By: Sarit Zehavi & Clifford Sobin
Tehran’s plans to open a multi-front campaign against Israel. Step one was Hamas’ murderous rampage on October 7. The second step has been low-level involvement of several Iranian proxies since the war started— including 100 attacks by Hezbollah or its allies against Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli civilians, the Houthis in Yemen firing a few missiles and UAVs at Israel, and Iranian backed militias in Iraq and Syria that have only targeted, for now, U.S. military forces in the region dozens of times. The third step can be discerned from the statements emanating from Tehran and Hezbollah—Iran, Hezbollah, and the other proxies will join in a full-scale war if the fighting in Gaza reaches an undefined level. This threat signals what may well be the final step in the plan mapped out before October 7—an all-out attack against Israel and Western presence in the Middle East, emanating mainly from Iran’s proxies.
Let’s dive deeper as to what is happening now and the necessary pre-condition of legitimacy that Hamas and Hezbollah are working hard to create.
The northern border is now very active. Every day since October 8, Hezbollah, or terrorist organizations in Lebanon that could only operate with Hezbollah’s assistance, launch attacks into Israel from Lebanon. Some with rockets, others with anti-tank-guided missile, and a few attempted terrorist infiltrations into Israeli communities and the launching of UAVs. The IDF has also intercepted many other attacks before missiles could be launched or terrorists could cross into Israel. Nevertheless, for now, the IDF has responded to Hezbollah’s naked aggression in a limited manner against Hezbollah’s designs. Even so, more than 60,000 Israeli citizens living on, or near, the border had to be evacuated by the government, severely impacting their lives and the economy of the region.
Why has there not been all-out attacks yet in the north and elsewhere? One of the reasons might be that Iran and its proxies are looking to build legitimacy.
Inside Lebanon, many Lebanese politicians and officials have called on Hezbollah not to intervene in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. They include the Sunni prime minister of the present transitional government in Lebanon, Najib Mikati, and its Maronite foreign minister, Abdullah Bou Habib, who stated their opposition to Hezbollah’s involvement in the current war. They, and many others in Lebanon, fear that Hezbollah will entangle Lebanon in a war that would exact a heavy price from the country at a time when its economy is failing and its political situation dire.
And not without reason; Hezbollah has systematically embedded its militants in civilian areas and urban population centers. Hundreds of arms depots, thousands of militants, and tens of thousands of rockets are distributed throughout southern Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and homes. All callously using the population as “human shields” to prevent Israel from targeting its military forces or producing a PR victory in case Israel does.
In the Alma center we published a full report in July 2020 that shines a light on Hezbollah’s human shield tactic — exposing almost 30 missiles sites of Hezbollah inside Beirut. And a decade ago, Hezbollah published its offensive plan for an attack on Israel—its similarity to what Hamas did in southern Israel is astonishing.
Furthermore, like Hezbollah, Hamas, an Iranian sponsored Islamist militant group and the governing authority of the Gaza Strip, has been using human shields in conflicts with Israel since 2007.
This use of human shields, by both Hamas and Hezbollah is a clear war crime of monstrous proportions. Why? Because Article 8(2)(b)(xxiii) of the International Criminal Court (ICC), states that the war crime of using protected persons as shields requires four elements:
- The perpetrator moved or otherwise took advantage of the location of one or more civilians or other persons protected under the international law of armed conflict.
- The perpetrator intended to shield a military objective from attack or shield, favor or impede military operations.
- The conduct took place in the context of and was associated with an international armed conflict.
- The perpetrator was aware of factual circumstances that established the existence of an armed conflict.
Now, let’s look at the facts. Hamas has launched rockets, positioned military-related infrastructure-hubs and routes, and engaged the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from, or in proximity to, residential and commercial areas. Of this there is no doubt. Recently, the IDF released a plethora of evidence proving this, including:
- Video footage of Hamas gunmen emerging from a tunnel at the entrance to Sheikh Hamad Hospital that runs under the hospital and connects with hundreds of kilometers of other Hamas tunnels.
- A rocket launcher eighty meters from the hospital.
- Video of Hamas gunmen firing at the IDF from within the hospital.
- Pictures of Hamas rocket launchers located within a playground complex, another within five meters of a swimming pool in Gaza, and others within thirty meters of residential homes.
- Proof of Hamas’ use of ambulances for transporting its terrorists and armaments.
- Scouts building with launchers.
- Mosque launcher deep in ground.
The list above is but a taste of what is pervasive throughout Gaza—Hamas hiding behind civilians and civilian infrastructure.
In addition, Hamas is acutely aware Israel wants to minimize collateral civilian damage, and especially that public opinion in western nations is extremely sensitivity towards civilian casualties. Hamas knows that the only way it can survive is to use the deaths of civilians it is cowardly hiding near, behind, or under, to influence external public opinion—both to apply pressure on Israel to stop fighting and to legitimize the Iranian plan for activating its proxies. This is why Hamas has actively prevented many Palestinians from evacuating southward from the northern part of the Gaza Strip after the IDF warned repeatedly that it would soon heavily bomb the area and that it would become an active battle zone.
This was done by Hamas either by blocking the roads down south or by shooting its own civilians traveling on these roads, while escaping the war zones.
Now let’s examine one incident to demonstrate the danger that the legitimacy project brings.
Hamas is making a huge effort to portray Israel as a war criminal in international media. The incident at the Al-Ahli hospital is a very good example. Hamas cynically used a failed launch of a rocket from Gaza to blame Israel for attacking the hospital. Most western media outlets failed to make an even basic fact check before rushing to print blaring headlines blaming Israel. Thrilled, Arab media echoed the statements of Hamas and international media. Furthermore, regarding the number of casualties, no one questioned how Hamas could count 500 dead that quickly. Nor did supposedly responsible media question the source of the information, a Hamas controlled organization. The spread of that false information—the cause of the blast and the number killed—not only damaged Israel’s legitimacy in its war against terror—it has also created demonstrations worldwide, some of which are violent, and influenced the opinions of many that are supportive of Israel.
This is the legitimacy campaign at work.
And sadly, defeating that legitimacy campaign by proving a negative is hard. The IDF worked diligently to build its case for innocence, but it took twelve hours to gather the evidence needed to refute the claim. The IDF’s case was convincing and supported by the United Sates. As a result, most responsible media backed off their claims. But it was too late. The damage was done because when it comes to public opinion and social media—it is impossible to simply “rewind.”
This is how the Iranian axis, mostly Hamas and Hezbollah, by offensively using their human shield strategy, are building legitimacy for a war that has been planned for a long time. At the same time—when the numbers of casualties are raising every day who is making a fact check to make sure Hamas isn’t deliberately publishing an exaggerated number? Who is checking how many out of the Gazans who were killed were not involve in the fighting or in the massacre of Oct 7th—while we know today that not only uniformed official Hamas members raped and slaughtered the Israelis in their homes.
Hamas’ plan is now in full gear. Hezbollah only needs Israel to launch an attack on Lebanese civilian infrastructure that was used as Human shield, for it to gear up the legitimacy plan there. That is an unannounced goal of Hezbollah’s continued and increasing attacks and implicit in Nasrallah’s and Iran’s nebulous formulation for the basis for their future involvement in Israel’s war with Hamas. Furthermore, in Lebanon, there may well come a time where Israel must respond more forcefully to protect its citizens and land. Then, Hezbollah’s legitimacy campaign will move into full swing in hopes of overwhelming or defeating the opposition of many Lebanese to Hezbollah involving itself in a war with Israel. This will happen soon— when northern border residents will demand the Israeli government to enable them to get back to their homes safely and secured of the risk of another massacre.
It is all a shocking, amazing, yet an entirely predictable thing. Israel was subjected to a brutal attack that murdered its 1000 citizens and 300 soldiers, decapitated its babies, raped its women, and kidnapped more than 240 people of all ages from their homes.
Realizing the need to swing the pendulum of Western public opinion from support for Israel who was victimized by this nightmare, the legitimacy plan uses the suffering of the civilian populations of Gaza (and possibly soon Lebanon) to delegitimize Israel’s response to October 7 and thereby create the conditions for Hamas to survive and other forces to enter the battle.
It is therefore critical to remember who the aggressor and abuser is and who is the defender of their people. Iran and its terrorist proxies started this war, and they alone bear the responsibility for the civilian casualties of all sides. The killers of civilians are Hamas, and Hezbollah. They are willing to fight to the last man, women, and child they can find to hide behind.