In declaring a cease-fire Saturday in Gaza, Israel asserted that it had achieved its goals: hurting Hamas' military wing, discouraging rocket fire into Israel and cutting the flow of smuggled arms into Gaza. But Israel had a broader goal: sending a tough message to its arch-enemies Iran and Hezbollah.
Israeli leaders say the pounding of Hamas dealt a blow to Iran, which Israel accuses of backing the Palestinian group, and to Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon that fought Israel to a stalemate in 2006.
"The operation proved again the power of Israel and improved its deterrence against those who threaten it," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.
Nonetheless, as Gaza quiets down, Israeli security officials acknowledge that the wider conflict could escalate, as it plays out in secret skirmishes in the Middle East and beyond.
For months, Israeli intelligence services have girded for a possible attack overseas intended to avenge the assassination last year of Imad Mughniyah, a Hezbollah warlord who was close to Iran. Israeli security officials say the threat has intensified as the Gaza bloodshed converges with the anniversary next month of Mughniyah's death, for which Hezbollah blames Israel.
"If there is a cease-fire and a perception that Hamas was defeated, it will put even more pressure on them, and on the Iranians, to strike to achieve a balance," an Israeli security official said on condition of anonymity, citing security reasons. "It's a war of the narrative. The one who controls the narrative is the one who wins."
Many Israelis see Hamas as a proxy of Iran, whose sponsorship of militant groups and whose alleged nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat as far as Israel's government is concerned.
"Iran has two arms, one is Hezbollah in the north for many years, since the 1980s, and the second arm is Hamas in the Gaza Strip since 2001," Avi Dichter, Israel's minister of internal security, said in a recent interview. "The whole philosophy of war of Hamas in Gaza Strip is a pure emulation of Hezbollah in Lebanon."
But Israeli security officials acknowledge that Gaza is not Lebanon and Hamas is not Hezbollah. The Palestinian group has not displayed the fighting prowess that enabled Hezbollah to portray the 2006 war with Israel as a victory and led to the replacement of Israeli defense chiefs.
And the alliance of Shiite Iran with Hamas, a Sunni Muslim group with a nationalist Palestinian agenda, has limits and nuances compared with the Shiite militia. Sunnis in Persian Gulf states are the main financial supporters of Hamas, the Israeli official said.
Rejecting entreaties from Hamas in recent weeks, Hezbollah has refrained from attacks on Israel that could have reduced the military pressure on Gaza, Israeli security officials say. They allege that Hezbollah permitted Palestinian militants to fire rockets at Israel from Lebanon on two occasions in recent weeks, which Hezbollah denied.
"What Iran is not doing is putting pressure on Hezbollah to open a northern front," the Israeli security official said. "They have not really done anything. . . . Hamas' perception of Iran is as a contextual ally. They feel closer to the Syrians and Hezbollah."
For their part, Iranians reject the notion that Hamas is their tool. Until recent years, the Islamic Republic and Hamas had chilly relations over Palestinians' support for Saddam Hussein during Iran's 1980-'88 war with Iraq.
"Israel says a lot of lies, and this is one of their lies," Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, an Iranian cleric and former minister who is considered a mastermind behind Hezbollah, told The Times on the sidelines of a conference this week in Beirut.
"Hamas is a Palestinian national resistance organization that wants to take a stand and liberate its own nation, and Israel is seeking to annihilate the Palestinians," he said.
Nonetheless, the Hamas arsenal of rockets proves an Iranian connection, experts say. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, dozens of Hamas militants with engineering and chemical knowledge went to Tehran for training, Israeli officials say. Experts of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard taught the Palestinians to build lethal rockets by cobbling together materials and chemicals found in Gaza or smuggled in from Egypt, officials say.
In addition, Iran has provided Hamas with hundreds of smuggled artillery rockets that reach as far as 25 miles into Israel, Israeli officials say. In recent communications with Hamas leaders, Iranian officials assured the Palestinians that they could expend their rockets -- estimated to number 2,000 at the start of combat in December -- because Iran would replenish the arsenal, the Israeli security official said.
Hamas' rocket attacks also echo the influence of Hezbollah, according to Israeli and Arab experts. The way Hamas has gone from mortar rounds to home-made rockets to longer-range artillery rockets resembles a Hezbollah doctrine of surprise, the Israeli official said, citing an incident during the 2006 war in which the militia hit an Israeli naval vessel with a surface-to-ship missile.
After the 2006 war, a contingent of Hezbollah specialists made their way through Egypt, where several were caught by security forces, to train Hamas fighters in Gaza, an Israeli official said. During combat this month, Israeli troops have said they encountered scores of booby-trapped houses and miles of tunnels dug by a Hamas sapper brigade.
Those are "hallmarks of the military tactics Hezbollah used" in 2006 and "suggest Hezbollah's extensive training of Hamas' military forces," Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political scientist at Lebanese American University, wrote in a article on a website dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Hamas' military strategy appears to conform to the 'new school of fighting' founded by . . . Imad Mughniyah."
Mughniyah became a legendary commander partly because of his strategic imprint on the Palestinian groups. Israeli officials and Arab experts are convinced that Hezbollah is determined to retaliate for his killing in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Israeli officials do not expect the revenge attack to take place in Israel because they think Hezbollah fears military retaliation. Instead, they predict a strike on foreign soil, where it would be harder to prove Hezbollah involvement. The militia's global network, supported by Iranian spies, has struck from Argentina to Thailand over several decades.
Last year, Israeli agents detected a plot-in-the-making by a Hezbollah operational network in a foreign country, Israeli officials said. They declined to reveal details.
Israel has issued public warnings about plots to assassinate or kidnap Israelis and Jews, especially diplomats and political, military and intelligence figures whose stature makes them comparable to Mughniyah, officials say. In August, Western anti-terrorism officials told The Times that a clandestine Iran-Hezbollah unit in Venezuela had recruited informants at the airport in Caracas, the capital, to monitor Jewish travelers.
"We are seeing all over the world that they have increased the tempo of their activity," the Israeli security official said.
Iran and Hezbollah may see the aftermath of Gaza as a propitious moment to strike Israel and affirm their stature as protectors of the Arab world, Israeli officials and others say.
"That Hezbollah will respond to the assassination is almost a certainty," Saad-Ghorayeb wrote. "Perhaps Hezbollah has reserved its right to respond for such a time when it would serve a much wider strategic purpose than mere tit-for-tat. What better purpose than to save the Palestinian cause from possible collapse?"
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Lebanon contributed to this report.