Hamas building second military front against Israel in Lebanon

Hamas has been increasing its presence in Lebanon, while coordinating with Iran and Hezbollah on certain issues and acting independently when it comes to the procurement and production of weapons. 

By Tobias Siegal, World Israel News

The Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas is establishing extensive military infrastructure in Lebanon, meant to serve as a second front against the State of Israel in a future conflict, according to a report released Tuesday by the Alma Research and Education Center, dedicated to researching and analyzing threats emanating from Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria.

The report, authored by Alma researcher Tal Beeri, identifies Hamas’ principle senior political and military leaders in Lebanon, as well as large-scope military projects and the locations of key sites operated by Hamas within Lebanon.

These include, for example, the “Aref Center,” located in the northern Lebanese city of Sidon. The six-story building functions as Hamas’ headquarters in Lebanon and includes offices, meetings rooms and sleeping areas for Hamas operatives arriving from abroad. According to the report, the building also houses the offices of the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood.

Senior Hamas figures in Lebanon include Ahmed Abd al-Hadi, known as Abu Yasser, who has served as head of Hamas in Lebanon since 2019 and his deputy, Jihad Ta, who is mostly in charge of coordinating operations with Hezbollah, the report notes.

But more interesting, perhaps, is the in-depth analysis offered in the report of the emerging “complex and surprising relationship” between the Palestinian Sunni-Islamic group and the Iranian-led radical Shi’ite axis and the implications of such a relationship to Israel’s security.

The history between Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas

The relationship between Iran and Hamas originated shortly after Hamas was founded in 1987, Beeri noted in his report. It mainly surrounded financial support offered by Iran, primarily used for smuggling and manufacturing weapons, which intensified after Hamas overtook the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Despite ideological differences, Hamas and Iran seemed to align their interests in those early days, to the point where Hamas was referred to by its own leaders as the “spiritual son of Khomeini,” leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Hamas chose to side with the rebel camp fighting the radical Shiite axis led by Iran. This led to several outcomes, including the Hamas leadership moving its headquarters from Syria to Qatar and Turkey, and the group shifting its alliance to the Muslim Brotherhood and consequently abandoning the radical Shiite axis.

Consequently, friction started to emerge between Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon. A 2013 report by the Jerusalem Post cited by Alma indicated that Hezbollah had demanded that Hamas halt its political activities in Lebanon. The constant friction between Hezbollah and Hamas continued for years, with Hamas regularly advancing its operational plans in southern Lebanon independently, without considering Hezbollah’s objectives or notifying it of its plans.

Despite the growing disputes, after years of military stalemate in the Syrian arena, Iran and Hezbollah agreed in 2017 to put their differences with Hamas aside and once again focus on their common goals. In May that year a series of meetings were held between senior Hamas and Hezbollah figures under Iranian auspices, the result of which was increased Iranian support for Hamas.

Since then, Beeri explains, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has managed to overcome the ideological differences between the radical Shiite axis and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood by turning the issue of “Palestine” into its own ideology, rather than focusing on religious differences.

Talking to World Israel News, Beeri said that this notion is becoming increasingly evident, noting May’s conflict in Gaza, which saw many groups, including Hamas, declare the issue of “defending” Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque as their moral responsibility. “Iran knew how to unite Hamas and its other proxies around this issue,” Beeri said.

In this way, “Iran can connect many elements in the Middle East, including Sunni elements such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) against Israel.”

The Shiiteization of Gaza

The Alma report cites a recent Egyptian report that described a growing concern over the Shiiteization of the Gaza Strip by Gaza residents, a gradual process that grew after the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, when posters depicting his portrait hung all across the Strip. The process further intensified since Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021.

Alma also mentions the “al-Saberin Nasra for Palestine-Hatzen” organization, active in the Gaza Strip since 2014. The organization, funded by Iran, promotes Shiite ideology by distributing charity to needy families in Gaza.

Despite Hamas’ reservations, the Iran-led group continues its activities in Gaza. Hamas knows that Iranian support is dependent on the group’s activity. Ultimately, the common interest against the Jewish State overcomes religious differences.

A veil of secrecy

Despite “The Ideology of Palestine,” which has allowed Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran to work together, there always seems to be a simultaneous effort carried out by the different parties, aimed at promoting their own agenda behind the scenes.

In Lebanon, this is manifested in Hamas’ “Construction Bureau.” Other than its official responsibility of building Hamas’ military capabilities in Lebanon, it is tasked with forming this military force in secret, “concealing it from the eyes of the Lebanese authorities and Hezbollah,” according to the report.

The “Construction Bureau” has multiple departments with various responsibilities, with a major effort being put into the procurement and independent production of weapons, in one example of how Hamas has tried to safeguard its independent operations regardless of Iran or Hezbollah. According to Alma, this effort covers the production of rockets, drones and even “miniature explosive submarines.”

Hamas’ Project Sa’ad, for instance, manufactures rockets independently under a civilian cover of secrecy.

Current head of the “Construction Bureau” was identified by Alma as Majed Qader Mahmoud Qader. He, according to the report, led the idea of carrying out covert operations against Israel from Lebanon and Syria.

Military operations are be carried out by one of Hamas’ military units already undergoing training in various areas of Lebanon. These include the “Al-Shimali” and “Khalid Ali” units, which Alma says consist of 500 operatives each. These units’ operatives are mostly recruited from Palestinian refugee camps located in Lebanon.

While some experts firmly believe that nothing happens in Lebanon without Hezbollah knowing about it, Beeri said he believes that estimation to be inaccurate. “It’s true that Hezbollah controls most of the territory, but there are many activities taking place under Hezbollah’s radar,” he told WIN.

As an example, he noted several rocket attacks launched toward Israel from Lebanon in recent months attributed to Hamas. “Hezbollah didn’t know about it [at first] and didn’t like it,” he said.

Conflicting interests

Despite Iran designating a specific branch of its Quds Force to supervising and assisting Hamas’ military activity in Lebanon, the complex history between the groups has shown that alliances may shift.

The reality is that Hamas’ growing presence in Lebanon may serve Hezbollah in a future conflict with Israel, but it may also hinder its operations and lead to unwelcome outcomes as Hezbollah sees it. This built-in tension between Hamas, the “defender of all Palestinians,” as it sees itself, and Hezbollah’s self-proclaimed title, “protector of all Lebanese,” poses a conflict of interest regarding operations against Israel from Lebanese territory.

And that means that the groups may sometimes carry out conflicting operations or act in a way that undermines each other. In other words, Hamas does not see itself as “just a guest” in Lebanon, as the Alma report states.

These conclusions seem to collide with a statement issued by a senior Iranian general last month, which indicated that Tehran fully controls six armies that operate outside its borders. Iranian Maj.-Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid argued that Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi movement in Yemen, Hashd al-Sha’bi in Iraq, Iranian militias in Syria, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas in “Palestine” all share ideological tendencies and would defend Iran against any threat.

But the Iranian general forgot to mention the ongoing tensions between some of these groups, which, while enjoying continued support from Iran, largely operate independently and covertly, according to their own specific doctrine.

Shortly after issuing his statement, the Islamic Jihad responded by clarifying that “our alliance with Iran is meant to strengthen our resistance to the Zionist movement.”

Regarding Hamas, “it’s not your classic example of an Iranian proxy,” Beeri said. “At the end of the day, if you take Iranian support away form the Houthis in Yemen, they will have a very hard time remaining operational. The same goes for Hezbollah, they would have a hard time functioning. But Hamas is different in that sense and won’t necessarily listen to Iran.”

Israeli policy

Today, Israeli policy views Hamas as the responsible entity for any attacks carried out from the Gaza Strip, while holding the Lebanese government responsible for all activity carried out from within its territory.

Moreover, there is barely any indication in Israeli media or public discourse that would point to the tangible threat slowly growing in Lebanon. Beeri believes this to be a wrong strategy.

The emerging geopolitical reality, characterized by growing alliances between regional terror groups one the one hand and increasing efforts among these groups to produce their own weapons independently on the other hand, may require Israel to change its strategy and view each group as responsible for its actions, regardless of where such actions are carried out from.

Openly attacking Hamas targets in Lebanon when rockets are launched from Gaza may hinder Hamas’ establishment in the country by letting its leaders know that retaliation is not confined to the Gaza Strip, but could target anyone and anywhere.

“Israel can’t afford both a strong Hezbollah and a strong Hamas in Lebanon,” Beeri said, noting that while Israel can’t do much about Hezbollah’s strength and control in Lebanon, it can still prevent a second Hamas front.

Israel taking concrete action again Hamas targets in Lebanon may also further complicate the delicate status quo that currently exists between Hamas and Hezbollah by indicating to Hezbollah that it is losing control in its own backyard and may be dragged into an unwanted war with Israel due to Hamas’ actions. This, in turn, could potentially lead Hezbollah to limit Hamas’ activity in Lebanon, like it did in 2013.

All things considered, choosing a new policy regarding Hamas in Lebanon could consequently destabilize the campaign waged by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas against the State of Israel. Failing to do so, might mean more security challenges on Israel’s northern front and a much stronger Hamas in Gaza.