Iran has reportedly been rallying militant groups in allied countries and regions to launch attacks against Israel, and coordinated recent Hamas rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and from areas controlled by Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, earlier this month.
According to a Friday report in The Wall Street Journal, Iranian General Esmail Ghaani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, held a series of covert meetings with militant groups in the Middle East in recent weeks, including some operating in Syria and Iraq, to discuss attacks on Israel on multiple fronts and with renewed determination, supported by Iran. The IRGC, including the Quds Force, is a US-designated terrorist organization.
Last week, Ghaani was in Beirut to meet with senior leaders of Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as Hezbollah, at the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing “people familiar with the discussions.”
Soon after, a barrage of 34 rockets was fired from southern Lebanon into northern Israel, with 25 intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system. At least three people were injured and several buildings were damaged. The salvo last Thursday was the largest number of rockets fired from Lebanon since the 2006 war, during which thousands of rockets were launched at Israel.
Volleys of rockets were also launched from the Gaza Strip that same day.
Israel responded with airstrikes in Gaza and artillery fire into Lebanon, and pointed the finger at Hamas in southern Lebanon, where the group has a strong presence in Palestinian refugee camps. By targeting “terrorist infrastructures belonging to Hamas” in Lebanon, Israel was hoping to avoid a wider conflagration with Hezbollah, which had signaled to Israel that it wasn’t involved. Security analysts agree it is unlikely Hamas would attack without at least the tacit approval of the Iran-backed terror group.
The Journal reported that the details of these attacks on Israel were finalized with Ghaani during meetings in Beirut last week with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, his deputy Saleh al-Arouri, and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah who on Friday mocked Israeli counterstrikes in southern Lebanon last week.
Speaking at a ceremony in Beirut marking “Quds Day,” or Jerusalem Day — an annual show of support for the Palestinians held on the last Friday of every Islamic holy month of Ramadan — Nasrallah called Israeli statements regarding retaliatory strikes “a barefaced lie” and that “no Hezbollah or Hamas infrastructure was struck.”
Rockets from Syria into the Golan Heights followed the missiles from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip on Saturday morning last week, to which Israel also responded with an airstrike on a military compound belonging to the Syrian army’s 4th Division, led by Maher Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as a radar and artillery posts used by the army. Israel also carried out a drone strike against the launchers used to fire the rockets into Israel.
The Journal said Ghaani’s efforts “to unite Tehran’s allies is a sharp escalation” in the clandestine war between Iran and Israel, whose prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons at all costs. Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel could use military force to achieve this goal and has been vehemently opposed to the 2015 nuclear agreement and any attempts to revive it.
In recent years, Israel has also acted to counter Iran’s entrenchment on its northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, and has conducted multiple airstrikes to prevent Iran from transferring advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah and other groups via Syria.
Strikes late last month attributed to Israel in Syria killed at least two IRGC military advisers.
As a general rule, Israel’s military does not comment on specific strikes in Syria, but it has acknowledged conducting hundreds of sorties against Iran-backed groups attempting to gain a foothold in the country over the last decade. Additionally, airstrikes attributed to Israel have repeatedly targeted Syrian air defense systems.
According to the Journal report, in late March, Ghaani held meetings in Syria with Palestinian terror group leaders “to discuss a possible coordinated attack on Israel,” and told them Iran had acquired information about alleged Israeli plans to act against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Syria and Lebanon.
The Iranian general urged them to “take action quickly” and promised that Iran “would provide the necessary tools to carry out attacks to deter Israel from making its own strikes,” according to the people familiar with these meetings.
Ghaani said “it was important to attack Israeli targets within days in response to Israeli strikes that had killed Iranian advisers in Syria.”
Four days before rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel, Ghaani was in Beirut for meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah to plan the attack, the report said.
Ghaani replaced Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed three years ago in a US missile attack in Baghdad, an operation Israel reportedly helped with.
Iran has vowed to avenge his death. Soleimani, as Quds Force commander, was credited with helping to arm, train, and lead armed groups across the region, including the Shiite militias in Iraq, fighters in Syria and Yemen, Hezbollah, and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The US held him responsible for the deaths of many of its soldiers in Iraq.
Ghaani, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and a commander who played a key role in recruiting Shiite militias to bolster Assad’s forces in Syria, plays a “quieter, less visible” role than Soleimani but his strategy, as reported by the Journal, also marks “a growing threat to Israel — and a challenge for the US at a time when other powers such as China and Russia are attempting to play larger roles in the Middle East.”
China recently brokered a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to renew ties after a seven-year split, a sign of Beijing’s growing pull.
Riyadh would have been a major addition to the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords that normalized ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain — a close Saudi ally — and Morocco.
The Journal report said a key Tehran objective in the region was to prevent a rapprochement between Israel and neighboring Arab-majority countries.