Too little of the constant hum of the Arab-Israeli conflict breaks through in the United States. Occasional shocking attacks and sustained battles creep onto the pages of major papers but then fade back into obscurity.
But on the morning of Oct. 7, Hamas broke through—attacking Israel on multiple fronts, killing and kidnapping civilians and soldiers, and unleashing a barrage of thousands of rockets. By nightfall, hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were dead. Dozens of Israelis were being held hostage inside Gaza. This, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is war.
Right now, what may well be the most substantial attack on Israel since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War looks like a massive intelligence failure. The Israelis are incredibly plugged in, both in Gaza and the West Bank. These are the intel operators who stole tons of data from inside Iran without being detected and who infiltrated a satellite-controlled machine gun into Iran and assassinated Iran’s key nuclear scientist without a hitch.
Yet they missed this plan to turn the tide of war against Israel. And they missed it despite the fact that Iran—which has long backed Hamas, Hezbollah, and other anti-Israel militia groups—has been advertising plans to do something like this for more than a year.
The Biden administration has said it doesn’t have evidence at this point that Iran was directly involved in Hamas’s latest assault, though U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did note that “Iran and Hamas have a long relationship. Hamas wouldn’t be Hamas without the support it’s had for many years from Iran”. Yet on Sunday, a spokesperson for Hamas told the BBC that it had received support from Iran, as well as other unnamed sources, for the attack—an attack that Iran has since publicly praised. The Wall Street Journal also reported on Sunday that, according to senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah, officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “had worked with Hamas since August to devise the air, land and sea incursions” that took place in the attack and that Iranian security officials “gave the green light for the assault at a meeting in Beirut last Monday”.
The gap between the apocalyptic rhetoric of Israel’s enemies and their achievements on the ground has been growing. Yes, there were occasional successful terrorist attacks against Israeli troops and civilians, but the government is far from falling, and the state is ever-more established, with Arab diplomatic partners from the Levant to the Persian Gulf (with even Saudi Arabia in the offing). And in a rare admission, it appears that the senior-most leadership of Iran’s elite military forces has noticed.
In an August 2022 interview posted on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s website, the head of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, said as much:
The Palestinians are ready today for ground warfare. Israel’s biggest weakness is ground warfare. Fighting by means of missiles is not the main point of the struggle. They know that the territories must be liberated by ground forces. While missiles are excellent for deterrence and for waging static wars, they do not liberate the land. A ground-based force must be deployed and must liberate the land step by step—as we did during the “sacred defense” war [the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War]. The outcome of the battle will be determined when the struggle is on the ground, and the brave and experienced people of Hezbollah and Palestine will move on the ground in a single military formation.
This, in a nutshell, is the process now ongoing.
A few short years ago, there were deep rifts among the various Palestinian groups. On the one hand was Fatah, which made up most of the PLO that after the Oslo Accords in the 1990s became the accepted legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and eventually morphed into the Palestinian Authority, headquartered in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
On the other were the groups still committed to armed resistance, chief among them Hamas, Hezbollah, and, eventually, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Unlike Fatah, these groups do not accept the existence of the state of Israel and are committed to its destruction. All are backed by Iran, both financially and militarily. Hamas also governs the breakaway territory of Gaza, nominally part of the territory controlled by the PA but effectively a Hamas fiefdom.
There is no comparison between Hezbollah and the other groups. It is at once the largest paramilitary and most powerful terrorist group in the world. It is a political party as well—Hezbollah de facto controls the Lebanese government and has blocked holding elections for a new president for almost a year. Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said explicitly that the group follows orders from Tehran and that Khamenei is “our imam, our leader, our master”.
In contrast, and although backed by Iran and Qatar, Hamas and PIJ are local operators in Gaza. Hamas fell out with the Iranians over support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011 and was punished with a total cutoff of assistance. Tehran ostentatiously adopted PIJ, feting the leadership with meetings at the highest levels in Tehran. Hamas came crawling back. But there is still little love lost between the groups. Tehran, working in cooperation with Hezbollah, is trying to fix that.
Twice this year, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has visited Beirut to, among other reasons, coordinate among Palestinian factions. In both April and August, he met with officials and senior leaders of PIJ, Hamas, and Hezbollah, underscoring two priorities: unity among the groups and the imperative to expand the fight from Gaza to the West Bank.
That coordination has been a theme for the Iranian leadership since at least 2021, when Hezbollah-aligned press reported on critical coordination between Hamas and the IRGC in Beirut during Operation Guardian of the Walls, an 11-day effort by the Israel Defense Forces to stop the continuous rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli cities.
Meanwhile, there is also a growing struggle for power in the West Bank, with the Iran-backed groups in Gaza trying to delegitimize Fatah and potentially oust the PA. In this effort, they are being aided by the octogenarian president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, who refuses to name a successor, step down, or allow presidential or legislative elections—the last of which took place in 2006.
The restiveness that has been growing among Palestinians beset by unemployment and poverty, riven by crime and gangs, and sensing their impotence in the face of ongoing fighting with Israel is clear. Tensions exploded in the northern West Bank city of Jenin this summer, with escalating direct and roadside attacks on Israeli troops ending with a large-scale Israeli military operation that resulted in at least a dozen Palestinian deaths. Concerningly, Palestinians unaffiliated with Hamas or other known terrorist groups played a major role in the Jenin battles—presenting an opportunity that Iran and its allies have been quick to try to exploit to expand their influence in the West Bank.
In addition, recent months have seen rocket attacks that were once the purview of Gazan groups move to the West Bank, and tunnels that facilitate movement out of sight of drones are, for the first time, being found in PA-controlled territory. The fruition of Iran’s long-term plan, weapons are also now moving at a growing pace from Hezbollah into the West Bank and falling into the hands of Hamas, PIJ, and several splinter groups animated by Fatah’s fading control and their leaders’ failure to liberate Palestine.
There are also increasingly serious efforts to train and arm Arab Israelis and Palestinian citizens of Israel who live inside Israel proper. This year has seen Israeli security forces uncover new Hezbollah smuggling routes bringing Iranian weapons into Israel. And while Iran’s efforts to recruit inside Israel are far from new, Hezbollah has cottoned on to the useful nexus of criminality and terrorism. By exploiting drug and weapons smuggling routes used by criminals, Hezbollah and Iran are walking through an open door.
Iran has also upped the ante in the West Bank and is now suspected of transferring improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—a weapon heretofore unseen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—to actors in the area. (Iranian-made IEDs regularly bedeviled U.S. forces in Iraq.) More troubling still, the Iranian leadership has made the strategic decision to begin a more aggressive knowledge transfer to its preferred Palestinian groups so that in the event smuggling becomes more difficult, they are able to continue production. (This is a characteristic Iranian modus operandi, with many of their proxies and allies—Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hamas—capable of producing rockets. However, IEDs would represent a significant escalation.)
If inside Israel proper and the West Bank represent newer fronts for Iran and Hezbollah, the Israel-Lebanon border is a known flash point. And without diminishing the threat that the hyper-armed Hezbollah represents, a series of cross-border incursions and efforts in recent months have appeared almost performative: rocket fire, face-offs between Hezbollah fighters and Israelis at the border, the emplacement of two tents in disputed areas, and a cross-border attack in northern Israel.
Efforts to shunt Fatah aside are also happening in Lebanon. Take a look at Ein el-Hilweh: The largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Ein el-Hilweh is nominally managed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Founded in 1949, UNRWA has for decades been a bugaboo to the U.S. Congress, which has cut off funds and conditioned aid repeatedly over suspected ties with Hamas and extremist, anti-Israel, and antisemitic curricula. Ein el-Hilweh is a no-go area for the U.S.-backed Lebanese Armed Forces, and its original population of 1948 refugees is now swollen with other Palestinians as well as Syrian refugees from the slaughter to the north.
While sporadic fighting has taken place at Ein el-Hilweh over the years, 2023 saw more serious battles break out. A senior Fatah official was assassinated at the hands of Islamist groups, and fighting is now escalating once again. Battles that began in July are not quieting, and in August, the Fatah security chief in Sidon (the southern Lebanese town where Ein el-Hilweh is located) accused UNRWA of allowing armed killers to base themselves in UNRWA-run schools, from where they killed his predecessor, Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi.
The Ein el-Hilweh fighting is simple to dismiss, particularly as there have been clashes there over the years. But the view in Beirut is that Iran and Hezbollah have taken a hand in ensuring that Fatah remains under siege. Indeed, despite repeated meetings among the various factions at the camp and brokered peace talks, the fighting shows little sign of slowing.
What is the logic behind this multifront escalation by Iran? Here’s Salami again:
In what arena [will the fighting take place]? In the arena where society, politics, and militarism completely overlap. The moment ground operations begin, great waves of emigrating [Israeli] civilians and soldiers will intermingle, and the balance of the Zionists’ military command and control system will be thrown off. Do not look at the current situation [in August 2022], which is not under war conditions and in which this regime’s airplanes fly as usual, transportation is stable, power stations and refineries operate, administrative order prevails, and the regime is able to manage its environment calmly and with no pressure. Under conditions of war, all this order will fall apart, because [Israel’s] territory is small and densely populated. And who [lives in Israel]? People who came to this territory for prosperity and a comfortable life. In such a scenario [of war], the Zionist regime will face waves of out-of-control fires and the movement of jihadis whom nothing can stop. Then you will see what will happen.
This was the picture painted just over a year ago by the IRGC leader. Why did he believe that now could be a propitious moment for an escalation leading to all-out war? A number of critical factors: Abbas’s advanced age—he’ll turn 88 in November—and the inevitable vacuum his death will occasion; the ongoing internal political strife over Israeli government judicial reforms and the unprecedented threats from reservists not to fight as a result; the sense of U.S. disengagement underpinned by repeated emphasis on a rebalancing to Asia and the Russia-Ukraine war; a belief at the highest levels in Tehran that the United States will not back Israel in a conflict; an easing of the threats that have preoccupied both Iran and Hezbollah in Syria; and finally, Iran’s growing belief that as it asymptotically approaches nuclear weapons state status, it is becoming immune to Israeli retaliation, no matter how provocative its actions in the region.
Iran envisions a future of multifront, city-to-city fighting of the kind Israel has not seen since 1948. From Jerusalem, that plan may have looked like a fantasy in the face of a vastly superior Israeli force. And the fact that Salami seems incapable of operational security—laying out his vision for Israel’s defeat in explicit terms—should have meant that the country was well prepared for something like this weekend’s attack.
In the event, it was not.
Danielle Pletka, a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.