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Drones and threats: Israel and its enemies

August 26, 2019

Israel is at the center of heated diplomatic rhetoric surrounding recent military operations in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. Iran's expanding influence, Israel's response to it and the war in Syria have heightened tension.

An Israeli tank sits near the separation wall between Israel and Gaza
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Khatib

For the Israeli Air Force, these past few days have been tense. First, an Israeli drone crashed in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Then the Israel Defense Forces launched airstrikes at a target outside Damascus. The IDF said the mission over Syria was to defend Israel from Iranian "killer drones."

On Monday night, the IDF bombed Hamas targets in Gaza, stating that the airstrikes were in response to previous rocket attacks from the Palestinian territory. According to Lebanese media reports, the strikes targeted pro-Iranian Palestinian groups.

In a televised speech on Sunday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel with retaliation for the "drone attack" and vowed to "do everything" to prevent future strikes.

Syria's war consequences

The political scientist Johannes Becke, from the Heidelberg College for Jewish Studies, believes that, in the broader sense, the clashes stem from the collapse of the Syrian state, as Israel had long viewed Syria as its primary and most dangerous military opponent. "But, with the collapse of the Syrian state, what we are seeing is a kind of Lebanonization of Syria: the growing influence of Iran, its increased intervention and the expanding of Shiite militias," he told DW.

Read more: Syria's Idlib caught between hell and a hard place

Hezbollah has in recent years been heavily involved in Syria's civil war, on the side of President Bashar Assad's regime, and the group benefited from new forms of military training there, Becke said. This involvement happened in the context of several proxy wars in which Iran was involved, such as in Yemen, he explained. Israel has not itself intervened in that conflict, Becke said, it is instead being fought by neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

People watch Hassan Nasrallah speak on TV on August 25, 2019
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to shoot down Israeli drones that fly over LebanonImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/B. Hussein

Nevertheless, direct clashes between Israel and Iran have taken place on Syrian territory.

"Any country that allows its territory to be used for attacks against Israel will face the consequences, and I repeat, the country will face the consequences," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Iranian threats

Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei has previously warned that attacks made by the "Zionist regime" in Lebanon would not go unanswered. He said that patience of the countries in the region is wearing so thin that Iran would support Hezbollah under all circumstances.

Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, wrote on Twitter in response to Israeli airstrikes in Syria and the drones crashing in Lebanon: "These insane operations are absolutely the last tries of the Zionist regime."

Iran and Hamas

Lebanese journalist and political analyst Iyad Abu Shakra says that the conflict between Israel and Iran is about power and influence. "Iran is trying to extend the frontiers of its influence in the region," he told DW. "This has forced Israel to try to prevent these attacks. Iran is striving for a hegemonic role that goes beyond what is permissible, from Israel's point of view."

Protesters stand in front of Israeli military vehicles at the separation wall between Gaza and Israel
Recent months have seen a spike in clashes along the separation wall between Gaza and IsraelImage: Reuters/I.A. Mustafa

Iran also seems to be encouraging Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, to ratchet up tension with Israel. For months there have been clashes on the border with Israel, as well as rocket attacks earlier this month. Israel responded with airstrikes and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who also acts as defense minister, has halved fuel supplies to Gaza, which is already forced to ration its electricity.

Is this conflict resolvable?

According to Becke, the aim of these smaller military operations, such as those in Gaza, is to generate media attention: "Whether Hamas deliberately ignites fields near the Gaza Strip or the attempts to launch a drone at the Golan Heights, such provocations pose no threat to Israel."

Read more: Golan Heights: Why it matters to US, Israel and Syria

Becke points out that despite this, both the IDF and Hezbollah have been preparing for an intense escalation. That escalation could include Israel could making military inroads into Lebanon while Hezbollah launches Iranian medium-range missiles. This kind of conflict risks leading to a third Lebanon war, but, said Becke, "we are not there yet."

At the moment, Israel is not engaged in a territorial conflict with Lebanon or Iran, Becke noted, and he believes the conflict between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights can, in principle, be resolved. The question is to what extent Israel would be willing to oblige Iran, Becke said: "In the long run — but in the very long run — there is actually no reason why Israel and Iran couldn't come to the same negotiating table."

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East