Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

Israel Raises the Stakes in Its Shadow War Against Iran

 

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has wound down to a lower level of intensity, with the highly successful conclusion of Israeli operations against the Hamas fighters who tried to re-occupy the large al-Shifa hospital complex in Gaza City. During the last two weeks of fighting in and around the hospital, Israeli troops killed 200 Hamas terrorists and identified and captured 513 more, including senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders who had been hiding in the hospital complex.

In addition, at the insistence of the United States, Israel appears to have delayed, at least until May, its long-planned major ground assault in Rafah against Hamas’ last four operational military battalions.

But in the meantime, the Israeli military appears to have expanded the scope and intensity of its operations against Hezbollah and Iran’s IRGC Quds Force in Lebanon and Syria, by targeting their senior military leaders for assassination.

Early last Friday, the Israeli Air Force carried out a devastating air strike east of the international airport of the Syrian city of Aleppo against a Hezbollah headquarters and an Iranian weapons depot used to transfer advanced Iranian arms to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization, The attack killed up to 42 people, including dozens of Syrian soldiers and up to 7 members of Hezbollah; dozens more were wounded.

Also on Friday, Israel acknowledged carrying out a targeted drone strike in southern Lebanon that killed Ali Abdel-Hassan Naim as he was traveling in his vehicle in the vicinity of the city of Tyre. Naim was the deputy head of Hezbollah’s rocket and missile unit, which has been bombarding cities and towns across northern Israel by firing more than 3,500 rockets at them since the Hamas surprise attack on October 7. Naim was also described as one of Hezbollah’s experts in rockets with heavy warheads.

ISRAEL DESTROYS IRAN’S “CONSULATE” IN DAMASCUS

Meanwhile, the most dramatic air strike by Israel in the North so far took place Monday at around 5 p.m., local time, when two Israeli F-35 stealth warplanes entered Syrian airspace from the Golan Heights and fired six missiles that totally destroyed a building next to Iran’s diplomatic embassy in the upscale Damascus neighborhood of Mezzeh. A Reuters report said the building was “flattened,” and news photos of the rubble showed an Iranian flag flying over the adjacent, still intact embassy building.

Iranian sources described the building as an Iranian consulate and the official residence of Iran’s ambassador to Syria and therefore entitled to diplomatic immunity from attack.

But the senior Israeli military spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, told CNN that such immunity did not apply because “this is no consulate and this is no embassy. This is a military building of Quds Forces disguised as a civilian building in Damascus.”

On the same day as the air strike on Damascus, the IDF announced that it had uncovered a plot by a Hezbollah and IRGC agent in Lebanon to smuggle advanced Iranian-made weapons including anti-tank mines, to terrorists in the West Bank.

The attack reportedly targeted a secret meeting between senior leaders of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) Quds Force and their terrorist proxy groups, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to discuss their joint strategy against Israel. Supporters of Iran’s government took to social media to ask how Israel had learned of the secret meeting in order to plan their attack, and they questioned whether Iran’s security apparatus had, once again, been infiltrated by Israeli agents and informants.

ISRAEL KILLS THE IRGC’S TOP GENERAL

The attack on the meeting succeeded in killing three top-ranking Iranian generals, including Brigadier General Mohammad Zahedi, who was Iran’s top commander for covert military operations in Syria and Lebanon.

Zahedi was responsible for Iran’s weapons transfers to Hezbollah. He gave orders to Syria’s Assad regime, which Iran has been supporting militarily in the Syrian civil since 2015 with Hezbollah fighters. He was also believed to be in daily contact with Hezbollah’s leader, Sheil Hassan Nasrallah. Israel’s Army Radio said Zahedi oversaw all Iranian terrorist operations against Israel from Syria, Lebanon “and the Palestinian sphere.”

Zahedi commanded the Quds Force’s Unit 18000, which was responsible for smuggling ammunition and precision weapons into Lebanon for Hezbollah. He had also commanded the IRGC’s Air Force and the Imam Hussein Division.

As a former commander of the IRGC’s terrorist forces, Zahedi was under anti-terrorist sanctions issued in 2010 by the U.S. Treasury Department, as well as Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the European Union. His elimination was the most serious setback to the IRGC’s Quds Force and its international operations since the American air strike ordered by President Donald Trump that killed its former commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, while riding in a car just outside the Baghdad Airport in January 2020. Zahedi was also the most senior Iranian government official to be killed since the death of its leading Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in an assassination in Tehran attributed to Israel four years ago.

The Israeli air strike in Damascus also killed Zahedi’s deputy, General Haji Rahimi, and his chief of staff, General Hossein Aman Allahi, as well as four other IRGC officers.

According to the Syrian state media agency SANA, Syria’s air defense system responded to the attack, but since Israel’s F-35s are among the world’s most stealthy warplanes, it is highly unlikely that they ever showed up on the Syrian radar.

After Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad met with the Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Hossein Akbari, shortly after the attack, and consulted by telephone with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the latter issued a statement blaming the attack on the “Zionist regime” and promising that Iran would respond “at the appropriate time and place.”

The IRGC’s Sabereen News channel issued a statement calling the attack a “dangerous escalation that takes the region to open war.” The statement also called it “an attack on Iranian territory, since the embassy is considered Iran’s territory.”

ATTACK IN DAMASCUS SHAKE’S IRAN’S CONFIDENCE

Peyman Syed Taheri, a conservative analyst close to the Iranian government, said in an interview that the successful Israeli raid had shaken Iran’s confidence in its network of proxy foreign terrorist and militia forces, in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq against Israel. That network was designed to give Iran the ability to strike adversaries such as the U.S. and Israel without engaging their superior conventional military forces in a direct conflict.

Taheri said, “Our national security has been violated [by Israel’s Damascus raid]. Either Iran must respond so Israel doesn’t attack us in Tehran or if it doesn’t want to respond, then it has to rethink and moderate its regional policies and military presence.”

As is its usual practice, the Israeli government did not confirm or deny its responsibility for the air strike that killed the three IRGC generals in Damascus, or the earlier attack on Aleppo. However, on February 4, IDF spokesman Hagari said that the Israeli Air Force has attacked more than 50 targets belonging to Hezbollah and other Iran-backed terrorist groups in Syria since the October 7 attack by Hamas.

ISRAEL IS STARTING TO PURSUE HEZBOLLAH

In the same vein, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced last Friday, “Today, I visited Northern Command to closely examine another successful strike against a Hezbollah commander [Naim]. The results from Northern Command are highly impressive, and the operation is being conducted at a very high level.”

The defense minister also said, “We are transitioning from a defensive stance to actively pursuing Hezbollah.”

“Wherever Hezbollah is, whether it’s in Beirut, Baalbak, Tyre, Sidon, Nabatieh or beyond, including Damascus, [Syria], wherever we need to act, we will,” Gallant said, Israel’s i24 international cable news channel reported.

Gallant attributed the severe war damage in Lebanon since October 7 to Israeli retaliation for Hezbollah attacks, and assigned the personal responsibility for that to Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Nasrallah. “They have over 320 terrorists killed, and they will pay dearly for any [further] attack [on Israel] coming from Lebanon,” he added.

Israeli General Ori Gordin, the head of the Israeli army’s Northern Command, confirmed Gallant’s comments by saying, “We continue to strike against Hezbollah, [and are] determined to push it back [from the Israeli border] and destroy its infrastructure.”

Gallant had just returned from a visit to Washington, D.C. last week, where he consulted with senior Pentagon and Biden White House officials over Israel’s plans for the next stage of the war in Gaza, including plans for its final assault against Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. They also discussed Israel’s plans to step up the pressure on Hezbollah to withdraw from Lebanon’s border with Israel and to halt its periodic missile attacks which have forced more than 90,000 civilians from Israeli towns and cities along the Lebanese border.

MAKING THE NORTH SAFE FOR THE RETURN OF ISRAELI CIVILIANS

Gallant said he told senior American officials of Israel’s determination to restore security to the North so that those civilians can safely return to their homes, even if that means fighting another war with Hezbollah in order to do so. “We will increase the pace and expand the scope [of Israel’s military] operations [in the North]. That’s what I conveyed this week in Washington to Secretary of Defense Austin, to Special Envoy Amos Hochstein, and other [members of the Biden administration].”

Following the attack on October 7, Israel and the United States had hoped to use incremental military and diplomatic pressure to convince Hezbollah to voluntarily pull its forces back from the Israeli border and halt its deadly missile attacks on northern Israel which killed a total of 10 Israeli soldiers and several civilians. But after six months of nearly daily skirmishes along the northern border, that effort has clearly failed, leaving Israeli leaders no choice but to prepare to launch a full-scale war to defeat Hezbollah, so that the Israeli civilians who have fled can safely return to their homes and communities and resume their normal daily lives in the North.

The Israeli government anticipates that such a war will result in a daily barrage of up to 5,000 rockets and missiles from Hezbollah’s estimated arsenal of 200,000 rockets. Most of those rockets will target the Haifa area and all of northern Israel, in an effort to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome and its other missile defense systems. Israel also expects a bombardment by smaller numbers of Hezbollah’s longer-range rockets to be aimed at all major Israeli cities as far south as Be’er Sheva. To minimize the damage from the expected Hezbollah bombardment, Israel has prepared plans to achieve a decisive military victory on the ground in Lebanon as quickly as possible, once the full-scale fighting begins.

PREPARATIONS BASED ON LESSONS FROM THE 2006 WAR IN LEBANON

Since October 7, Israel has spent over $500 million to stockpile emergency supplies of fuel, food, and medical supplies. Israel has also taken measures to fortify its electrical grid against rocket damage, to minimize power outages.

These preparations were made in anticipation of a repeat of the 34-day war that Hezbollah initiated with a cross-border attack into northern Israel on July 12, 2006, to kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as hostages for a prisoner swap. Hezbollah then launched more than 100 rockets a day at Israeli cities across the north, including Haifa, Hadera, Teveria, Naharia, Tzfas, Afula, and Kiryat Shemona, forcing more than one million Israeli civilians to abandon their homes either to flee to the south or seek safety in local bomb shelters.

U.S. SENDING ANOTHER ARMS PACKAGE TO ISRAEL

It was also not a coincidence that during Gallant’s visit to Washington, the Biden administration announced its latest shipment of large quantities of sophisticated weapons that Israel has asked for to complete its military operations in Gaza and to launch a new military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The new American arms package for Israel includes more than 1,800 MK84 2,000-pound bombs and 500 MK82 500-pound bombs, as well as authorization by the State Department of the transfer to the Israeli Air Force another 25 F-35A stealth attack jets, giving Israel a total of 75 of the most advanced warplanes in the American arsenal.

In addition to the bombs, the U.S. is providing Israel with conversion kits consisting of an electronic guidance system fitted to the bomb’s nose and attachable, movable tail fins to turn each bomb into a steerable smart weapon which can be guided to its target after it is dropped from an Israeli plane. This makes the bombs much more accurate, minimizing the number of civilian deaths and other unintended collateral damage on the ground.

The shipment is separate from the Biden administration’s request that Congress approve another $14 billion in military aid for Israel. That money is mostly intended to provide Israel with replacement Iron Dome interceptor missiles that it has used since October 7 and to restock inventories of weapons the U.S. had stored in Israel which Israel had drawn down since the war in Gaza started. Congress has not yet approved that request, because the Biden administration attached it to a request for another $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine, and more money for the processing of illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. under Biden’s open border policy with Mexico.

NO CONGRESSIONAL STRINGS ATTACHED

According to the Pentagon, the Biden administration does not need separate congressional approval to send Israel this latest package of American weapons since it is covered under a 10-year U.S. agreement approved by Congress at the end of the Obama administration to provide Israel with more than $3 billion a year worth of U.S. military aid. This has frustrated efforts by pro-Palestinian progressives in the House and Senate, such as Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders, and Maryland’s Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen, to attach new conditions to the U.S.-made weapons restricting Israel’s ability to continue to use them as it sees fit against Hamas in Gaza if that would mean additional Palestinian civilian casualties.

Israel has already given the Biden administration the legally required guarantees that it has been using the American-made weapons in its arsenal in Gaza in accordance with the internationally recognized rules of warfare. Israeli officials insist that their military campaign has taken every precaution to minimize the number of unintended civilian casualties in Gaza, which are primarily the fault of Hamas for deliberately using the civilian population as human shields.

Biden administration officials say that it has been routine practice for the U.S. to send the arms approved under the long-term agreement as Israel requests them, for use as needed for its security, such as during the current war in Gaza. “We have continued to support Israel’s right to defend itself,” in the wake of the Hamas attack on October 7, a White House official told the Washington Post. “Conditioning aid has not been our policy.”

“Israel is in an armed conflict and is expending a great deal of defense materiel and some of that needs to be replenished for Israel’s long-term security,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller further explained to reporters last week.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also told reporters that Israeli officials, such as Defense Minister Gallant, have been asking for the American weapons they consider to be important “in pretty much every meeting” he has been in with them, but Israel has “not received everything they’ve asked for,” he added, without identifying the weapons he was talking about.

ISRAEL COOPERATING WITH THE U.S. BY DELAYING RAFAH ATTACK

Biden officials also say that Israeli military planners continue to consult with their American counterparts in their preparations to carry out the eventual assault on Hamas forces in Rafah while reducing the number of unintended casualties among the estimated 1.4 million displaced Gaza Palestinians seeking shelter in the Rafah area to a minimum.

Biden administration sources have told the Washington Post that the arms package is being sent now because the Israeli government has quietly agreed to U.S. demands that it delay the start of the final assault on Hamas’ last four combat brigades in the southern Gaza city of Rafah until May, in part because Israel’s current combat operations in Khan Younis and the recently completed mopping-up operation at the al-Shifa hospital complex have taken longer than expected.

Even though Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu canceled a visit by Israeli security officials to Washington that President Biden had requested to discuss the Israeli attack plan for Rafah, after the U.S. refused to veto a Gaza cease-fire resolution in the U.N. Security Council, that consultation took place anyway last week via video conference between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the U.S. side, and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, along with National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi, on the Israeli side.

One of the ideas that is being discussed by U.S. and Israeli officials to solve the problem of replacing the Hamas police force which had been enforcing law and order in Gaza before October 7, is the proposed formation of an international police force composed of troops from three so-far unnamed Arab countries which are unaffiliated with Hamas. Their mission would be to restore law and order in northern Gaza, which has been largely taken over by criminal gangs, and to supervise the proper distribution of the humanitarian aid entering Gaza to the civilian population for which it is intended, and to prevent its diversion to Hamas or local criminal elements.

THE WAR IN GAZA IS WINDING DOWN

Israeli military spokesman also confirmed that their success in dismantling 20 out of the 24 original Hamas battalions in Gaza has enabled them to reduce the current scale of the fighting. The Israeli units in combat in Gaza have gone down from five divisions to two divisions, and almost all of the reserve soldiers who were called up immediately after the October 7 attack have been sent home. The number of Israeli soldiers killed in combat in Gaza has also been reduced drastically, from more than 100 in December to about a dozen in March.

Similarly, the daily barrages of Hamas rocket fire launched at towns and cities across southern Israel, totaling more than 13,000 missiles, which marked the first months of the war, has now slowed to a trickle, as Hamas’ original hidden weapons stockpiles have been expended, and the homemade rocket factories making replacements have been discovered and dismantled by the IDF.

The remaining Hamas fighters in Gaza outside of Rafah have been reduced primarily to conducting guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks with two-to-four-man units, or with a lone sniper shooting from cover, or a terrorist carrying a shoulder-fired RPG.

After six months of fighting, while Israel does not yet have complete control over all of Gaza, Israeli forces are now in place across its entire perimeter and along a newly constructed corridor that stretches across Gaza dividing the north from the south. Patrolling Israeli aircraft and drones maintain a constant watch over the entire area, and can be called in at a moment’s notice to attack any target that appears.

According to Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs who is currently at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, “We are now in the third phase of the war,” in which the IDF is carrying out more precise raids aimed at targets where its intelligence officers say Hamas is regrouping, such as the al-Shifa medical complex in Gaza City. The total number of Hamas casualties since Israel invaded Gaza after October 7 is difficult to pin down. In addition to the latest official Israeli estimate of up to 13,000, an unknown number of dead Hamas fighters are buried under the rubble or in collapsed tunnels, and thousands more have disappeared by simply melting into the civilian population.

THE END OF ISRAEL’S SHADOW WAR AGAINST IRAN

For decades, Israel and Iran have been fighting what has been called a shadow war. Iran has used its terrorist proxy forces around the world to attack Israeli and Jewish targets around the world. Israel has launched various attacks to sabotage or otherwise slow down Iran’s nuclear weapons program and assassinate Iranian military leaders and nuclear scientists. Since Iran intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, whose aim has been to prevent Iran’s transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, or the establishment of permanent military bases for Iranian-backed militias in Syrian territory that would threaten Israel’s northern border. Israel also attacked the airports in Damascus and Aleppo to shut them down when it received word that an air shipment of advanced weapons for Hezbollah from Iran was being planned.

Now that shadow war is increasingly being fought out in the open, Hezbollah has gradually stepped up its deadly guided missile fire at targets on the Israeli side of Lebanon’s border in support of Hamas since it attacked Israel from Gaza on October 7.

Following the clear escalation of the fighting by the Israeli air strike on the Iranian compound in Damascus, Ali Vaez, the Iran director for the International Crisis Group, said, “We’re in new territory. Israel and Iran have always been engaged in a shadow war, but this is no longer a shadow war. This is coming out in the open.”

Iran’s proxy terrorist network quickly expanded Israel’s war against Hamas into a regional conflict. Hezbollah used the Gaza war as an excuse to launch almost daily missile attacks against northern Israel. The Iranian-supported Iraqi militia attacked the remaining U.S. military forces in Iraq and Syria, while Yemen’s Houthi rebels used their Iranian-supplied missiles to launch long-range missile attacks on the Israeli Red Sea port city of Eilat and to attack cargo ships sailing in international waters seeking to use the Suez Canal, disrupting global trade routes.

ISRAEL SENDING IRAN’S LEADERS A CLEAR MESSAGE

But Israel’s air strike on the Iranian facility next to its embassy in Damascus sent Iran’s leaders a clear message that they could no longer hide behind their proxy network to avoid direct responsibility for those attacks. A Wall Street Journal editorial called it “the first real price. . . for its proxy warfare in the Middle East. . . [by killing] the leading Iranians sowing chaos in the region.”

In a separate interview, Vaez said that, “targeting a diplomatic facility is akin to targeting Iran on its own soil.” Failure to retaliate against Israel would undermine Iran’s military presence in Syria, the analyst said, but “if they do respond they would fall into the trap that they think Israel has laid for them to get into a direct war,” which would be disastrous for Hezbollah’s political influence in Lebanon.

When asked by reporters whether Israel was behind the air strike on Damascus that killed the three Iranian generals, all IDF spokesman Hagari would say was, “We are focused on the war goals and we will continue to do anything that contributes to achieving those goals.”

But Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that the Damascus attack, “is Israel telling the Iranians: Your forward-defense strategy isn’t going to work anymore. Israel is saying to them, we are in a new realm and we are going to hit you wherever and whenever we can.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial contrasted the Israeli strike on Damascus “to the U.S. response after Iranian proxies killed three Americans [at a base in Jordan] near the Syrian border in January. The Biden administration leaked news of its retaliation in advance, giving Iranian commanders in Syria ample time to flee.” But Israel struck at the meeting between the terrorists and the IRGC generals in Damascus without warning.

Iranian officials feigned outrage at the strike, but they can’t say that they didn’t ask for such an escalation, or that Israel hadn’t warned them. Last December, another senior IRGC officer General Razi Mousavi was killed in an Israeli air strike in Damascus. That attack also drew Iranian threats of retaliation against Israel, but that didn’t happen. The night before the Israeli attack on Damascus last week, an Iranian drone fired by one of its proxy militias in Iraq hit and damaged a hangar at an Israeli naval base in Eilat.

HOW WILL IRAN RESPOND?

Now the question is whether Iran is willing to risk losing its most powerful proxy force by ordering Hezbollah to risk starting an all-out war with Israel by launching its deadly arsenal of 200,000 rockets at Israel’s cities.

Hashem Yerachem.

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