Hezbollah, Hamas bolster ties, raising stakes in Lebanon

Cooperation between the two parties has alarmed Israel.
Sunday 17/06/2018
A 2004 file picture shows Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (L) chatting with Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’s political bureau in Beirut. (AP)
Closing ranks. A 2004 file picture shows Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (L) chatting with Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’s political bureau in Beirut. (AP)

BEIRUT - Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas organisation have been cooperating more closely than ever in the past year, having set aside differences that saw them back opposing sides in the early stages of Syria’s civil war.

The cooperation between the two parties has alarmed Israel, which delivered at least two letters to the UN Security Council in the past year. The latest, dated May 11, warned of the “ominous developments” of “the strengthening of ties” between Hezbollah and Hamas, which “constitutes a major threat not only to Israel but also to the stability and security of the entire region.”

Hezbollah and Hamas have had a relationship dating to 1992 when Israel deported about 400 members of Hamas as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants into the western Bekaa Valley, just north of the then Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon.

Lebanese authorities refused to accept the expelled Hamas members and they lived in a no-man’s land between Lebanese and Israeli lines. Hezbollah quickly built relations with the Hamas deportees and schooled them in guerrilla warfare tactics.

However, the war in Syria caused a rift between Hamas and its Iranian sponsor as the Palestinian group, which is Sunni and part of the Muslim Brotherhood naturally was sympathetic to the mainly Sunni rebels battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Hamas offered military support to the nascent rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra. In June 2013, a Hezbollah fighter told this writer that the roadside bombs he and his comrades had encountered during the battle for Al-Qusayr in western Syria were identical to those Hezbollah taught Hamas to build. The inference was that Hamas had passed its bomb-making skills to Syrian rebel forces.

Nevertheless, with Assad having swung the tide of war back in his favour, thanks to the help of his Russian and Iranian allies, Hamas has had to rethink where its loyalties lie.

A little more than a year ago, Iran instructed Hezbollah to re-establish full relations with Hamas, Beirut-based intelligence sources said. Furthermore, an effort is being made by Hezbollah to unite all Palestinian Islamist groups based in Lebanon, specifically Hamas and Islamic Jihad, under its command and has appointed liaison officers to all Palestinian factions. Hamas has been busy recruiting fighters who are being trained at Hezbollah camps in the Bekaa Valley, the sources said.

The sources added that the military bases manned by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a Damascus-based secular faction, at Qussaya in the Bekaa Valley and Naameh, south of Beirut, have been placed under the control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, part of an agreement between Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of IRGC’s al-Quds Force, and Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the PFLP-GC. Around three years ago, Hezbollah turned a long disused track into an asphalt road to connect the PFLP-GC’s base at Qussaya to a nearby Hezbollah training camp.

These developments have clearly alarmed Israel. In January, Mohammed Hamdan, a senior member of Hamas’s military wing, was wounded in a car bombing in Sidon in southern Lebanon, an attack that was pinned on Israel. Reports from Israel claimed Hamdan was in charge of the Hamas mobilisation effort in Lebanon.

In Israel’s May 11 letter to the Security Council, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon claimed that, under the command of Majid Hader, Hamas recruited and trained hundreds of fighters and “has assembled an infrastructure in Lebanon ready to manufacture its own missiles and unmanned aircraft to add to its war arsenal and increase its offensive capabilities.”

Danon also said Hamas “intends to use its armed force and growing arsenal of rockets to pull Lebanon into a conflict with Israel. This intention increases the possibility of a conflict with Israel that could engulf the entire Middle East.”

In early March, Israel’s Maariv newspaper cited Western intelligence sources as saying that the Hamas military buildup had been conducted covertly and that by launching rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon, it would implicate Hezbollah and drag the Lebanese group into a war with the Jewish state.

Such a claim stretches the bounds of credulity. It is almost inconceivable that Hamas could independently build an arsenal and recruit hundreds of fighters without Hezbollah’s knowledge. Hezbollah jealously guards Lebanon’s southern border against any militant activity that is not its own, precisely because the firing of a few rockets by a small faction could trigger a devastating war that does not suit Hezbollah’s interests.

Nevertheless, the renewed and strengthening relationship between Hezbollah and Hamas is a component of a broader effort to build a regional Iran-led axis of resistance against Israel that today includes many thousands of mainly Shia fighters drawn from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.