In recent days, a senior Iranian military commander boasted that his country has built "six armies outside its borders that work for it."
The commander attributed the statement to Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of Iran's overseas Quds Force, and went on to name these armies as Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Iranian-sponsored militias in Syria, the Iranian-backed militias of Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen.
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 Hizballah's toes in the process. While Hizballah monitors Hamas's activities in Lebanon, this is not always sufficient to control its activities, and Hamas is capable of not giving Hizballah the "head's up" before it uses Lebanon as a base to attack Israel.
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's presence in Lebanon – and his findings are surprising.
The report, which is scheduled to be released later this month, identifies Hamas's 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's relationship to the radical Shi'ite axis that is led by Iran.
"Hamas's activities in Lebanon, like those of Hizballah, 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."
Hamas focused on protecting the interests of the roughly 200,000 Palestinians in Lebanon who have never received Lebanese citizenship. "The most prominent example of such activities is the campaign to change Lebanese employment laws to stop discrimination against Palestinians, as well as promoting welfare projects," said Beeri.
But the lion's share of resources goes to Hamas's military-terrorist program in Lebanon. The effort is led by Salah Al-Arouri, the deputy head of Hamas's political bureau, and the second in command to Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh. Arouri is also responsible for orchestrating Hamas's terrorist activities in the West Bank.
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 Al-Arouri, as 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 eject him in 2015 as part of an unsuccessful U.S.-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.
In order to fully understand how Hamas coordinates its force build up, it is necessary to examine a shadowy Hamas planning division, dubbed the "Construction Bureau," Beeri explained.
"The Construction Bureau is a headquarters that is responsible for shaping Hamas's force in all sectors – Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank," he said. "The Bureau itself is based in Lebanon and in Turkey. It contains specialized planning departments that deal with different issues. There is a military intelligence department, a department for training, communications, financing, personnel, and weapons manufacturing."
Some members of the Construction Bureau had to leave Turkey, and relocated to Lebanon, but some remain active in Turkey today, said Beeri. This activity is occurring with the knowledge of the Erdogan government.
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. "These two units also create operational cells, and formulate operational attack plans," said Beeri.
With Lebanon's sizeable Palestinian population, the units have "fertile grounds" for recruiting.
In 2018, senior Israeli officials, such as former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, 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.
The officials spoke of Hamas rocket factories in Lebanon, as well as Hamas-Hizballah cooperation. The statements were quickly forgotten, however, and hardly made a dent on the public agenda, said Beeri.
But they should have.
"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," he 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.
"We have clear and reoccurring examples of Hamas building up its power in Lebanon. The end result is a new front that gives Hamas operational flexibility – they can attack from the south, from Gaza, or from the north, from Lebanon," he added.
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.
Hamas's road to building a new base of operations in Lebanon hasn't been smooth, and it is a journey dotted with setbacks, said Beeri. But the overall trend of Hamas creating a new outpost of armed attack remains undeniable, and "it cannot be trivialized," he cautioned.
Beeri stressed that it is not only Israel that cannot trivialize this development; Hizballah too cannot afford to turn a blind eye, as the potential repercussions of Hamas's activities could be severe.
"All of Hamas's activities in Lebanon are occurring with the assistance of the Palestine Branch of the Quds Force, a part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran," said Beeri.
On the surface, Shi'ite Hizballah and Sunni Hamas display a common interest in fighting Israel despite sectarian-ideological gaps between them. This joint interest has allowed the Iranian-headed Shi'ite axis to cooperate with the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, also known as Hamas. "The common ideological concept of a 'Palestine ideology' is what unites them," said Beeri. "This found expression during Hizballah's pledge to 'defend Jerusalem' together with Hamas during the May conflict in Gaza."
Despite the cooperation and the rhetoric, however, Hizballah 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 Hizballah and its status – in Lebanon and the wider Arab world," said Beeri.
This is due to the fact that Hamas is not in the habit of sharing its future attack plans with Hizballah. This creates the potential of Hamas dragging Israel into a wider war in Lebanon, with Hizballah having no control over the escalation, yet having to face Israeli firepower.
"The best example of this was in the recent attack by Hamas in Lebanon against Israel in August," said Beeri. "Those who believe that Hizballah knew about this firing ahead of time are, in my view, wrong. Hizballah was left out."
As a result, two days after that attack, Hizballah was forced to "take ownership" of the events by firing its own rocket barrage at Israel. "It entered into the game even though it did not want to play," said Beeri.
Hizballah 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 this is true for now, and could change from one day to the next.
"If we take this one step forward, the next firing incidents could lead to a regional escalation, and to war. If that happens, it would be a war that Hamas would start," he cautioned.
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 Hizballah, which presents itself as the defender of the Lebanese people, Beeri noted. "This creates a clash of interests. For Hizballah, the Palestinians are just guests in the Lebanese arena. But Hamas's force build-up and activity in Lebanon show that it doesn't view itself as just a guest," he added.
Iran Pulls the Strings
"We have seen Hamas zigzag over its support of the Shi'ite axis, and its support for a key member of that axis – the Assad regime in Syria. And we have seen how the Iranian axis tries to continuously bear hug Hamas, which supported Sunni rebels against the Syrian regime," he recalled.
The question of whether the Shi'ite axis is more dependent on Hamas than Hamas is dependent on it arises in this context, according to Beeri. "Although Hamas does not necessarily listen to Iran and is not considered a classic proxy in this regard, Iran sees Hamas as a leader in the Palestinian arena, and therefore, from Iran's perspective, 'there is no choice' but to hug Hamas and to keep it close. Hamas, for its part, also understands that 'there is no choice' and that Iran is the only source of military and financial assistance."
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 boiling point in 2013, when Hizballah ceased all Hamas activity in Lebanon. In that same year, said Beeri, a Hamas operative fired Grad rockets at Hizballah's Dahiya south Beirut heartland, due to tensions over the Syrian civil war and Hizballah's key role in supporting the Assad regime.
"In 2014, Hizballah cooperated with the Lebanese Armed Forces and Fatah to monitor and spy on Hamas activities in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camp. This bad blood accumulated over years – and it remains in the background," said Beeri.
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 Hizballah, said Beeri, which now must deal with Hamas as "an independent entity" in its own heartland.
"Iran can ultimately order Hamas to act on its own against Israel, compartmentalized from Hizballah – and this is likely what happened in May," said Beeri. "Hamas can also act in Lebanon without explicit instructions or help from Iran. This can create a serious threat for Hizballah. Hamas's weapons in Lebanon already exist, and it can continue to develop these independently."
As for Israel, Beeri said, Jerusalem should adopt a new paradigm and begin dealing with Hamas a single entity, rather than accepting the division between its Gazan and Lebanese components.
"This means that if there was a Hamas attack out of Gaza, who is to say that Hamas in Lebanon is immune?" Beeri asked. "Israel has to get out of this conceptual box. Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah is unlikely to rush to start a war if Israel hits Hamas sites and assets precisely in Lebanon."
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.
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