With Iranian help, Hamas, which controls Gaza, is creating a presence in Hezbollah’s backyard in Lebanon. Should it be of any concern to American security interests that Iran supports both of these terrorist organizations?
The answer is yes. An emergent and unpredictable Hamas military presence in Lebanon could destabilize the whole region. This is because Hamas may not feel as restrained to act in Lebanon as in Gaza, where it fills the role of being the de facto power. Palestinian Hamas knows it would not primarily bear the consequence of Israeli retaliation for its actions emanating from Lebanon. It does not take much imagination to understand that this could spiral out of control into a regional war — and possibly throw a wrench into America’s pivot toward China.
Lebanon is a volcano on the verge of exploding, with much more weaponry than in the past. Hamas’s presence in Lebanon could ignite a reprise of the 1975-1990 civil war between Palestinians, Christians, Druze, Sunnis and Shiites. The difference this time is the complete involvement of Iran and the use it makes of failed states to advance its hegemonic agenda. This is especially important at this time, because Hezbollah is trying to evade blame for last summer’s massive Beirut port explosion by intimidating government investigators, as it did with the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005.
On a bipartisan basis, America considers the continuation of the fragile status quo in Lebanon to be in our interest. The last thing America wants is another conflagration cascading through the Middle East, drawing into itself American allies Israel and Jordan. A Third Lebanon War would be a major impediment for the Biden administration’s attempt to restart the Iran nuclear deal. It would be awkward, to say the least, for Biden to shake hands on such a deal while Iran would be actively supporting Hezbollah and Hamas in a war instigated by Iran-backed forces in Lebanon.
So why is Persian Shiite Iran supporting Sunni Arab Palestinian Hamas in Shiite Arab Hezbollah territory? The common interest allying Iran and Hamas is to destroy the Zionist entity; that’s the glue that binds Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas together. The religious divides within Islam are papered over in the name of liberating Palestine. As Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said during a meeting with Hamas leadership, “The issue of Palestine is the most important and first issue on the Islamic world’s agenda.” Iran has turned Palestine into an ideology itself, eclipsing the many centuries-long Sunni vs. Shiite divide.
How Israel will act against an assertive Hamas operating from Lebanon is not known. Israel has enjoyed relative quiet in the north since the 2006 Second Lebanon War. It knows that Hezbollah’s 150,000 missiles in Lebanon, some now with precision guidance, could inflict devastating damage across the country. Could Israel strike Hamas in Lebanon without forcing Hezbollah’s hand and turning the conflict into an inferno?
Hezbollah remembers the devastation it sustained in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War and knows the Lebanese people will blame them for whatever happens in the next war with Israel. So, for their self-interest and survival, they likely would want to keep things from bubbling into a real battle. However, Iran would have the final say — Hezbollah follows Iranian directives as a religious obligation (Velayat-e Faqih).
How does Hezbollah feel about Hamas creating a foothold on its turf? Does Hamas coordinate with Hezbollah, or is it forced upon Hezbollah by its overlord Iran? The current thinking among some experts is that the Palestinian branch of the Iranian Quds Force in Lebanon coordinates actions with Hamas operatives in Lebanon.
For Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanon, Palestinians are, at best, tolerated guests who should move to Palestine once Israel has been eliminated. Palestinians have not been allowed to integrate into Lebanese society, become citizens, or get the education and jobs needed for self-sufficiency or own property. Palestinians have been used as pawns, to perpetuate the conflict with Israel and deflect attention from Lebanon’s failings.
Hamas’s active military presence in Lebanon is not just theoretical. Hamas sent Grad missiles from Lebanon into Israel during the 2021 Guardian of the Walls War between Israel and Hamas. In the 2014 Gaza war (Protective Edge), Hamas proxies in Lebanon also fired missiles into Israel, probably against Hezbollah’s wishes.
Despite being Sunni, Hamas has received significant Iranian financial support, smuggled weapons, and the know-how to manufacture its missiles. This relationship dramatically increased after Hamas overthrew the Palestinian Authority in 2007 to take control of Gaza. At the time, the former leader of Hamas stated, “Hamas is the spiritual son of Khomeini [Iran’s first Supreme Leader].”
Hamas’s relations with Iran and Hezbollah have had their ups and downs. Things worsened during the Syrian Civil War when Hamas supported the Sunni rebels against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Hezbollah and Iranian vassal. In 2019, Hamas in Lebanon failed to side with Hezbollah during Lebanese protests, provoking Hezbollah’s anger.
The relationship between Hamas and Iran is not a one-way street. Iran sees Hamas as the leader in Palestinian resistance, sharing the goal of bringing about Israel’s destruction. Hamas understands that Iran is its most reliable source of military and financial assistance for the foreseeable future.
Hamas’s growing military presence in Lebanon creates a complex challenge for Hezbollah, knowing they, being the de facto power in Lebanon, will bear the brunt of any Israeli retaliation. Hamas operating from Lebanon endangers Lebanon’s citizenry and is a danger that is not sufficiently appreciated in the U.S. The last thing we need now, as U.S. attention turns away from the Middle East, is a new Lebanese civil war.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post. Follow on Twitter @MepinOrg.