Did Israel use Iran's attack to secure a US green light for Rafah invasion?

8 min read
23 April, 2024

On the evening of 13 April, Iran launched its first direct attack on Israeli soil. As hundreds of drones and missiles came barrelling towards Israel, its allies - including a few friendly Arab neighbours - came rushing to its side, intercepting 99 percent of the projectiles, Israeli officials said.

In the aftermath of the attack, many world leaders issued statements condemning Iran and showing support for Israel. Just days before, these same leaders were reprimanding Tel Aviv for its killing of World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza.

Global outcry over Israel’s war tactics - which international organisations say have killed over 34,000 Palestinians, including 13,000 children, and induced conditions of famine - was rising, and the US was pressuring Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

“The Iranian strike has completely distracted the world’s attention from Gaza to the potential for a regional war,” Mairav Zonszein, a Tel Aviv-based analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), told The New Arab.

"The US has its hands full and is probably prioritising the Iran issue right now"

“As a result, it seems that in both Israel and the US, the focus on the humanitarian issue [in Gaza] and on the hostages is going by the wayside,” she added.

Israel launched an airstrike against Iran on 19 April, in what appeared to be a limited, targeted retaliation. Iran said its air defence systems shot down three drones near the Isfahan province in central Iran, where Iran has nuclear facilities and an air base. The Israeli attack damaged a critical anti-aircraft system at the base, according to New York Times satellite imagery.

Both sides were quiet in their response to Israel’s attack, indicating neither country wanted a further escalation that could ignite a full-blown regional conflict.

Zonszein said that Israel’s response was “tempered” to close the end of “this round” of escalation. “But the real question is what will happen next time [Israel] strikes Iranian targets in Syria or elsewhere, which has become relatively routine, but which Iran has threatened to respond to in an effort to change the rules of the game.”

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'New rules of the game'

The region is now in a more precarious position as the world watches what new rules Iran and Israel will play by in their war games with each other.

“I think this chapter [of Iran-Israel tit-for-tat] is closed,” Ali Vaez, the ICG’s Washington-based Iran analyst, told The New Arab. “But the new rules of the game are still ambiguous. That creates plenty of space for miscalculations on both sides.”

Tehran has never directly targeted Israel from its territory, instead funding and supporting regional groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen.

Israeli airstrikes in Rafah on Sunday killed at least 22 Palestinians. More than 34,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its war six months ago. [Getty]

However, Israel’s 1 April airstrike on its diplomatic mission in Damascus, which killed three Iranian top commanders, crossed a “red line” Iran could not overlook, Vaez said.

In the 13 April attack, Iran “wanted to signal to Israel that the previous rules of the game - which Israel is violating from Iran’s perspective - are no longer void,” Vaez added.

The day after the attack, Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s elite military force, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), threatened that any future Israeli attacks on Iranian interests and people will provoke a direct retaliation. “We have established a new equation...,” Salami said, warning “our subsequent action will be much harsher”.  

Following Israel’s retaliatory strike on 19 April 19, Iran refused to attribute the attack to Israel, which allowed Tehran to avoid an immediate retaliation.

"In recent meetings with the US, Israel may have been trying to leverage how it responds to Iran with what it wants in Gaza"

US approves billions in Israeli defence aid

The US has approved billions to Israel in the aftermath of the 13 April Iranian attack, apprehensive about a full-blown regional war that could ravage its long-time regional partner.

The day after the attack 90 congressional lawmakers urged House Speaker Mike Johnson to immediately advance a foreign funding bill that includes $14 billion in assistance to Israel. “Iran’s attack showed us why our aid to Israel is essential,” wrote Democrat Representative from Florida, Lois Frankel, on X.

Calls also rang out from House Democrats for lawmakers to pass the $95 billion foreign funding bill, which includes aid to both Ukraine and Israel. Sure enough, on 20 April, house lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the bill, which includes around $17 billion in defence aid to Israel.

Analysts expect only about $2 billion to go to humanitarian aid in Gaza. The bill has proceeded to the Democratic-majority Senate, where it is expected to pass.

The Palestinian presidency called the aid a “dangerous escalation”, adding that the money would “translate into thousands of Palestinian casualties in the Gaza Strip”.

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This massive aid package for Israel passed in the wake of Iran’s attack has drowned out the earlier calls from US representatives to condition aid on humanitarian access in Gaza. Before the attack, ICG’s Zonszein said that “the US was isolating Israel in a way that we’d never seen before”.

Israel’s killing of the seven World Central Kitchen aid workers on 1 April influenced “a very big shift in how the US was talking about Israel’s actions towards humanitarian aid”, Zonszein added.

In a brief phone call days after the deadly Israeli airstrike, Biden threatened to Netanyahu that he would rethink his backing if Israel didn’t change its tactics and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza. Netanyahu immediately responded by approving a series of “immediate steps” to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Zonszein also noted another “presumable” result of US pressure following the food aid workers’ killing, which was the near-full withdrawal of Israeli troops for “tactical reasons” from southern Gaza.

However, the tides have now turned. The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza has slipped into the background while bolstering Israel’s defence capabilities has taken priority.

“The US has its hands full and is probably prioritising the Iran issue right now,” Zonszein said.

Mass graves have been discovered in Khan Younis following Israel's military withdrawal several weeks ago. [Getty]

Israel's war policy in Gaza

As the threat of a full-blown regional war faded over the weekend, Israel launched strikes in Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, killing 22 people, including 18 children, health officials said on Sunday.

Raz Zimmt, a researcher with the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said that if an Iran-Israel escalation were to become more severe, it would “certainly have a negative impact” on Israel’s war objectives in Gaza.

However, “if Israel is not involved in more than one front it might be able to continue its efforts to the next stages”, Zimmt added, noting that the “last major effort in Gaza is Rafah”.

Israel has for months been promising a major ground invasion of Rafah, where around 1.5 million people are sheltering and the last Gazan city spared from total destruction by Israel’s ground forces. Rights groups warn that attacking Rafah would cause a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions.

"Some analysts doubt whether Iran's attacks influenced the US's position on a Rafah invasion, noting that Washington was already okay with some form of Israel military operation there"

According to two Gaza war monitors, the Critical Threats Project (CTP) and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), US and Israeli officials on 18 April held a virtual meeting to discuss a possible Israeli military operation in Rafah - the second of such meetings since 1 April.

The first video conference over an Israeli ground operation in Rafah was reportedly marked by tensions, with Washington expressing “deep scepticism” over Israel’s plans to evacuate civilians in the southernmost Gaza city.

Zonszein noted that Israel could have been “trying to leverage how it responds [to Iran] to what it wants in Gaza”. Biden reportedly told Netanyahu he would not support any Israeli counterattack against Iran, likely influencing Israel’s tempered response.

However, Zimmt doubted the Iran attacks influenced the US’s position on a Rafah invasion, noting that Washington was already okay with some form of Israel military operation.

With a lack of progress on the hostage deal, a military operation in Rafah will be “unavoidable” in some way or another for Israel, he added.

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'Everything more escalatory'

Meanwhile, Zonszein wrote in a recent Foreign Policy piece that the 13 April Iran attack was a “lifeline” for Netanyahu, who has been accused of drawing out the war in Gaza to stave off elections that would oust him from power.

Netanyahu’s popularity ratings and global image have hit all-time lows as he continues his hawkish policies in Gaza and the occupied West Bank and fails to bring home Israeli hostages.

“Netanyahu was completely isolated, more than he’s ever been at home and abroad,” Zonszein said, but “then all of a sudden, this [Iranian] strike”, she added. “The attention now on the Israel-Iran axis is forcing people to continue to work with Netanyahu instead of isolating him.”

But as tensions with Iran wane, the global spotlight will not stay off Gaza for long. This week, for example, reports of mass graves at the Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis – of up to 280 Palestinians – have led to international condemnation.

The lack of clarity over both logistics and the timeline for Israel’s Rafah operation, and fears over the dire humanitarian impact, will only add to these criticisms.

According to Zonszein, Netanyahu “has clearly not been interested in a ceasefire” in Gaza, despite the US pressure to negotiate one.

Without a ceasefire, “everything else is more escalatory”, she added, including the risks now compounded by Iran and its new playbook to ensure deterrence against Israel.

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @hannadavis341