Lebanese army take cover behind shields as they deploy during a protest after Lebanese Prime Minister-Designate Saad al-Hariri abandoned his effort to form a new government, in Beirut, Lebanon July 15, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
In recent days, a senior Iranian military commander boasted that his country has built “six armies outside its borders that work for it.”
What the officer did not say, however, is that one of these terror armies — Hamas — is busy building a second front against Israel in Lebanon, and that it is trampling on Hezbollah’s toes in the process. While Hezbollah monitors Hamas’ activities in Lebanon, this is not always sufficient to control its activities.
Maj. (res.) Tal Beeri, director of the research department at the Alma Research and Education Center, which sheds light on security threats to Israel emanating from Syria and Lebanon, is preparing a major investigative report into Hamas’ presence in Lebanon — and his findings are surprising.
The report, which is scheduled to be released later this month, identifies Hamas’ working plans, senior military operatives, and the location of some key Hamas sites on Lebanese territory. It also analyzes the significance of this activity in regard to Sunni Hamas’ relationship to the radical Shiite axis that is led by Iran.
“Hamas’ activities in Lebanon, like those of Hezbollah, can be divided along two central axes,” Beeri, who served for 20 years in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. “The first is the political-civilian sphere, and the second is the military-terrorist area.”
The danger posed by Hamas in the West Bank made headlines last week, when the IDF conducted a series of preemptive counter-terrorism raids in multiple locations to disrupt what Israeli officials described as a major Hamas terrorist plot for Jerusalem. Several Palestinian gunmen, including three Hamas members, were killed in exchanges of fire with Israeli forces, and significant quantities of explosives were seized in the raids. It would be safe to bet that Saleh Al-Arouri, the head of the Hamas “West Bank portfolio,” had a hand in the plot, Beeri said.
Al-Arouri resided in Turkey under its sympathetic Islamist government until President Erdogan was compelled to ejecthim in 2015, as part of an unsuccessful US-led attempt to end the diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel. Al-Arouri moved to Qatar until Doha also “requested” his departure in 2017, in the midst of a crisis with its Gulf neighbors. After spending a little time in Malaysia, he settled down in Lebanon, and helped set up a significant Lebanese Hamas headquarters, staffed with senior members.
Yet Hamas in Lebanon is not just orchestrating terrorism in the West Bank, Beeri said; it is also shaping an offensive force in Lebanon itself.
Hamas has two Lebanese units that can be activated: The El-Shimali Unit and the Khaled Ali Unit.
“Each one has hundreds of operatives,” he said. “They both deal in recruitment, training, and specialized qualification courses, such as sniping, operating anti-tank missile launchers, drone operators, urban warfare, and tactical intelligence collection.”
Both of these units develop and manufacture weapons in Lebanon, particularly rockets and drones, as well as small unmanned submarines. With Lebanon’s sizeable Palestinian population, the units have “fertile grounds” for recruiting.
In 2018, senior Israeli officials, such as former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, warned that Hamas was trying to build a second front against Israel from southern Lebanon, and that it was building a new terrorist infrastructure for that purpose.
“For around a decade, Hamas has been building a very serious military infrastructure in Lebanon, which will provide them with back-up operational options against Israel in addition to Gaza,” Beeri warned. “The Lebanese front will allow Hamas to manage combat against Israel from two sectors, creating a certain attention problem for Israel.”
Recent months provided clear demonstrations of the role Hamas envisions for its Lebanese operations.
There were five separate rocket attacks out of Lebanon against Israel between May and August. “The likelihood that Hamas was behind all of these attacks is very high,” said Beeri.
Early warning signs of this activity stretch all the way back to 2014, during Israel’s 51-day war with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Hamas operatives fired rockets at Israel from Lebanon too, but the Israeli public was busy with Gazan rocket attacks and did not take much notice.
But Beeri stressed that it is not only Israel that cannot trivialize this development; Hezbollah too cannot afford to turn a blind eye, as the potential repercussions of Hamas’ activities could be severe.
On the surface, Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas display a common interest in fighting Israel, despite sectarian-ideological gaps between them. But despite the cooperation and the rhetoric, Hezbollah has good reason to be disturbed by what Hamas is doing in its backyard. “Hamas’s buildup of force could pose a true threat to Hezbollah and its status — in Lebanon and the wider Arab world,” said Beeri.
This is due to the fact that Hamas could drag Israel into a wider war in Lebanon, with Hezbollah having no control over the escalation, yet having to face Israeli firepower.
Hezbollah is extremely busy dealing with Lebanon’s multiple crises, and taking advantage of them to increase its power. It is not in its interest to enter into a war with Israel at this time — although this is true for now, and could change from one day to the next.
Thus, despite the declarative unity and common goal of “defending Palestine and Jerusalem,” tension is growing between Hamas, which markets itself as the defender of all Palestinians, and Hezbollah, which presents itself as the defender of the Lebanese people, Beeri noted.
In 2012, when Egypt was ruled by the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, Hamas felt that it had finally secured its natural state sponsor and ideal “mother ship.” A year later, when Morsi was overthrown together with his Muslim Brotherhood government, Hamas did not rush back into Iran’s hands, staying “neutral” for a considerable period of time, said Beeri.
The fact that Hamas actively supported Palestinian rebels against the Assad regime in the Al Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus during the Syrian civil war only contributed to tensions, he added.
Tensions reached a boiling point in 2013, when Hezbollah ceased all Hamas activity in Lebanon. In that same year, said Beeri, a Hamas operative fired Grad rockets at Hezbollah’s Dahiya south Beirut heartland, due to tensions over the Syrian civil war and Hezbollah’s key role in supporting the Assad regime.
But none of this tension disrupted the flourishing of military-terrorist cooperation that developed over the years between the Iranian axis and Hamas in Gaza, he added.
Hamas and the Assad regime never completed a reconciliation process, but Iran “is still hugging Hamas despite its zigzags,” said Beeri. “This support extends to Hamas in Lebanon. The military force build-up of Hamas in Gaza and Lebanon has not been harmed by these changes in relations. Hamas continues to receive funding, weapons know-how, and battle doctrine assistance from Iran.”
That should come as no consolation to Hezbollah, which now must deal with Hamas as “an independent entity” in its own heartland.
As for Israel, Beeri said, Jerusalem should adopt a new paradigm and begin dealing with Hamas as a single entity, rather than accepting the division between its Gazan and Lebanese components.
Says Beeri, “Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah is unlikely to rush to start a war if Israel hits Hamas sites and assets precisely in Lebanon.”
Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.