Iran's Attack on Israel Exposes Deep Schisms within the Muslim world

Even though the Iranian strikes of April 13 reportedly caused zero Israeli casualties, they have indubitably amplified the complex dynamics of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East

Iran's Attack on Israel Exposes Deep Schisms within the Muslim world

The longstanding conflict between Palestine and Israel, and the latest round of hostilities represented by Israel's invasion of Gaza, has entered an even more critical phase marked by heightened tensions after Iran executed direct retaliatory strikes against Israel for the first time in history. This escalation was a result of Israel's brazen attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria, resulting in the death of eight embassy officials, including two senior leaders of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) external operations wing, the Al-Quds Force. This act of aggression placed Iran under immense internal and external pressure, prompting a decisive response on the night of April 13.

In a significant shift of posture from rhetoric to action, Iran launched a direct attack on Israel from its territory, utilising drones and ballistic missiles in an unprecedented show of force and military capability. While Iran's attack reportedly caused no Israeli casualties, Iranian officials are hailing it as a strategic success. The Iranian strikes have, without a doubt, further intensified the complex dynamics of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Iran's attack on Israel marks a significant milestone in its strategic objectives. Firstly, at the diplomatic level, Iran has garnered considerable success by showcasing its ability to respond assertively to external aggression. This move has not only demonstrated Iran's willingness to defend its interests but also signals to Israel, its allies, and the broader international community that Iran possesses the political will and military capability to directly target adversaries well beyond its immediate borders. Moreover, this attack sends a clear message to Israel, which has always been vocal about the prospect of direct strikes on Iran, particularly amidst the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Iran's proactive military posture underscores its readiness to confront threats as well as to assert its influence in the region.

There is a diversity of reactions to Iran's attack on Israel. One segment applauds it as a triumph for Muslims, lauding Iran's courage and viewing it as the surest sign of solidarity for Palestinians. This group believes that Iran's action will catalyse greater international support for Palestine, rejuvenating their spirit in the face of daunting adversity. Those who support Iran's stance also criticise the silence of other Muslim nations, particularly Arab states, and interpret it as a sign of acquiescence to Israel. They point to examples such as Jordan's permission to Israel to use its airspace against Iran as evidence of an Israel-friendly stance among certain Arab Muslim nations.

The second response to Iran's attack on Israel is more sceptical, viewing it as primarily symbolic rather than strategically meaningful. This perspective considers the attack was neither aimed at inflicting significant damage on Israel nor directly aiding Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. Instead, critics argue that Iran's motive was to showcase its military capabilities and attempt to assert dominance over Israel. 

Iran's attack on Israel is praised as a symbol of the Muslim Ummah's courage, and its proponents highlight the fact that Iran is the only country to have directly confronted Israel militarily for the atrocities it has been committing in Gaza

Some also suggest that the attack on the Iranian embassy in Syria might have been orchestrated to provoke Iran into attacking Israel, thus diverting attention away from the Gaza conflict. This line of thinking posits that such a diversion would ultimately benefit Israel by garnering increased aid and sympathy from its Western allies. These sceptics, who have harboured suspicions about Iran's intentions since the outset of the latest episode of the Gaza war, question the motives behind Iran's actions in this context.

Within Muslim countries, there are also two factions regarding support for Palestine in the conflict with Israel. One faction strongly supports aiding the Palestinians in every legitimate way and appreciates any assistance, whether it comes from Shia-majority countries such as Iran or Sunni-majority nations such as Turkiye, Algeria and Yemen. This school of thought believes that Hamas receives military aid and political support from Iran and that Iran's involvement through Hamas is intended to weaken the Palestinian issue in favour of Israel. This potentially provides justification for what they view as Israel's wrongful targeting of innocent Palestinians. Such viewpoints are often espoused by individuals from Gulf-oriented backgrounds, many of whom express surprise at the perceived silence of Arab countries during the Gaza conflict and also harbour suspicions about Iran's actions in the region.

The other category of Muslim countries perceives it as their moral and religious duty to provide extensive support to the Palestinians in their struggle for freedom against Israel. This group views resistance as the sole solution to the Palestinian problem and justifies actions taken by groups like Hamas against Israel. Within this perspective, Iran's attack on Israel is praised as a symbol of the Muslim Ummah's courage, and its proponents highlight the fact that Iran is the only country to have directly confronted Israel militarily for the atrocities it has been committing in Gaza.

Adherents of both perspectives routinely present arguments to support their positions, reflecting the complexity of political and military operations in the region and the multiplicity of thought and positions in the Muslim world vis-à-vis the Gaza conflict and the Palestine cause.

Analysing the impact of Iran's actions in the conflict between Palestine and Israel is not a simple undertaking. Over the past decade, Iran has significantly bolstered Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, creating a constant threat to Israel. Additionally, following the defeat of ISIS in Syria, Israel has faced ongoing threats of attacks from Syria, a country closely allied with Iran. This has effectively surrounded Israel's north and north-east with Iranian-influenced entities. Moreover, Iran has played an effective role in establishing strong armed resistance against Israel in Iraq and Yemen. These developments have created an extremely challenging security environment for Israel, highlighting the multifaceted nature of the conflict.

On the contrary, some territories that are perceived to be supporting Palestine and are wealthy due to oil, have engaged in agreements with Israel, such as the 'Abraham Accords,' in collaboration with Turkiye. These agreements involve plans to enhance trade relations with Israel in the region. Additionally, they have encouraged other powerful Muslim countries, like Pakistan, to consider recognising Israel. This stance reflects a pragmatic approach which prioritises economic interests and geopolitical strategies over historical solidarity or ideological alignment with the Palestinian cause. It underscores the complex dynamics of, and divergent perspectives within, the broader Muslim Ummah regarding engagement with Israel and support for the Palestinian issue.

The question of accountability emerges for those who harboured doubts about Iran's intentions as many Muslim-majority nations engaged in agreements with Israel, seemingly sidelining the Palestinian cause. It calls for urgent reflection as to whether these diplomatic manoeuvres were deliberately or inadvertently sidelining the justiciable resolution of the Palestine cause. The concern raised here addresses some of the complexities that persist within the Muslim Ummah, where strategic partnerships and geopolitical interests sometimes overshadow principled positions and longstanding humanitarian causes, such as the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people.

If Iran supported Hamas, then it appears the support was to strengthen the Palestinian cause and prevent it from being sidelined, even as some Muslim countries sought to cut deals with Israel. History shows that significant political and geographical disputes often find resolution through resistance. The timing of Hamas's actions was crucial, especially in the context of potential agreements between Israel and other regional players, particularly Saudi Arabia. Such an agreement could have devastatingly undermined decades of Palestinian sacrifices and resistance efforts.

The Palestine issue transcends religious, sectarian, and regional boundaries; it is fundamentally a matter of human rights. Therefore, supporting the Palestinians should go beyond personal affiliations and religious preferences

Another significant issue is that the balance of power in the Middle East is shifting. While the Palestinian cause is gaining international recognition, even among citizens of Western countries, resistance against Israel is growing. Countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and now Hamas, a non-state actor that has de-facto-governed Gaza since 2007, all are aligning in ways that favour Iran, which is not acceptable to some Arab and Gulf countries. This evolving balance of power reflects a tectonic geopolitical shift where alliances and allegiances are in continuous flux. 

A poem by our late friend Rashid Arif encapsulates this situation thus:

To build a new house, one has to think;

It has an aspect of destruction as well as construction

Fearing this new balance of power, individuals, groups, and countries are not hesitating to betray the Palestinian cause in their hostile approach towards Iran. It should have been expected that just as the United States, Great Britain, and France stood with their full military might behind Israel during the Iranian attack, Muslim countries would have set aside all hostilities and suspicions to stand unequivocally with Iran, as well as with the Palestinians. However, it was disappointing to see their lack of support for a fellow Muslim country. In fact, some countries and groups ended up opposing Iran directly. Jordan, for example, helped Israel in countering the Iranian attack by opening its airspace; note that Jordan is the same country that massacred many Palestinians in 1970 after Palestinian refugees migrated en masse to the Hashemite kingdom in the face of Israeli oppression. Jordan's monarch, King Abdullah, had warned at a 2004 meeting of Gulf countries that the Middle East is gradually falling under the influence of the 'Shiite Crescent', a deliberate attempt to divide the region along sectarian lines. 

In my view, the Palestine issue transcends religious, sectarian, and regional boundaries; it is fundamentally a matter of human rights. Therefore, supporting the Palestinians should go beyond personal affiliations and religious preferences. Those who associate support for the Palestinian cause with narrow-mindedness, religious bias, or regional animosity are, in my opinion, afflicted by a hidden ailment. True advocacy for the Palestinians should stem from a universal sense of justice and empathy, recognising their fundamental rights as human beings, regardless of any other considerations whatsoever.

I hold an M.Phil degree in International Relations and World Order from the University of Leicester, England. I teach IR at the University level. Tweet at @AIamasimali