Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Hamas and the Ruse that May be its Last

It is, perhaps, too early to have a full picture of what led to the recent Hamas attack on Israeli villages close to Gaza.

One thing, however, is certain: the attack came when and where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet least expected.

But why? One answer adopted by Netanyahu’s team is “a failure of intelligence services”.

However, that answer, even if it contains a grain of truth, could not divert attention from a bigger failure: the Israeli leaders’ inability to correctly analyze the intelligence at their disposal and, and having bought into what looks like a ruse by Hamas, to imagine a worst-case scenario.

It now seems probable that Hamas carefully prepared a scheme to lull the Israelis into slumber as far as a threat from Gaza was concerned.

Major-General Yahya Safavi who wears the lofty title of “Senior military Advisor” to ”Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei in Tehran, says Hamas planned the attack over two years with a view to divert Israeli attention from Gaza and make a surprise attack possible. He does not say whether Iranians were involved in the planning but drops hints that they knew about the plot.

“The most important element was surprise,” he says.

French writer Michel Gurfinkiel, an expert on Israeli affairs, develops the theme further in an essay in the weekly Valeurs Actuelles. According to him Hamas worked out a scheme to make Israelis focus on the West Bank and Lebanon as the two most immediate sources of threat while portraying Gaza as relatively calm.

Iran may have helped sell that narrative in a number of ways.

On several occasions, Khamenei publicly called for “the need to re-energize the resistance” in the West Bank. On two occasions Jordanian police seized shipments of arms and money ostensibly sent from Iran via Iraq. Then a series of clashes in Jenin convinced the Israelis that a “new front” was taking shape in the West Bank.

On the northern front, Iran moved some Hezbollah units from Syria back to Lebanon, a move that the daily Kayhan claimed was designed to confront threats by ISIS. For the first time since the 2006 ceasefire accord, serving officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) appeared in southern Lebanon, ostensibly for friendly visits.

To pretend that something was being prepared in Lebanon Major. General Esmail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force, made two visits to Beirut for what Tehran media presented as “consultations” with Hezbollah leaders.

Hamas played another trick by leaking information to Israeli informers about “special plans” by the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine to attack Israel with Iranian support. Islamic Jihad is the last of the non-Hamas Palestinian armed groups to have a meaningful presence in Gaza; eliminating it would leave Hamas as the sole master of the enclave.

Relations between Tehran and Hamas had soured when the Gazan group decided to support Muslim Brotherhood armed groups against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who was backed by the Islamic Republic in Iran. In 2015 Hamas and Quds mercenaries fought a nine-month war close to Damascus when, according to Tehran media, the Gazans tried to destroy the Zaynabiah Shiite shrine.

That chapter was closed in 2019, when Hamas sent a senior team to Tehran. But even then, Tehran didn’t quite trust Hamas, a fact that Hamas leaders used in their plan to hoodwink the Israelis.

In his visits to Tehran Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh refused to attend official Friday prayer ceremonies, a gesture seen as his insistence on emphasizing his sectarian position vis-a-vis Iranians. In contrast, Islamic Jihad leaders attended the ceremonies to provide the TV footage that Tehran wanted.

The Hamas ruse included other elements. It suggested a doubling of the number of Gazans given permits to work in Israel. Just before the latest attack some 25,000 Gazans used such permits. At the same time, Israel shortened the delays in transferring to Hamas custom duties collected from good entering the enclave.

Reports that cannot be independently confirmed suggest that Hamas, again using a convoluted network of informers, provided “valuable intelligence” to Israel on Islamic Jihad and embryonic groups in the West Bank, reinforcing the narrative that Hamas was trying to build a new persona as an embryonic state rather than a guerrilla group.

To reinforce the narrative that Hamas was looking to a long period of calm, its key leaders moved their families to Qatar where figures like Khalid Meshaal, still regarded as an icon by many Gazans, and Haniyeh have been living for years.

Those who planned the ruse benefited from another factor. Playing religious groups against secular opponents may have become part of the Israeli intelligence’s collective memory.

That stratagem was used in Lebanon with the emergence of armed Shiite groups to counter and eventually eliminate the PLO’s presence in the south. The fact that Hezbollah is ultimately controlled by Tehran is also seen as an advantage because Iran as a state has to be responsive to both conciliatory and hostile moves by an adversary whereas a non-state operator such as Fatah or numerous other Palestinian guerrilla groups that are now extinct would always be regarded as loose cannons.

In Gaza, too, Israel tolerated, some say encouraged, the creation of Hamas for the same reason. Portraying Israel’s enemies as religious fanatics wishing to impose their faith on all mankind plays better with the international public opinion that might sympathize with non-religious outfits simply demanding “self-determination.”

Ruse or not, what is certain is that Israeli leaders were deceived into thinking that Gaza was calm and that future threats would come from the West Bank and Lebanon. This is why they reduced the force set up to cope with any threat from Gaza while they raised the number of troops in the West Bank and close to the Lebanese ceasefire line.

In previous clashes with Hamas the question was “how to be”; now, however, it looks as if “to be or not to be” is the question. Thus, Hamas may become the latest victim of the law of unintended consequences.