Passover Tensions Portend Widening of Iran’s ‘Shadow War’ with Israel

By: David Parsons, ICEJ Vice President & Senior Spokesman

Riot passover israel 2023 ICEJ

Photo credits: AFP

Muslim incitement over the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem led to a spike in violence during Passover this past week, with three Israelis and an Italian tourist killed in Palestinian terror attacks, while rocket barrages were fired at Israel from multiple directions, including Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. The escalation came as Israelis were taking a brief holiday respite from the heated domestic debate over judicial reforms, leaving many Israelis concerned that the internal bickering has left the nation looking vulnerable in the eyes of its adversaries, particularly Iran. While the rocket and terror attacks at Passover followed an old pattern from recent years, they also delivered a fresh warning that Iran’s ‘shadow war’ with Israel could easily slip into open conflict.

There were several factors behind the recent tensions in Israel, some familiar and some new.

First, the convergence of Passover and Ramadan this April made it almost inevitable that a confrontation would happen. Both holidays have tended to stir religious passions in recent years, especially as radical Muslim elements have repeatedly used false claims that Jews are endangering al-Aqsa as a pretext for violence. This well-worn canard has been used for over a century now, particularly at Passover, to incite violence against the Jewish people even in pre-state Israel. Recall that the first instance of this occurred at Passover/Easter in 1920, when an Arab mob burst out of the Old City of Jerusalem in a pogrom against Jews sparked by the al-Aqsa lie. It happened again in 1929, leading to the massacre of 69 Jews in Hebron. And in recent years, it has been happening at both the spring and fall Jewish feasts, including the 11-day rocket war and widespread rioting that took place around Shavuot in May 2021.

Secondly, there is little doubt that Israel’s intense national dispute over judicial reforms has made the country look weak and exposed in the eyes of its regional enemies. The new Israeli government, and most notably its ultra-religious elements, also are not so well liked in the liberal West, only adding to the appearance of vulnerability.

Rocket attack in shlomi

Third, there already has been a prolonged spate of Palestinian terror attacks for more than a year now, claiming 33 Israeli lives last year and 19 so far this year. This prompted the IDF to launch Operation “Break the Wave”, an ongoing series of incursions in the West Bank to root out Palestinian terror cells, including new groups of ‘next generation’ terrorists going under the name “Lion’s Den.” Many of these younger cells are not necessarily affiliated with the traditional Palestinian militias of Fatah and Hamas, but it is clear they are being funded and enabled by Iran – which brings us to the real culprit behind the recent surge in rockets and terror.

The final and biggest factor by far in the recent Passover/Ramadan tensions is Iran, which is deliberately seeking multiple ways to threaten and attack Israel through proxy militias that afford them plausible deniability and thereby avoid direct confrontation with the IDF.

For more than a decade now, Israel and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war over Tehran’s renegade nuclear program and its openly stated goal to eliminate Israel from the world map. Israel’s military and intelligence agencies have chalked up an impressive number of victories in this covert war, which dates back to the Stuxnet computer virus that temporarily crippled parts of Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. The ledger also includes successful sabotage attacks on numerous nuclear and missile facilities in Iran, the Mossad’s embarrassing theft of its nuclear archive hidden in a Tehran warehouse, and the targeting of IRGC commanders overseeing the growing network of Iranian proxy militias abroad. With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, and Iran’s intervention to prop up the Assad regime, this shadow war expanded to include hundreds of Israeli air strikes all across Syria to prevent the entrenchment of Iranian military units and weaponry that could be used to directly threaten Israel.

Iranian leaders have been under pressure to even this lopsided score, but have largely failed in numerous attempts to target Israeli diplomats, businessmen and tourists in foreign lands. Yet they have made substantial progress in their long-term strategy to encircle Israel with a ring of loyal proxy militias armed with huge arsenals of rockets and missiles, and the latest versions of its lethal drones. The tentacles of this aggressive Iranian octopus can be found in Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Hizbullah in Lebanon, Iranian-led forces in Syria, various Islamist militias in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen – each reportedly possessing extended-range rockets and drones capable of reaching all corners of Israel.

haniyeh and nasrallah in beirut-twitter

This past week, however, marked the first time that Iran’s subsidiaries launched rockets at Israel from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria over successive days, plus drones from two directions, demonstrating to Israelis they could soon face a dreaded multi-front rocket war. This coordinated message was intentional, given that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met with Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut the day before Hamas militiamen fired 34 rockets at northern Israel from the Lebanese coastal city of Tyre. The Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon were always considered Fatah-land. But now it appears Hizbullah has permitted Hamas to recruit these Palestinians and establish a significant military presence in south Lebanon to threaten Israel from the north, while allowing Nasrallah to deny any responsibility for their actions.

Iran also has launched a surprise diplomatic offensive to repair relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, which threatens to derail the Abraham Accords right when Israel was seeking an historic breakthrough with the Saudis. The radical Shi’ite regime looked on as Israel began building a regional coalition against Iranian dominance over the Middle East, but now Tehran appears to have pulled off a coup by beating Jerusalem to Riyadh.

With the United States pre-occupied with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its intensifying global rivalry with China, Iran senses America is retreating from the Middle East and that Israel can now be isolated in the region. Thus, they tested the waters of Israel’s increasing solitude with the brazen multi-front assault at Passover.

Iran’s blatant escalation of the conflict also quickly stirred waves of anti-Israel incitement worldwide, especially on the web, feeding Tehran’s belief that Israel also can be isolated internationally. Chillingly, chants of “Death to Jews” could be heard echoing off Brandenburg Gate in Berlin this week.

Until now, Iran has been losing its shadow war with Israel. But the ayatollahs are now starting to think they may fare better with open warfare.

For more on this topic, please watch the ICEJ Weekly Webinar for Thursday, 13 April 2023, for a discussion: “Terror and Rockets at Passover”, hosted by ICEJ Vice President & Senior Spokesman David Parsons with our special guest, former IDF Spokesman Lt. Col. (Res.) Jonathan Conricus. 

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