Hudson Institute

Three Things about the Israel-Hamas War | January 31, 2024

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
Senior Fellow, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)
Research Fellow and Program Manager, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
Armed rebels of the Iran-backed Houthi militia ride a pick-up truck during a demonstration against the USA and Israel amid growing tensions between the USA and the Houthis following the latter's several operations in the Red Sea on January 29, 2024, in Sanaa, Yemen. (Osamah Yahya via Getty Images)
Armed rebels of the Iran-backed Houthi militia ride a pick-up truck during a demonstration against the United States and Israel on January 29, 2024, in Sanaa, Yemen. (Osamah Yahya via Getty Images)

Three Things about the Israel-Hamas War is a series from the Hudson Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East. Every week, Hudson Senior Fellows Michael DoranCan Kasapoğlu, and Jonathan Schachter will join Research Fellow Zineb Riboua to offer an analysis of one thing—and one thing only—that is of particular importance to understand the Israel-Hamas war. Subscribe here.

Read their analysis below.

1. The Biden administration will respond to the killing of American soldiers by pressuring Israel. 

Senator Tom Cotton reacted to the killing of three American soldiers in Jordan by calling on the Biden administration to retaliate against Iran. “The only answer to these attacks must be devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces,” he said. Senator Cotton, of course, is absolutely correct. The administration should heed his advice.

The chance that it will, however, is slim. President Joe Biden and his team believe that direct confrontation with Tehran will embroil the United States in unwinnable conflicts that will consume scarce resources better devoted to Ukraine and, especially, to the South China Sea.

The White House will treat the deaths of American soldiers not as a wakeup call but as a public relations crisis, which it will stage manage with a two-step maneuver. Step one will entail saving face. The administration will launch retaliatory strikes against the immediate perpetrators of the attacks—but only against Iran’s proxies, not against Iran itself. If the political gravity of this episode convinces Biden that he can save face only by striking Iranian assets, then he will take care to target low-level personnel and infrastructure, preferably outside Iran, to reduce the chances of escalation.

Iran and its proxies have made clear that they will stop attacking Americans once Israel accepts a lasting ceasefire. Therefore, while carrying out face-saving attacks against Iran’s proxies, Biden and his team will simultaneously move to step two: pressure Israel to wind down the war. Admitting no linkage between its Gaza and Iran policies, the administration will justify the pressure on Israel as a reaction to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of a two-state solution, rather than as an effort to appease Iran.

— Michael Doran

2. Iran is not merely the sponsor of the Houthi campaign in the Red Sea—it is commanding every step of it.

General Abdolreza Shahlaei, from the top circles of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reportedly has been overseeing the Houthi campaign in Yemen. Shahlaei’s alleged presence in the country marks another smoking gun—along with the weapons systems and concepts of operations (CONOPS) employed by the Houthis—that shows Tehran’s involvement in the growing threat against global shipping. 

General Shahlaei is a senior figure responsible for several important portfolios in his Revolutionary Guards capacity. In the early 2000s, he played a critical role in plotting attacks against the United States–led coalition in Iraq, where he is alleged to have served as the main conduit between the Lebanese Hezbollah training contingent and the Iraqi Shiite militia. Reportedly, General Shahlaei planned the 2007 Karbala attack on US forces, which killed five American soldiers. Finally, he allegedly was the architect of the botched 2011 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Several analysts have claimed that the US aimed to take out General Shahlaei in Yemen in 2020 when it eliminated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

According to press sources, the shady IRGC general has been orchestrating the drone and missile salvos coming out of Yemen, where he has been commanding the Houthi militia. Their ongoing Red Sea campaign fits well with General Shahlaei’s record in the Quds Forces’ Unit 400, which is responsible for the group’s extraterritorial operations and for arming its proxies.

The Houthis’ campaign has General Shahlaei’s fingerprints all over it. But recent Houthi armament trends also reflect Tehran’s involvement. In military parades in Sana’a in 2022 and 2023, the Houthis showcased clones of advanced Iranian weapons in their arsenal, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). Moreover, US Central Command data suggests that the Houthis have been systematically employing ASBMs against commercial shipping with the support of the IRGC

It is Iran’s war in the Red Sea, where naïve ideas of diplomatic outreach amounting to appeasement are sinking without a trace. 

Can Kasapoğlu

3. The White House’s suspension of UNRWA funding is a major shift, but just a start of what is needed. 

The Biden administration’s January 26 decision to suspend US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is genuinely surprising.

For decades, Israel has rightly accused the agency of perpetuating and inflaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations have used UNRWA facilities and equipment to hide weapons and tunnels and to launch attacks on Israel. UNRWA personnel, including schoolteachers, have been documented repeatedly as supporters or members of those same organizations. UNRWA classroom materials include antisemitic messaging and incite support for terrorist violence. Most recently, UNRWA teachers praised the Hamas-led October 7 massacre in Israel.

Nevertheless, because of its ideological commitment to promoting multinational organizations like the UN, to reversing the policies of the Trump administration, and to improving relations with the Palestinian Authority, in April 2021 the Biden administration restored US funding for UNRWA. In 2023, this funding amounted to over $300 million. With an eye to the educational, medical, and social services that UNRWA provides, Washington and its European partners have dismissed or downplayed most of Jerusalem’s concerns about the agency’s nefarious activities and the cover it has provided for terrorist groups.

This history makes the administration’s decision to pause American funding for UNRWA even more remarkable. Following the decision, many European states and Australia have followed suit. What changed?

Israel reportedly has evidence too irrefutable to ignore that at least a dozen UNRWA personnel participated in the October 7 massacre. As a result, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced with uncharacteristic speed that nine of the 12 people named in Israel’s allegations had been fired immediately. Another is confirmed dead, while the identities of the remaining two are unclear.

The demand from the United States and other donors that UNRWA impose at least some measure of accountability on its personnel after their alleged participation in the terrorist outrages of October 7 is a new and welcome development. The more important policy question, however, is whether this is just a temporary measure. Will Washington take the opportunity to insist on ending the destructive role UNRWA has played for nearly 75 years by acting to terminate its mandate?

The events of October 7 demonstrated the deadly results of decades of murderous, antisemitic indoctrination at UNRWA institutions (among others), as well as the agency’s exacerbation of fundamental grievances like the ever-expanding Palestinian refugee question that by design can never be addressed. UNRWA has always been part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have pushed Israel to shift its focus to what will happen the day after the war ends. That day will be brighter for Israelis and Palestinians alike if UNRWA is not there to spoil it.

Jonathan Schachter

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