We are revisiting this article on the occasion of an explosion in the area of Msharafieh, a southern suburb of Beirut, that killed the deputy leader of Hamas' political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri.
On Oct. 10, al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, claimed responsibility for launching the first barrage of rockets from southern Lebanon toward Galilee. This act was in support of the Islamist movement’s Al-Aqsa Flood operation in Israel.
Before this incident, Hamas’ political wing had maintained a relatively low profile in Lebanon, operating within and outside the country’s 12 Palestinian camps.
Its engagement was primarily focused on representation within inter-Palestinian coordination committees, tasked with upholding order in the camps, fostering better relations with Lebanese authorities, and delivering social and religious services.
In contrast, the armed wing was virtually non-existent just a few years ago.
Unlike other armed Palestinian factions such as Fatah, the main component of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas had no established military base and lacked organized brigades.
“In Lebanon, we had personal weapons solely for our self-defense,” said Walid Kilani, Hamas spokesperson [in Lebanon].
In December 2021, some Israeli media outlets reported on the presence of a Hamas arms depot after a significant explosion in a mosque within the Bourj Chemali camp near Sour, which resulted in the death of Hamas member Hamza Chahine,.
Hamas vehemently denies the Israeli media’s narrative.
Citing an unnamed Hamas source, the Times of Israel reported that the arsenal, situated in the mosque’s basement, was intended for “defensive” purposes.
“Israeli claims are part of their usual propaganda,” countered Kilani. “The explosion resulted from stored oxygen cylinders in anticipation, and we were in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Until now, no concrete evidence had been presented to challenge this explanation.
A week before the incident, on Dec. 3, 2021, the Times of Israel published an article supporting the idea that Hamas was “covertly” establishing a Lebanese branch to “open a new front” against Israel.
This narrative followed a series of rocket launches in May 2021 from southern Lebanon, preceded by a salvo on April 6 of the same year. At that time, the Israeli army attributed these launches to “Palestinian factions.”
At the time, there were no confirmed reports on al-Qassam Brigades’ presence in Lebanon.
According to Kilani, the rockets were fired by “Palestinian factions,” but that did not necessarily mean Hamas.
It wasn’t until April 2023, during another round of rocket launches toward Israel, that the Israeli army’s Arabic-speaking spokesman Avichay Adraee openly accused Hamas of being behind the attacks.
This took place against the backdrop of escalating tension following a forceful intervention by Israeli police in the al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem.
For the first time, a few hours before the rocket launches, Hezbollah declared its support for “all measures” taken by Palestinian organizations against Israel.
“Initially, Hamas maintained a consistent position, vowing not to engage in hostilities from Lebanon, respecting existing laws, and aiming to avoid a repetition of Fatah’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990),” said Hicham Bourgi, a Palestinian researcher closely associated with the PLO.
Ali Amin, a Lebanese analyst with a critical stance toward Hezbollah, is of the same opinion.
According to Amin, Hamas did not subscribe to “resistance” outside Palestine. The movement’s leaders consistently emphasized their presence in Lebanon as purely political, disavowing any military intentions.
Within Hamas circles, the directive is unequivocal.
“We don’t discuss the military aspect,” Kilani said. These are confidential matters,” he added, confirming that the group had no military activities before 2023.
The sudden emergence of the al-Qassam Brigade in October raises the question: How can this unexpected development be explained?
“In the wake of the massacres perpetrated in Gaza, in the aftermath of Hamas’ surprise attack, the least we can do is participate in the battle, even if only through a minimal contribution under the tutelage of Hezbollah,” Kilani said.
“We absolutely do not want to drag Lebanon into an all-out war,” he added.
The Hezbollah and Hamas partnership
Hamas’ ascent to power in Lebanon, in collaboration with Hezbollah, began to unfold gradually several years ago. This was evident through the increasingly notorious presence of its representatives in Lebanon, and the frequent movements of some of its political leaders.
Notably, Hezbollah circles openly acknowledged the establishment of a joint operations chamber located in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Since then, Lebanon has served as a refuge for Hamas leaders, who were compelled to relocate due to regional political shifts that ousted them from Qatar and Turkey at that time, as highlighted by Carnegie Centre researcher Mohanad Hajj Ali, in an article published in L’Orient-Le Jour in April 2022.
Hamas leaders started to flock to Beirut after the reconciliation between their movement and Hezbollah.
Relations between the two sides had been severed for several years against the backdrop of the Syrian conflict, during which Hamas fought against the Syrian regime, backed by Hezbollah.
This is not to mention that since 2017, the US has been pressuring Qatar and Turkey, both of which have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, for hosting Hamas leaders, prompting the latter to relocate to Beirut.
This was the case of Saleh al-Arorui, deputy head of Hamas’ politburo, who was forced to leave Ankara for Beirut.
Notably, Hamas is seen as a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Hamas’ military wing began to be set up as soon as Saleh al-Arouri arrived in Lebanon,” said Souheil Natour, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP)’s politburo.
Arouri arrived and settled in Lebanon in 2018, according to Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, quoted by the Times of Israel.
Seen as Hamas’ strategist and described as “dangerous” by Israel, Arouri is said to have been behind military operations since then, including the salvo of rockets fired in April 2023 from southern Lebanon.
Jeroen Gunning, a researcher at King’s College London, stated to L’Orient-Le Jour that Arouri played a crucial role in reinforcing Hamas’ paramilitary infrastructure in Lebanon.
However, this perspective is challenged by researcher Hassan Qotob, who believes that Hamas currently lacks a military structure, let alone seasoned fighters.
In 2017, on the Israeli side, a theory emerged suggesting that Hamas in Lebanon was expanding its military base. Subsequently, Israeli media and diplomatic reports issued warnings that Hamas was gradually establishing a significant “external front.”
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an American think tank, and a former specialist in terrorist financing at the US Treasury Department, reported in an April 2023 interview with the Israeli press about a letter sent in 2017 by Danon to the UN.
The Lebanese daily al-Joumhouriya referenced this letter, citing UN sources.
In his letter, Danon warned of secret cooperation between Hezbollah and Hamas, with a view to extending the latter’s activities in Lebanon.
The rapprochement between the two groups is said to be the result of Arouri’s arrival in Beirut.
“This is how the story of Hamas’ [military] infrastructure in Lebanon began,” said Schanzer.
In his letter, Danon explicitly urged the UN, at that time, to compel Hamas leaders to leave Lebanon, with an implied threat of potential elimination.
During his exile in Turkey, Arouri succeeded in creating an alternative to the traditional leadership, which was fragmented and scattered across various countries of the region.
In August 2014, the Israeli press blamed him for fomenting a plot to assassinate the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas.
The operation was foiled by Israel’s Shin Bet [Internal Security Service].
“Arouri has succeeded in considerably influencing Hamas policy,” wrote Shlomi Eldar the same year in al-Monitor.
Hamas strengthened presence in Lebanon
On April 30, 2022, Hezbollah celebrated Jerusalem Day, which bolstered Hamas’ presence in Lebanon politically and militarily.
During that year, the annual event was “different due to increased coordination with Hamas, marked by the presence of some leaders from the Palestinian Islamist group in the country,” Hajj Ali wrote in L’Orient-Le Jour in 2022.
“This reflects Lebanon’s changing role in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in some respects, constitutes a return to the tumultuous 1970s-1980s,” the article read.
From 2019 onwards, key Hamas executives began to visit Lebanon regularly. Khalil al-Hayeh, member of the group’s politburo and head of its Islamic and Arab relations office, as well as Zaher Jabbarin, deputy head of Hamas in the West Bank and in charge of the Palestinian prisoners’ dossier.
Hamas had been carefully expanding its sophisticated structure and strengthening its collaboration with Hezbollah.
The concept of the “unity of fronts,” solemnly declared by Hassan Nasrallah in April 2023 following the Israeli police’s forceful raid on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, had already taken root in people’s minds.
It later became a cornerstone of the Oct. 7 war, although its implementation was deemed “timid” by some Hamas officials, notably Khaled Mechaal, the head of Hamas political bureau abroad.
“The principle has been misinterpreted,” Kilani said. “The unity of fronts does not imply total war but rather a contribution by each component of the resistance as it can.”
“It’s about unity of resistance, rather than fronts,” said Natour. According to him, Hamas began recruiting members from the Palestinian camps a few years ago, opting for profiles “close to its Islamist ideology.”
Hamas’ military wing has so far enlisted around 1,000 fighters, a figure obtained from several sources, but which remains to be verified.
“Some of the new recruits have been sent to Iran for training,” said Natour, who explained that another group of Palestinians from Lebanon’s DFLP has also benefited from military training in Tehran.
Along with Qatar, Iran is Hamas’ main sponsor, providing logistical, military and financial support.
Hamas, like Hezbollah, makes no secret of this fact.
“Our financial backers are many and varied,” Kilani said. “But Iran is certainly one of our main sponsors.”
The reconciliation between Hamas and Hezbollah is now well-established. Their rapprochement has been facilitated by circumstances — the end of the war in Syria and the Iranian-dictated rhetoric of unifying fronts.
With a common goal, do the two groups also share the same military arsenal?
While Israel accuses Hamas of having set up its own missile factory in Lebanon, as Danon noted in his letter to the UN, some analysts doubt this, arguing that Hamas has no need for it.
“If the two movements operate on the same ground, hand in hand, if they have the same sponsor and the same arms supplier,” said Schanzer, referring to Hezbollah’s high-precision missiles.
Even though the two groups share common weaponry, it remains uncertain whether their relationship is on equal footing.
“Hezbollah has certainly drawn closer to Hamas, but caution is called for, as trust has not fully been restored,” said a former Lebanese intelligence officer on condition of anonymity. “Hezbollah prefers not to meddle in Hamas’ affairs in its own backyard.”
Ultimately, the two sides are bound by common interests.
“Hezbollah allows Hamas to contribute to operations in defense of its cause,” Natour said. “But it’s the Shiite party that remains the master of the game.”
According to Qotob, “For Hezbollah, the Palestinian issue remains the key to touching the hearts of Arabs and Muslims.”
During his visit to Beirut in September 2020, Haniyeh stated, “The missiles to be launched at Tel Aviv are in Beirut and will be fired from there.” This statement, following his meeting with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, illustrated the division of roles between the two “resistance groups.”
According to Natour, “Hamas is covering for Hezbollah, and vice versa.”
Hamas leaders may have sought refuge in Lebanon for security reasons, but there’s no assurance that they won’t face threats there, as indicated by warnings from Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence service. Mossad has vowed to pursue them wherever they go, including in Lebanon. Khalil Hamid al-Kharaz, a senior member of al-Qassam Brigades, was killed in an Israeli airstrike that hit his car in southern Lebanon a week ago.’
The potential risk could escalate if the reports circulating on X (formerly Twitter) are accurate. Allegedly, numerous Hamas leaders have infiltrated Lebanese territory, potentially resulting in persecution on Lebanese soil.
Additionally, concerns arise about the political and military balance in Palestinian refugee camps. With Hamas strengthened by what it perceives as a “victory” in Gaza, there is a possibility that the group might seek to assert control over the camps, historically dominated by Fatah.
“It won’t be Hamas trying to take anyone’s place,” Kilani said. “Instead, it will be the Palestinian refugees themselves in the camps, who are increasingly supporting our movement.”
Kilani added, “We shouldn’t underestimate ourselves, especially when we have just restored the centrality of the Palestinian cause after 30 years of deadlock and concessions made by Abu Mazen [i.e., PA President Mahmoud Abbas].”
In August and September, clashes lasting several weeks unfolded between Fatah and radical Islamists in Ain al-Hilweh camp, significantly challenging the political and military balance. Hamas, and behind it Hezbollah, were implicated.
“Just as it expanded its influence over Lebanon, Hezbollah is now replicating the experiment with the Palestinians, seeking to govern the Palestinian camps in alignment with its interests,” Amin said.
This article was originally published by L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.
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