Rockets from Lebanon Point to Growing Hamas Collaboration with Hezbollah

JERUSALEM — When an unusually heavy barrage of rockets hit Israel from Lebanon this week, it was the latest reminder of the long-standing hostility between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia that dominates Lebanon's southern border.

But it also adds a new and important dimension to the conflict, according to analysts and military officials: It reflects the growing partnership between Hezbollah and Hamas, the hardline Palestinian militia accused by the Israeli military of masterminding the rocket attacks, possibly with Hezbollah. grace.

Hamas, a political, social and military movement founded in 1987, has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, after wresting it from the mainstream Palestinian leadership. Since then it has fought regular wars with Israel, frequently firing rockets at southern Israel from Gaza. Hamas fighters have also carried out shootings and bombings in the occupied West Bank and Israel, which, like the United States, regards it as a terrorist organization and maintains a blockade on Gaza as a result.

Now, Hamas is accused of carrying out armed activity in a fourth arena—the Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon.

Hamas praised but did not formally claim responsibility for Thursday's rocket attack from Lebanon, which was launched after Israeli police raided the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem earlier this week. A spokesman for the group, Basem Naim, declined to comment when asked about it.

But the Israeli military announced that agents of Hamas, possibly working with another militia, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, had fired rockets from near the city of Tyre in southern Lebanon. The area hosts thousands of Palestinian exiles whose ancestors fled there during the war surrounding the founding of Israel in 1948.

Hamas' alleged involvement reflects its strong ties to Hezbollah and Hezbollah's sponsor Iran, both of which oppose Israel's existence. The warming of ties follows a colder period a decade ago, when the groups backed different sides in Syria's civil war. Hamas, a Sunni Muslim group, supports Sunni militias rebelling against the government, while Iran and Hezbollah, both Shiite movements, side with the Syrian government.

Last year, however, Hamas repaired its relationship with Damascus—and in a sign of new coordination, fighters in the government-held part of Syria fired short rockets into Israel early Sunday, prompting Israel to briefly return fire.

The rocket fire from Lebanon also shows that Hamas is trying to find ways to maintain its conflict with Israel without causing further damage to its stronghold in Gaza. Hamas' repeated wars with Israel over the past two decades have led to Israeli attacks that have damaged large swaths of territory and killed thousands of Palestinians.

By shelling Israel from Lebanon, experts say that Hamas can divert attention from Gaza, reducing the likelihood of a full-scale Israeli retaliation in the territory. While Israel responded to the rockets from Lebanon by briefly bombing Hamas infrastructure in Gaza as well as southern Lebanon, the Israeli attacks were kept away from major urban centers and caused no reported injuries.

Hamas “want to confront Israel, but not Gaza,” said Hugh Lovatt, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based research group. “The recent rocket fire from Lebanon is another attempt by Hamas to open another front against Israel which will still try not to include Gaza.”

The arrangement also suits Hezbollah because it allows the group to increase pressure on Israel without incurring major reprisals on its own forces, Lovatt added. The rockets were “a useful reminder to Israel of Hezbollah's continued ability to wreak havoc,” he said. “But it still provides a reasonable bit of deniability.”

A senior Hamas official in Lebanon played down the idea that the group had recently strengthened its presence in Lebanon. Osama Hamdan, a longtime leader of Hamas in Lebanon, said in a telephone interview that relations with Hezbollah had always been warm, and declined to talk about Hamas's military capabilities in Lebanon.

“We are fighting the same enemy,” Hamdan said of Hezbollah. “This relationship spans over 30 years, a relationship based on respect and resistance to the Zionist occupation. We feel that Hezbollah has always been on the side of the Palestinian people, and the relationship has always been positive.”

But Israeli analysts and officials argue that Hamas has become closer to Hezbollah in recent years and is more active in Lebanon, a process that was accelerated after Saleh al-Arouri's election in October 2017 as deputy chairman of Hamas' political bureau.

Later that month, Mr Arouri began strengthening ties with Iran and Hezbollah, visiting Tehran to meet the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. Days later, he met publicly with the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and discussed how their movements could work together, according to Palestinian news reports at the time.

Mr Arouri immediately began expanding Hamas's paramilitary infrastructure in Lebanon, but not necessarily with Hezbollah's full awareness, according to two intelligence officials briefed on the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity to comply with protocol. Soon after, in January 2018, Israel unsuccessfully attempted to kill one of Arouri's top lieutenants in Lebanon with a car bomb, officials said.

Hamas' cooperation with Hezbollah adds to a growing sense of danger along the Israel-Lebanon border. Since fighting a full-scale war in 2006, both Israel and Hezbollah have avoided another major confrontation along the border, keeping cross-border fire and infiltration to a minimum. The most direct confrontation between the two sides has instead taken place in Syria, where Israel regularly attacks targets linked to Hezbollah.

In recent weeks, however, Hezbollah has appeared less fearful of a wider armed confrontation. Mr Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, recently said he believes Israel is close to collapse, referring to the political crisis in Israel over proposed judicial overhauls that has widened divisions in Israeli society.

Then, in an unusually audacious attack last month, a man Israeli officials say may be linked to Hezbollah secretly entered Israel from Lebanon and planted a roadside bomb that seriously injured an Israeli.

But Hamas may still want to avoid getting too close to or too frequently involved in such attacks, according to Imad Alsoos, a Hamas expert at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, a German research institute.

In the 1970s and 1980s, an early generation of Palestinian fighters used Lebanon as a launching pad for attacks on Israel, prompting Israel to occupy parts of southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000, a move widely regarded as disastrous. Israel briefly invaded again in 2006 during its war with Hezbollah, which had filled the power vacuum left by Israel when it withdrew six years earlier.

Hamas leaders believe that the Palestinian militias ultimately hindered their cause by becoming too involved in internal Lebanese dynamics during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, Alsoos said, citing conversations with Hamas officials. Leaders of Hamas' main secular rival, Fatah, were eventually forced out of Lebanon and Jordan during that period, a situation Hamas leaders wanted to avoid, Alsoos said.

“They are very, very sensitive about using other countries' land to launch attacks,” said Mr. Alsoos. “They think if they get involved in these countries' internal conflicts, this will be the end of Hamas itself.”

Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon. Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.