This past weekend Middle East watchers almost certainly expressed gratitude for a respite from the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas. For many the recent fighting probably appeared to be another predictable moment in the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. While the casual observer shouldn't be faulted for this interpretation, they would be wrong. While the contours of this recent flare-up resemble past conflicts, the recent outburst was different both in terms of the strategic environment in which it occurred, and the tactical capabilities demonstrated by Hamas. Both of these realities are connected directly to Iran's regional ambitions.
These ambitions are reflected in Iran's assistance of Hamas's continuing and consistent efforts to develop its offensive military capacity, and in the trend of regional power players attempting to woo the Gaza based militant organization. This latter reality is demonstrated not just by Iran's ongoing relationship with the group, but by the growing diplomatic support that Hamas has received from the likes of Qatar and the newly elected Islamist government in Egypt.
On the military side of the equation, the range of Israeli territory Hamas is capable of striking has expanded dramatically. As most observers of Middle Eastern affairs know, Israel has also come under regular, and occasionally intense, rocket fire from Gaza since at least 2001. During 2012 alone over 1,600 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel proper. This is the highest total number of rockets directed at Israel by Hamas since 2008. The vast majority of these rockets are domestically produced and designed by Hamas in Gaza. While the bulk of Hamas' arsenal has a relatively modest range, these imprecise projectiles have proven deadly on multiple occasions. They are also extremely effective at terrifying Israeli's living within roughly 12 miles of Gaza.
What was different about this most recent round of fighting, and this is where Tehran's pernicious influence is felt most acutely, is that Hamas was able to greatly expand the Israeli territory that it is capable of striking. This expanded ability to strike was the result of a single weapon, the Iranian designed Fajr-5. These missiles are far more advanced than other rockets in the Hamas arsenal, and are capable of reaching Israel's most important population centers approximately 50 miles from Gaza. This new capability is one that Hamas made sure to exercise, firing missiles at both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv during the most recent round of fighting.
While the Iranian regime's support for Bashar Assad in Syria had seemingly driven a wedge between Tehran and Gaza, the military connection between the two has seemingly suffered little. In fact, a sort of rapprochement seems to be in the offing between the most important nodes in the so-called "resistance block." On November 20 the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Mohammad Jafari went so far as to claim credit for having supplied the military know-how for the Fajr 5 to Hamas, a claim that was substantiated by a Hamas spokesperson. The Israel Defense Forces has gone even further, claiming that the Iranian regime has actively smuggled the weapons to Gaza, efforts that have been tracked successfully by the IDF. This is just the most recent episode in a long history of Iranian support for the most radical and rejectionist elements of Palestinian society. This Iranian "support" for Palestinian "resistance" has long taken the form of smuggled weapons, financial support for radical organizations like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and diplomatic, military, and political support for political movements and governments throughout the region that reject Israel's right to exist. Needless to say, this is an approach that undermines the prospects for peace, and should inform the international community's understanding of the threat that Iran, from its support for terrorism around the world, to its human rights record and its nuclear program, poses to international peace and stability.