During the past two years of turmoil in Lebanon, Hezbollah has taken to slowly overturning the accepted postwar norms regarding Lebanon’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian refugee camps and the Palestinian issue as a whole.
On the last Friday of every Ramadan, which this year happens to fall today, Hezbollah organizes a military-like march in Beirut’s southern suburbs to commemorate Jerusalem Day (Yaum al-Quds), parading scores of partisans alongside models of airplanes and resistance weaponry. On this occasion, however, the event is different, as it has entailed greater coordination with Hamas and features the presence in the country of some of the Palestinian Islamist group’s leadership. This reflects Lebanon’s changing role in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and is in some ways a throwback to the tumultuous and destructive 1970s and 1980s.
Since 2019, when Lebanon erupted in widespread protests because of economic, financial, and political crises, Hezbollah has transformed Lebanon’s role in the conflict on three main levels. First, the country has become a haven for Hamas leaders, several of whom sought refuge in Beirut after regional political developments pushed them out of Qatar and Turkey. Hamas had voiced support for the Syrian uprising in its early days, meaning that its leaders had to leave Damascus, where they were based. Most of them settled in Doha and Istanbul. Hamas’ stance also strained its relations with Hezbollah and Iran until a recent shift in the organization’s leadership structure, which saw the rise of Yahya al-Sinwar, an ally of the Iran led “axis of resistance.” Following the 2017 blockade of Qatar by its Gulf rivals and their regional allies, which are hostile to Hamas, the latter’s deputy chief, Saleh al-Arouri, took refuge in Beirut. Doha could no longer afford to host active Hamas leaders, as it was trying fend off claims that it supported terror groups. Turkey’s most recent rapprochement with Israel places it in a similar position, as media reports are now suggesting that Israel stipulated that Ankara cease hosting Hamas activists, and that this led to the expulsion of ten such individuals.
Regardless of whether such information is accurate, Beirut has recently become home to two additional leading figures of Hamas, both of whom left Turkey—Khalil al-Hayyeh and Zaher Jabareen. Hayyeh is a member of the organization’s Political Bureau, and in charge of Hamas’ Islamic and Arab relations. Jabareen is Hamas’ deputy chief in the West Bank and is in charge of the organization’s file concerning Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. In addition to Hamas, Ziad Nakhaleh, the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is now based in Beirut. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad is particularly active in the Gaza Strip, where flare-ups with Israel periodically occur.
Second, Hamas seems for the first time to be building a military presence in Lebanon. This became more visible following an explosion at a suspected Hamas weapons depot in the Burj al-Shemali camp, near the southern city of Tyre on December 12, 2021. Hamza Shahin, a Hamas operative, was killed. Although Hamas denied that the site of the blast was a military depot, the obituary statement it issued for Shahin stated that he had died during “a Jihadi mission.” Notably, the explosion was preceded by an Israeli media report on December 3, which claimed that “Hamas has quietly established a Lebanon branch of its Gaza-based terror group,” and that “the branch is based in Tyre on the coast of Lebanon.”
The same report cited the training, in Lebanon, of Hamas fighters under the guidance of Hezbollah. If true, this would explain the killing of three Hamas members in a shooting at Shahin’s funeral following the explosion. The attack was attributed by Lebanese media to a Fatah-linked faction. Although a reconciliation took place and tensions were apparently contained, any Hamas attempt to dominate the Palestinian camps in Lebanon would disturb the balance of power between different factions. Fatah and its offshoots remain the dominant force in the camps, yet certain Islamist factions have grown in size over the past few years. Indeed, Palestinian and Lebanese Islamist sources speak of a greater presence and more activism on the part of Hamas in the camps, thanks in part to the group’s coordination with Hezbollah. A local Lebanese media outlet attributed to Hamas a recent lone rocket attack on Israel, although it provided little evidence of this. However, such attacks match the recent rhetoric of the organization regarding a wider conflict, one that is not restricted to Gaza.
A third level in which Lebanon’s role has been transformed is the synchrony between Hamas and Iran’s allies in the region—Lebanon and Iraq, and to a lesser extent, Syria and Yemen. Hezbollah is central to this coordination effort, at least when it comes to the Iraqi politico-military factions, whose leaders sent messages of support to the Palestinians from Lebanon’s border with Israel, a Hezbollah stronghold that they visited in 2017. Arouri, one of the Hamas leaders now based in Beirut, mentioned in an interview last month that “we should underline many times what [Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah said in his speech, that [Israeli violations in] Jerusalem could lead to a regional war.” Nasrallah had made the speech in question in May 2021, following clashes between Israel and the Palestinians triggered by the Israelis’ forced evictions of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem. “When sacred sites are in danger,” Nasrallah had said, “fake borders no longer matter.” This is also a recurrent feature of Israeli security analyses, which increasingly point to the likelihood that, when it comes to the southern Lebanon front in any future round of conflict, Israel will face not just Hezbollah fighters, but also “Hamas recruits.”
Internally, Hezbollah’s hosting of Hamas and its continued rhetoric of a unified front has opened old wounds. In 1975, Lebanon fell into civil war after the country became a base for Palestinian fighters following their bloody expulsion from Jordan in 1971. For this reason, senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s visit to Palestinian camps in Lebanon in summer 2020 generated much controversy, with some Lebanese reminiscing about their experiences when Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders moved to the country during the 1970s and 1980s.
Hezbollah’s new approach to Hamas is also linked to the Lebanese state’s increasingly incoherent foreign policy in light of Hezbollah’s growing military capabilities and foreign interventions. This has emerged as particularly apparent since Hezbollah’s decision to take part in the Syrian conflict in 2012, which exacerbated divisions within Lebanon, whose government had sought to steer the country clear of the deteriorating situation across the border.
Additionally, Hezbollah’s hosting of Gulf opposition groups, some of which have established media outlets in Lebanon and occasionally hold much-publicized conferences, sparked a diplomatic crisis last November, one that ended only recently, following a successful Kuwaiti initiative. However, Hezbollah’s policy vis-à-vis Hamas is even riskier and potentially more detrimental, given that Lebanon’s dire economic and financial conditions make it all the more vulnerable. For a country that is already broken, any conflict between groups on its soil and Israel would have devastating consequences.