The military forces involved in the Gaza conflict: the cases of Egypt, Iran and IS

The conflict in Gaza cannot be seen uniquely as an Israeli-Palestinian issue, detached from other neighbouring dynamics and interests. On the contrary, the Gaza Strip is an unstable region since it has also been deeply marked by recent and ongoing crisis; among these, we have to bear in mind the current civil war in Syria, the terrorist activity of the ISIS and the long and suffered transition of the “Arab spring” in Egypt.

Hence, Gaza has become the battlefield of different forces and powers that intervene directly or indirectly to pursue their military, defensive and political objectives.

This territory, that shares its borders with Israel and Egypt, is controlled by Hamas since 2007, date in which, once having gained the Palestinian elections after the battle of Gaza, it ousted the Palestinian National Liberation Movement “Al-Fatah“. This victory led both Egypt and Israel to contrast Hamas, that was supposed to be the cause of frequent Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli cities, through the sealing of their boarders and of an embargo of food and goods supplies to Gaza. The blockade was also characterised by the EU and the US’ decision to put an end to the financial aids for the region.

Since then, the territory’s borders have been monitored by the Egyptian and the Israeli forces; notwithstanding the multiple efforts since 2007- 2008 and again in 2012 to create a government of unity between Hamas and Al-Fatah; the former has maintained its control over the Gaza Strip whereas the Palestinian government on West Bank.

Recently and more precisely last 8th July 2014 the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched the “Protective Edge” operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip after having accused the organization for being convicted of kidnapping and of the following murder of three young Israeli guys in the southern part of West Bank. After subsequent air and land attacks, a ceasefire between the forces was arranged in late August but, since then, a proper and long-lasting measure of military truce between Israel and Hamas has not been achieved. Hence, in Gaza, Hamas continues to represent a source of instability and a threat for several countries while, for others, it still represents a valid ally to contrast territorial enemies. In fact, Hamas’ Islamic and nationalist ideology has perpetuated the rivalry with its historical adversary, Israel, but it has also increased the apprehension, capturing the attention of other neighbouring countries. Therefore, its control over Gaza has indirectly led to hostilities or cooperative relations with three main actors, namely Egypt, Iran and the IS.

So, how and why these new players support or act against Hamas in Gaza?

As long as Egypt is concerned, with the military coup d’état of July 2013 led by Al-Sisi against the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi the movement of the “Muslim Brothers” was banned as it happened during the Nasserian period and all its activities were declared illegal. With the new President and General of the National Army, Al-Sisi, Egypt has destroyed more than 1000 tunnels that represent the only external passage for the Gazan population that still lives under the effective occupation and the embargo of Israel. This is because Hamas is considered an operative branch of the Muslim Brothers that fight against Israel, whose presence in Palestine is considered illegitimate. Mainly, Egypt accuses Hamas for cooperating with the jihadists of Sinai that are responsible of several terrorist attacks that during the last years have caused the death of many civilians and soldiers. Therefore, in order to contain the menace, Egypt has created a buffer zone in the border with the Gaza Strip, along which Egyptian guards are deployed to stem terrorism, arms smuggling, and other illegal cross-border activities. Last 28th February, Egypt has publicly categorized and unregistered Hamas within the list of terrorist organizations giving birth to the first case in which an Arab state accuses another Arab country of terrorism. After having moved on Obama’s side against the war on terror, attacking the Islamists of Sinai and those operating in Libya, Al-Sisi obtained the support of the Western countries culminated with the end of the embargo and the restart of the financial and military aid program from Western countries and the US towards Egypt that had been suspended after the coup d’état of 2013.

The ongoing conflict in Gaza has had one more outcome: Iran and Hamas are together on the same side. When the latest battle between Hamas and Israel flared up in early July, for Iran it was the opportunity to improve its standing role in the entire Islamic world, which had suffered during the Syrian civil war. In fact, when the Arab Spring spread in Syria in 2011, the long-standing alliance between Iran and Hamas deteriorated significantly once the militant group opted to support the Sunni rebels against Syria’s Bashar Assad and decided to move its base from Syria to Qatar, a regional rival of Iran. In response, Iran ousted Hamas from the “Axis of Resistance” that includes Syria and Hezbollah, doing so, putting an end to its support in all fields and leaving it without a vital lifeline. Hence, after the Gaza conflict of July 2014, Iran has changed again its attitude towards Hamas: seeking to reconfirm itself as one of the proudest supporters of the Palestinian militant groups, opposing Israel and seeking to reach a reconciliation with Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East, Iranian officials have publicly assured their support to Hamas over its latest conflict with Israel. The first sign of this new attitude emerged on 29th July, when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, applauded in a speech the resistance against Israel calling on the “Muslim Nation” to come together and to be united against Israel for helping Gazans; moreover, he called on the Islamic world to equip Palestinians with arms and weapons.

Contrarily to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic State (IS) has not supported at all Hamas during the conflict occurred in July 2014. This reflects the group’s Salafist beliefs and its focus on the “close enemy” doctrine represented by Shiites and apostates such as Hamas whose interest is not jihad but rather the defense of democracy and its government’s autonomy. During the current war in Gaza, some IS fighters have burned the Palestinian flag considering it a symbol of the Islamic world’s moral and religious decline. In fact, according to the Salafist doctrine, the entire Muslim world has to be unified under a single state, an Islamic caliphate, which IS declared last June 2014. Even though the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu affirmed in a speech to the UN General Assembly in late September 2014 that “…ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree”, it is evident that the main difference and dispute between Hamas and the Salafist groups of IS lies in their divergent ideologies and principle. While Hamas is more realistic and pragmatic than the IS jihadists, since it gives priority to political autonomy and to the liberation of the Palestinian land, the latter have religious prerogatives and act for the establishment of a totalitarian Islamic caliphate considering the Israeli issue secondary to this central goal. In conclusion, the IS has never supported the Palestinian militants’ cause and, on the contrary, it has declared its opposition and hostility to Hamas.

As usual, in the history of the world’s regional conflicts, the issue of an occupied territory has become the pretext for multiple forces and powers to intervene giving voice to their interests and pursuing their mere objectives. These players have repeatedly followed strategies of balance of power and bandwagoning, equalizing the odds against more powerful states or aligning themselves with a stronger, adversarial power. However and in the light of global issues and external circumstances conditioning the participants of the Gaza conflict, these alliances and formations are likely to change: for instance, the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the US are creating the premises for better relations between the two countries and, probably, for a shift of the Iranian attitude towards Hamas.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS Guido Carli)

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