Flare-ups in Israel's north and south: An Iranian butterfly effect?

Experts debate whether Saturday's violence in Gaza is directly related to last week's exchange with Iranian forces in Syria.

An Israeli tank manoeuvres along the border fence with the southern Gaza Strip, as watch-towers are seen on the Palestinian side near Kibbutz Nirim, Israel February 17, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An Israeli tank manoeuvres along the border fence with the southern Gaza Strip, as watch-towers are seen on the Palestinian side near Kibbutz Nirim, Israel February 17, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Connecting the dots between Saturday's conflagration with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and last weekend's flare-up along the northern border with Syria has many analysts drawing a direct line to Tehran.
The latest exchange began when an explosive device injured four Israeli soldiers—two seriously—who were investigating a suspicious flag along the border fence with the Palestinian enclave. That the bomb was attached to the object and remotely detonated only once the patrol neared confirms that it was a deliberate act aimed at causing mass casualties.
“This was a severe terrorist attack that has the potential to destabilize the region,” IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis affirmed, and, indeed, the incident prompted the most intense Israeli military response in Gaza since the 2014 war.
The IDF retaliated by striking a total of eighteen Hamas targets, including outposts, weapons manufacturing facilities and a subterranean tunnel intended to penetrate Israeli territory. A rocket fired overnight from the Strip into Israel hit a house in a southern community, causing limited damage and no injuries.
The conflagration comes exactly one week after a major altercation provoked by the penetration of Israeli airspace by an Iranian drone. In response, the IDF struck a dozen targets in Syria, destroying up to half of the country's air defense systems after an Israeli jet was downed by a barrage of surface-to-air missiles for the first time in three decades.
As the dust settles along the Syrian border, media reports claim that Hamas has conveyed to Israel through Egyptian intermediaries that it is not interested in a further escalation. But the terror group has become increasingly beholden to Iran, which has upped its financing to Gaza's rulers to shore up its influence over the territory.
Observers agree it is possible that Hamas, at the behest of the Islamic Republic, simply turned a blind eye to Saturday's attack.
Moreover, while the Israeli government holds Hamas responsible for all hostilities emanating from the enclave, it is notable that the first target struck by the IDF after its soldiers were injured was an observation tower belonging to Iranian proxy Islamic Jihad.
In his comments, Manelis implied that the otherwise localized confrontation could have broader regional implications, which itself suggests that the army views growing tensions along Israel's northern and southern borders as connected.
The common denominator: Iran.
"I would not rule out that this is attack occurred under Iranian guidance," Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the former head of the IDF's Strategic Planning Division, told The Media Line. "It is not that groups in Gaza need the motivation, but there has not been an occurrence like this in a long time so it seems that there was some kind of Iranian hand [operating] behind the scene."
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday attributed the attack to the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a coalition of Palestinian terror groups that has ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hizbullah. As such, Herzog believes that there is likely a linkage between the two violent outbreaks over the past week.
"Since there is a lot of tension in the north, Israel does not seek to intensify things in the south, but it may be an Iranian interest to do so," he explained. "The Iranians would like to establish a new deterrence balance as they are uneasy about the way that Israel has been acting freely in the Syrian theater. They are sending a message that there is a price to pay and also showing Israel that they have tools at their disposal."
Jerusalem may, in fact, perceive developments in this light, given Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's statements Sunday from the Munich Security Conference. "Do not test our resolve," the premier asserted while holding up a fragment of the Iranian drone that Israel shot down. He further promised to prevent the "tyrants in Tehran [from]…putting a noose of terror around [Israel's] neck."
According to Col. (ret.) Kobi Marom, an expert on Hamas and Hizbullah, "the incident in the north was significant as for the first time there was a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran and the damage that the Iranians suffered prompted them to lash out. The Iranian regime wants to dramatically increase its influence all around Israel," he stressed to The Media Line, "not only in Syria and Lebanon but also in Gaza. That is their objective, to create a multi-front threat to Israel."
For her part, Col. (res.) Miri Eisin, a former adviser to the prime minister, believes that the clash with Gaza is mainly attributable to internal circumstances. "While there will always be a connection to the broader context," she told The Media Line, "the latest outbreak in the south has more to do with the domestic Palestinian front. The attack Saturday was a manifestation of the demonstrations along the border a day earlier, which were initially directed against Hamas, but then adeptly re-directed towards Israel, the really bad guy."
Eisen noted that tensions with Gaza have been brewing for months, given the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip; Israel's growing success in targeting Hamas' attack tunnels; and the terror group's deepening frustration over its inability to forge reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority in order to cede administrative control of the enclave.
"Hamas tries to attack Israel all the time," she concluded, "but most often it does not succeed. This time it did and coming on the backdrop of the downing of an Israeli jet there is a [propensity] to draw quick conclusions. Events in the Middle East impact each other but the challenges in the Strip have always been there and aren't going anywhere, irrespective of the Iranians."
As regards Israel's defense minister, he vowed to "eliminate" those responsible for the attack on the IDF soldiers, adding that the score would remain unsettled until this eventuality. But it is one thing to terminate the PRC cell that directly perpetrated the bombing, while a response of an altogether different magnitude would be required if Jerusalem indeed intends to hold the Iranian regime accountable.