Hamas Is Not Iran's Puppet
Editor’s Note: The popular wisdom that Iran is pulling the strings behind Hamas doesn’t take into account the geography of Gaza argues William O. Beeman.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas is not a proxy war between Israel and Iran. This is a myth that has grown up during the Bush administration, and is now widely promulgated with little or no support.
Iran has, it is true, been sympathetic to the Hamas situation, particularly since the U.S.-endorsed Palestinian elections of 2006, when Hamas won a plurality of votes, allowing it to form a government. Subsequently, the new Palestinian government was rejected by Israel and the United States, and an economic embargo plunged the Palestinians into economic chaos. At that point Iran provided substantial humanitarian aid.
In the present conflict, Iran is also sending two ships to provide humanitarian assistance.
However, American and Israeli analysts would have the world believe that Hamas could not carry out any actions against Israel if they were not directed by Iran. As George Joffee of the Cambridge Centre of International Studies maintained in 2006 in an interview with U.S.-based Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, “The Israeli government has alleged that indirectly through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran is engaged in trying to control the events inside the Occupied Territories and there have been allegations with no proof at all, of involvement in some of the more violent activities there. Those links I suspect are largely Israeli propaganda and don't really carry water.”
The same is true today.
No one promulgating the theory that Hamas’s attacks on Israel are directed by Iran bothers to think much about geography. Hamas has been effectively sealed off from the world by Israel, and by Egypt. The Israelis have essentially controlled the import of food and medical supplies. The idea of Iran shipping arms to Hamas under these conditions is patently absurd. The rockets launched against Israel that started the current conflict were clearly homemade, low-level weapons, not sophisticated arms.
A parallel claim is that Iranians are providing training to Hamas. Given the rhetoric, one would imagine that this is being done on a massive scale. However, on March 9, 2008 the Times of London reported that 150 Hamas fighters were being trained in Tehran. Hamas itself claims to have 15,000 fighters, and Israel has millions of potential fighters at its command. Thus training for a team of 150, if the facts are correct, is hardly much of a threat to Israel.
Hezbollah in Lebanon is sometimes cited as an Iranian cat’s-paw in the region, but Hezbollah has no geographical access to Gaza. Therefore they are limited to leading protests in Lebanon. Timur Goksel, former adviser to U.N. Peacekeepers in Lebanon, told Reuters News Agency on Dec. 30, “With all their rhetoric about Palestine, there is not much [Hezbollah] can do about Gaza, short of getting Lebanon involved in another disaster. So they are leading the popular reaction.”
Egypt is not a conduit for Iranian arms either. President Hosni Mubarak is caught in a dilemma with regard to Gaza. He receives aid from the United States, and has a long-standing peace treaty with Israel. Moreover, his secular government is desperately afraid of Islamic extremism, which they see as a threat. Because Hamas has a religious base, not a secular one like Fatah, its rival for power in the Palestinian community, they are seen as dangerous. For this reason, Egypt has kept the border crossing to Gaza firmly closed except for humanitarian emergencies.
Why then does the myth of Iranian military support persist? One reason is that it has been a long-standing American foreign policy belief that resistance movements cannot exist without state support. Before Iran was targeted as the source for support, Libya was the U.S. bogeyman. It is instructive to look at rhetoric against Libya from the 1980s and see that exactly the same accusations that were leveled at Libya then are being hurled at Iran today.
Finally, Iran does not help matters. The rhetoric of the original Iranian revolution is still alive and well in some segments of Iranian political life. Iran ousted a Western-supported leader, the Shah, and tried in the early days of the revolution to promulgate this action elsewhere in the Middle East. Hezbollah and Hamas were sympathetic rhetorical partners. Iran supported Hezbollah in its early days, but no longer controls its operations. Iran had nothing to do with the founding of Hamas, but sees its conflict with Israel as sympathetic with its revolutionary ideals. This does not mean that Iran is controlling the action.
The more apoplectic visions of Iranian involvement see Iran developing nuclear weapons and supplying them to both Hezbollah and Hamas. However, not only is there no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program; the simple logistics of transfer of such weapons to a place like Gaza are virtually impossible.
For Israel, and the world, blaming Iran for its troubles with Hamas does not advance the peace process. Nor would attacking Iran mitigate in any way the tensions that exist between Israel and its neighbors.