Yesterday, there was a flurry of attention when the Guardian reported that a member of Hamas’s Gaza political bureau said the terrorist group would stay out of any conflict between Israel and Iran. Such a stand fit in with the idea that Hamas had completely broken with its former patron and was now more interested in aligning itself with Egypt and bolstering its influence on the West Bank. If true, it would have been good news for Israel, but optimism on this score may have been, at best, premature. A more senior Hamas official is quoted today by an Iranian wire service as saying Hamas would indeed attack Israel in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran.
Ties between Hamas and Iran have become strained, especially after Hamas dropped its support for Tehran ally Bashar Assad in Syria. But it is difficult to imagine the group maintaining a cease-fire in a situation where Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah are both launching missiles at Israel. Though Iran’s financial clout in Gaza has reportedly lessened in recent years, the ayatollahs probably understand the dynamic of Palestinian politics will always force Hamas to resort to violence if given the opportunity.
The Iran-Hamas alliance has always been an awkward fit because of the Shia-Sunni religious differences between them. Unlike Hezbollah, which has always subordinated itself to its religious elders in Iran, Hamas has taken Tehran’s money and arms without pledging allegiance to the ayatollahs. But their Islamist worldview allowed for them to find common ground with Iran in their hatred for the West and Israel. And so long as Egypt was cooperating with Israel in quarantining Gaza, Hamas couldn’t be choosy about its friends. Now that Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood allies are ascendant in Egypt, they are free to pick their own fights and need not take orders from Tehran.
But the idea that the terror group would stand down while the region was aflame runs contrary to everything we know about Hamas. It has built its reputation in Palestinian politics on violence, and for all the talk about transitioning to politics via its alliance with Fatah in the Palestinian Authority, its source of legitimacy remains its willingness to shed Israeli blood. So while Hamas may not be eager to start a fight with Israel it is sure to lose and is not of its own choosing, the humiliation of standing aside while Hezbollah and Iran attack the Jewish state might be more than its leaders can bear.
The question for Israel is not whether Hamas will fire missiles at southern Israel in the event of a strike on Iran but whether the group will hope to get by with just a token gesture rather than putting itself on a full war footing. Either way, Israel’s Defense Ministry is probably not assuming its southern front will be quiet should war break out.