One of the most spectacular and iconic images of the recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict was that of the nightly battle of the skies, featured across the globe on TV and Twitter.
Waves of rockets costing a few hundred dollars each were launched en masse by the Palestinians in an effort to overwhelm Israel’s “Iron Dome” aerial defense system.
That high-tech shield then fired back sophisticated interceptor missiles – costing around US$50,000 each – destroying most of the rockets in mid-air.
Elsewhere, too, the Israeli air force launched a series of unimpeded airstrikes on Gaza – run by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas – using the latest, largely US-supplied weaponry.
The conflict thus seemed to demonstrate the overwhelming technological and military superiority of the Israeli side.
Yet, despite this, “Israel may look back on this recent conflict and wonder if they really want to do this again,” Fabian Hinz, an expert on missile proliferation in the Middle East and consultant to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, told Asia Times.
That caution is partly a result of the impact on this decades-long conflict of one nation in particular: Iran.
“Iran is now very, very important to what’s going on,” Imad Alsoos, a Palestinian expert on Hamas from the Max Plank Institute in Berlin, told Asia Times.
Tehran’s military support has been crucial in Hamas’ development of its rocket forces and its overall military planning.
This is also based on a strategy that Iran has been developing over many decades, as it has sought to counter its own lack of access to sophisticated weaponry by working on domestic rocket and missile programs.
Those rockets have now been modified, Hinz says, with new designs and technologies exported to Gaza to enable the on-site production of domestic versions.
In future, these homemade weapons may also include increasingly sophisticated guided missiles.
“These enable the targeting of specific military facilities, deep in enemy territory,” says Hinz. “You can use these, even if your enemy has vastly superior conventional forces. Their deployment is a really smart strategy.”
Battle of the cities
Iran’s missile program dates back to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
Tehran’s forces had rapidly lost control of the air to better supplied and equipped Iraqi forces, which began bombing Iranian cities.
To counter this – and act as a deterrent to further bombing – Iran fired missiles at Iraqi cities.
“The strategy sort of worked,” says Hinz.
This led to its later adoption by Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which began firing rockets into northern Israel as a deterrent to Israeli airstrikes on its facilities.
This strategy “also sort of worked” says Hinz, and was then accelerated after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.
After that, “Iran made a concerted effort to equip all its allies with rockets and missiles,” Hinz says.
As a result, Hezbollah now has a formidable arsenal – including guided missiles – with the supply of these facilitated by the direct access to Hezbollah Tehran has had since its intervention in Syria in 2011.
“Any war now between Hezbollah and Israel would be a total nightmare for both sides,” says Hinz.
With Hamas, however, it has been a different story.
This group began as part of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, back in the 1980s, when the Palestinian movement was dominated by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its leading faction, Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat.
Yet, while the PLO gradually abandoned the armed struggle against Israel, Hamas continued.
This proved a popular line, as the peace the PLO had secured failed to deliver much improvement in the lives of many Palestinians.
Supportive of the Iranian revolution, despite the fact that most of Hamas’ supporters are Sunni Muslims while Iran is largely Shiite, Hamas developed ties with Tehran.
In return, Iran backed the group financially and militarily, as it gained strength.
“But then,” says Alsoos, “in 2011, with the Syrian revolution, Hamas backed the uprising, while Iran backed the ruler, al-Assad.”
As a result, Tehran cut financial aid to Hamas.
Yet, “It didn’t cut support for the military wing of Hamas, the al-Qassam Brigades,” adds Alsoos.
Around this time, too, Tehran also decided that its allies should be able to build rockets for themselves, rather than rely on shipments smuggled in from Iran.
“Hamas began to build its own rocket capability, under the leadership of the Quds Force,” says Hinz, referring to Iran’s overseas military wing, which is a key branch of the hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
In Gaza, the al-Qassam Brigades began manufacturing their own rockets using a wide variety of sources.
Old underground water pipes were repurposed as launchers and fuselages, while unexploded munitions left behind by the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014 also provided a major source of explosives.
A World War I-era British warship torpedoed off Gaza was also used, with Hamas divers extracting tons of old gun shells from the wreck.
By May 2021, a considerable force had been assembled – as evidenced by the fact that the al-Qassam Brigades fired some 4,300 rockets from Gaza into Israel in the 11 days of recent fighting.
“There were some imported Iranian rockets among them,” says Hinz, “but the huge number of rockets fired shows the result of domestic production.”
With the May 21 ceasefire still holding at time of writing, the rockets are silent, for now.
At the same time, “If there were elections today, Hamas would win in both Gaza and the West Bank,” says Alsoos.
On the military side, too, the conflict has likely strengthened al-Qassam’s prestige.
The group may now also move on to develop more sophisticated, guided missiles, raising its arsenal to the kind of deterrent level now possessed by Hezbollah.
For Iran, meanwhile, “It has been a confirmation of its strategy,” says Hinz, but nonetheless, “Israel is very smart, too,” he adds, “and will likely come up with something different itself. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Indeed, while Palestinians and Israelis pick through the terrible loss and damage of the recent fighting, few believe there is not more conflict to come in this deeply fractured and troubled region.