Hamas has claimed responsibility for two rocket attacks on northern Israel from Lebanon this year, one of which occurred after the group’s massacre of Israelis on October 7. These were launched from bases in southern Lebanon under the control of Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah (Anadolu Agency, November 13). Given the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, these claims raise questions about a further escalation on a second front. Although Hezbollah’s response to the ongoing war in Gaza has been one of relative restraint thus far, the presence of Hamas fighters in southern Lebanon increases the chance of a second front opening. Hezbollah will likely need to carefully manage its relationship with Hamas in order to continue with its apparent strategy of limited engagement with Israel.
Hamas’ Growing Presence in Lebanon
On November 6, the Lebanese branch of Hamas’ armed militant wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, claimed to have launched 16 rockets at the northern Israeli cities of Haifa and Nahariya (Al Jazeera, November 6). The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) later claimed that some 30 rockets were fired within roughly one hour. The other 14 or so rockets presumably came from either another Palestinian faction, Hezbollah, or both (Times of Israel, November 6). This was the second series of attacks on Israel from Lebanon this year. On April 6, at least 36 low-caliber Grad-type rockets were fired at northern Israel from southern Lebanon. This was at the time the largest attack coming from Lebanon since the end of the 2006 war. Israel launched an aerial counterattack on reported Hamas “infrastructure targets” in Lebanon the following day (Times of Israel, April 7, April 14). The most recent attacks have prompted a majority of residents in the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona to evacuate, while at least 80 people have been killed in Lebanon due to Israeli counterstrikes to date (Times of Israel, November 6).
The identity of most Hamas fighters in Lebanon is unknown to the general public, but it is possible that they were recruited from among the more than 200,000 Palestinian refugees currently living in the country, most of whom are not of Gazan origin. In 2018, Israel petitioned the United Nations to intervene in southern Lebanon, claiming to have evidence that Hamas was collaborating with Hezbollah to establish missile factories and “camps to train thousands of fighters” there (Times of Israel, June 9, 2018). Iranian influence in Lebanon has also been a source of major concern for Israeli policymakers. The unfired rockets used by Hamas in the April 6 attack were found to be of Iranian origin, and were supplied either directly by Iran or indirectly by its local Hezbollah proxies (Times of Israel, April 14).
Clashes in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ein el-Hilweh, between Mahmoud Abbas’s party, Fatah, and Islamist factions, such as Jund al-Sham and al-Shabab al-Moslem, started in late July and lasted until mid-September. This offered a glimpse into Hamas’ growing presence in the country (The New Arab, September 25). On September 13, the head of Hamas’s International Relations Office, Moussa Abu Marzouk, met with a senior Fatah official at the Palestinian embassy in Beirut to discuss the ongoing clashes (Arab News, September 12). Despite the two leaders agreeing to a ceasefire, it was not initially upheld by the factions on the ground (Arab News, September 13).
Hamas was reportedly not directly involved in the violence, but one Palestinian official within the camp claims that the group was in contact with the Islamist forces on the ground during the fighting (Times of Israel, September 14). In this way, it appears likely that the clashes were, on some level, a proxy battle between Hamas and Fatah, with the former working to gain greater influence in Lebanon. On November 21, Khalil Kharez, deputy commander of the al-Qassam Brigades, was killed in an apparent Israeli airstrike near the Palestinian refugee camps in Tyre. Indeed, a tweet from Gaza Report claims that Kharez was moving between launch sites in the region, which indicates Hamas’s military presence (X/@Gaza Report, November 21). The group’s growing visibility in Lebanon is, therefore, likely indicative of Hamas’ ability to recruit and train fighters among the country’s large Palestinian refugee population.
Hezbollah’s Balancing Act
Although nominally aligned with Hamas, Hezbollah’s response to the war in Gaza has been one of relative restraint. Despite Hezbollah’s launching of missiles against Israeli targets “in solidarity” with the Palestinians in Gaza, and the growing hostility in diplomatic exchanges, it appears that the group is avoiding committing itself to a full-scale war (Times of Israel, October 10; see TM, November 17). In a November 3 speech, for example, Hezbollah leader Syed Hassan Nasrallah stated that the October 7 attacks against Israeli civilians were “one hundred percent Palestinian in terms of both decision and execution” and that neither Hezbollah, Tehran, nor any of their other regional proxies were involved in the decision to attack (Al Jazeera, November 3). This speech and a similar one by Nasrallah on November 11 were reportedly met with disappointment among many Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. These refugees and others in the country are frustrated with Hamas’s lack of action so far in the ongoing war in Gaza. At the same time, many people in Lebanon continue to experience worsening living conditions amid Lebanon’s economic crisis (Al Jazeera, November 12; Times of Israel, October 26, 2022).
Although Hezbollah’s military capabilities have improved substantially since its war with Israel, fear of another full Israeli assault like that seen in 2006 is apparently causing the group to show restraint (Al Jazeera, October 16). This is likely because although Hezbollah possesses the capability to inflict severe damage on Israel, its power is more derived from the threat that it poses. This suggests that Hezbollah is only likely to commit to a full attack on Israel if it faces an existential crisis, such as an Israeli invasion of Lebanon (Israel Today, May 30).
The threat posed by Hezbollah is also a valuable tool for its Iranian patrons, who are demonstrating growing concern with the increased US military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf (Al Jazeera, August 8; Times of Israel, November 4). US activity in the Persian Gulf in particular began to rise in August. These factors likely make Hezbollah’s purported commitment to the Palestinian cause a limited one, given that it effectively faces the combined military might of Israel and the United States—a strategic concern long shared by Israel’s more hostile neighbors. Hezbollah must also share its territory with a large Palestinian refugee population who are, in this instance, mostly Sunnis in the majority Shia region. These factors make Hezbollah’s position on the Palestinian issue an even more challenging one to maintain domestically.
By allowing Hamas to gain a base of operations in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is likely compensating for some of the Palestinian refugees’ negative sentiments toward the group. This stems in large part from its unwillingness to escalate the conflict with Israel. Moreover, the increased presence of Hamas has apparently resulted in inter-factional conflict within the Palestinian community in Lebanon. This may have had two benefits: first, it directed refugee anger within, rather than toward Hezbollah, and second, it offered the group good publicity, as Hezbollah was able to assume the role of peacemaker once the conflict became uncontrollable (Al Jazeera, August 1). Finally, by arming Hamas in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah and Iran can control Hamas’s access to the kind of low-caliber weapons that they have used in the battlefield thus far. These weapons allow the group the ability to stage limited strikes against Israel in a manner that is less likely to escalate the conflict. In this way, Hezbollah appears to be placating Hamas’s ambitions while pursuing a strategy of general restraint.
Although it appears that Hezbollah is carefully managing its relationship with Hamas to avoid a full escalation with Israel, this does not preclude the possibility of a major conflict from breaking out. Israel has been aggressive in its rhetoric regarding a second front to the war, and although this has ostensibly been done as a means of deterrence, it does not necessarily discount the possibility of an Israeli first-strike, should the limited exchanges between two sides continue to intensify (Anadolu Agency, October 22). The latest killing of a senior Hamas leader in an apparent Israeli strike is evidence that an Israeli-led escalation is possible. Moreover, Hezbollah’s apparent careful management of its relationship with Hamas does not account for agency among individual Hamas operatives in Lebanon. Thus, Hezbollah’s ability to safeguard its own arsenal from would-be infiltrators from Hamas or other Palestinian factions is imperative to its current strategy. For this reason, the situation on the Israel-Lebanon border remains highly volatile and factors such as Hamas’s capabilities and its relationship with Hezbollah will determine how the conflict evolves moving forward.