telegraph.co.uk: When Hamas terrorists floated over the heavily-fortified border with Israel using motorised paragliders, it struck Western intelligence as a sign that the brutal assault which followed could not have been planned entirely within Gaza.
To train dozens of gunmen on how to use the contraptions – garish, three-wheel buggies attached to large sails – would have attracted too much attention within the surveilled confines of the 141 square-mile Gaza.
The deployment of paragliders “surely required training outside of Gaza,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA official who served as a counter-terrorism officer in the Middle East, told The Washington Post.
Like many in Western intelligence circles, he did not have to look far for a culprit: Iran, he said, must have been involved, along the web of proxies it has spent £13.1 billion developing since 2012.
By the end of the week, evidence had started to emerge. Hizbollah, a Lebanese armed group backed by Iran, trained elite Hamas gunmen on paragliders within Lebanon, The New York Times reported. In Syria, its commandos showed more Palestinian operatives how to storm an Israeli base.
It remains unclear how much involvement Iran had in the generation and timing of the assault. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied any role – but said he “kisses the hands” of the terrorists who carried it out.
What is undeniable, analysts say, is that Iranian funding and training equipped Hamas, a group previously known largely for its ability to home-make rockets, with the skills needed for a devastating multi-pronged attack that has so far killed more than 1,300 Israelis.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, who has said he would 'kiss the hands' of the terrorists
Tehran has provided support to Hamas, Hizbollah – a militant group that grew into one of Lebanon’s dominant political players – and a range of other groups that surround Israel from every angle for decades.
There is little effort to keep this secret: Hamas officials has publicly boasted about their links to the Islamic Republic, while in 2016 the leader of Hizbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said: “Hizbollah’s budget, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, comes from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
All this feeds into Tehran’s wider strategy to boost its influence as the dominant Arab power in the region, capable of sowing chaos and carnage across a wide geographical sphere, while deterring attack on itself.
The effort to encircle Israel this week appeared to be paying off, as Hizbollah exchanged fire with Israel on the northern front, forcing the deployment of Israeli military assets that could otherwise focus on Gaza.
As of 2022, Iran was estimated to have allies among a dozen major militias in at least six countries, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Yemen, with relations led by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and elite Quds Force.
The US State Department estimates Iran sends $100 million (£82 million) a year to Palestinian terror groups, including Hamas, while $700 million a year is sent to Hizbollah, according to a 2020 estimate.
Much of that goes towards building up a weapon’s cache.
Rockets including the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5, which have a range of roughly 25 miles to 43 miles respectively, have been smuggled into Gaza via underground tunnels, and by air into Lebanon.
Rain down destruction
Many of these lack precision, but amassing them at great volume makes it possible to rain down destruction in Israel.
Hizbollah is estimated to have the largest arsenal, comprising 130,000 rockets.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian groups in Gaza have a smaller stock – around 30,000 rockets and mortar projectiles, according to a 2021 estimate from the Israeli military.
Iran has supercharged Hamas’ ability to produce rockets locally, using foreign technical expertise and smuggled components.
Experts have highlighted that rockets produced in Gaza have Farsi in the blueprints. The drones used by Hamas, such as the Shehab suicide drone, also appear to be based off Iranian designs.
An Al-Jazeera documentary from 2020, meanwhile, showed that Hamas could get creative in terms of weapons procurement, revealing that terrorists scavenged parts from fallen Israeli missiles and turned old water pipes to turn into new rockets.
It has, in sum, been a long journey from the day Hamas launched its first homemade rocket, partly powered by molten sugar, in 2001.
Motorised paraglider used in terror attack by Hamas
Today, the longest-range rocket at its disposal is believed to be the Ayyash 250, with a range of 250 kilometres (150 miles). Most Hamas targets, however, are much closer – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both within 50 miles of Gaza.
In terms of training individual operatives, Iran’s support goes back decades. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Iran positioned 5,000 members of its IRGC in Syria as potential reinforcements.
Most were recalled before they could deploy, but an estimated 1,500 entered northern Lebanon and trained the young men who went on to form Hizbollah.
With Iranian support, Hizbollah has since transformed from an underground resistance movement into a significant political power player in Lebanon – for years holding a parliamentary majority with its allies.
According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Washington-based think tank, Hizbollah is also now the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world.
It is not just Lebanon and the Palestinian territories where Hamas has embedded itself into the fabric of a nation. Crucially, it has deployed military advisers to oversee various militia groups in Syria, as well as occasionally deploying combat personnel.
Knock out these threats
Around 50 Iranian military bases are thought to have been built in Syria, according to Israeli military sources. Israel, for its part, has run a largely-covert bombing campaign within Syria, aiming to knock out these threats before they metastasise too far.
Syria said Israeli missiles hit airports in its capital of Damascus and the city of Aleppo, though, as ever, the Israeli military refused to comment. The Iranian foreign minister was reportedly forced to turn back from Damascus, where he had been due to land for a discussion with Syrian officials on the growing crisis.
Iran has also set its sights further afield, supporting insurgent groups like the Houthis in Yemen as they battle against Saudi Arabia, another longtime rival of Tehran. On Monday, the Houthi leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, said his group would respond with rocket and drone fire if the US intervened in the war.
“There are red lines when it comes to Gaza,” he said, adding that the Houthis were ready to co-ordinate with other groups and intervene.
A total encirclement of Israel, however, is complicated by local dynamics. Groups like Hamas and Hizbollah have their own interests to pursue.
A rift formed between Iran and Hamas after the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, with Tehran allying with Bashar al-Assad, the president, while Hamas joined the rebels; ties were restored in 2017, and Iran began again funding the group.
For now, “Iran’s support is not really replaceable” for the Palestinian terrorist group, said Fabian Hinz, a research fellow for defence and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.
“Really finding someone who will give you the training, the technology, the designs to build a rocket – that’s something that basically something only Iran can do…to give the kind of military technology that will enable [Hamas] to fight Israel.”
Key piece of technology
One key piece of technology Hamas used to disrupt an Israeli response was drone quadcopters, which dropped explosives onto watchtowers along the border with Gaza.
“That was a very important use of drones to get things started, and to confuse the Israelis,” said Michael Armstrong, a professor at Canada’s Brock University who researches missile defence.
Precisely how much support, in total, Iran has provided to Hamas over the years is unclear – but its leaders have been careful to appease their patron with a steady stream of gratitude.
“I give thanks to those who provided funds and weaponry to the courageous resistance, the Islamic Republic of Iran [which] has not skimped in extending funds, weaponry, and technology to the resistance,” wrote Hamas leader Ismail Haniiyeh on the group’s Telegram channel in 2021.
As the Israeli army moves in to crush Hamas, the full extent of that arsenal may well be revealed. Either it will be enough to hold off the might of a military superpower, or Iran will lose an army of the encirclement strategy it has spent decades, and billions of pounds, developing.