinians will not be allowed to return, in the same way that the Palestinians who left in 1948 and 1967 were not allowed to return. Palestinians will face a new round of ethnic cleansing, which will be accompanied by the destabilization of the Jordanian monarchy. This will represent a further nail in the coffin of American influence in the Middle East.
Whatever else can be said of the Iranians, they understood that the Palestinian cause was still very much alive and that by exploiting this they could damage their Arab rivals, while also undercutting the United States’ position in the Middle East. The initiative is now in their hands. This may be unfortunate, but anyone who followed Palestinian affairs closely could have seen something like this coming.