Hamas In Lebanon – OpEd


Hamas seems intent on building up a fighting force inside Lebanon.  

Early last December news emerged of a large-scale recruitment drive by Hamas in and around the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.  Dubbed “The Al-Aqsa Flood”  – in line with the name given to the October 7 massacre – the recruitment program was aimed at young men aged between 17 and 20.  There are 12 UNRWA refugee camps in Lebanon, housing some half-million Palestinian refugees as defined by UNRWA – namely a hugely inflated number of patrilineal descendants of the Palestinians originally displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israel conflict.  

Evidence of Hamas activity within Lebanon came to light on November 21, when an Israeli drone struck a four-man Hamas squad in the Lebanese village of Chaatiyeh.  All four were killed in the strike, including Khalil Kharaz, Hamas’s deputy commander in Lebanon.

Opinion is divided as to whether this new Hamas initiative is in opposition to Iranian/Hezbollah interests – an attempt to seize the initiative and ramp up the anti-Israel conflict –  or in support of them.  A third possibility is that Hamas, in anticipation of military annihilation in Gaza, is preparing to use Lebanon as a new base for continuing its fight against Israel.  

That is the fear among mainstream Lebanese leaders and political parties.  Many denounced Hamas when it put out its recruitment call on December 4, accusing it of violating their country’s national sovereignty.  Wasn’t it enough that Hezbollah had established a political and military grip on the weakened and impoverished nation, without Hamas elbowing its way in?  After all, Lebanon, on its knees economically speaking, was already supporting two military machines – its own national army and the even stronger Hezbollah militia. A third loose cannon, as it were, is the last thing Lebanon needs.

Opposition was particularly strong from Lebanon’s Christian community, among whom the painful memory of Lebanon’s 15-year-long bloody civil war persists.  One of the key causes of that conflict was that Palestinian terrorists linked to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization had been operating with virtually complete freedom in southern Lebanon, launching attack after attack on northern Israel. This gave rise to the region’s nickname of “Fatahland”.  Lebanese Christians now fear the creation of what they are calling “Hamasland.”  

If Hamas succeeds in its recruitment drive, the question may well arise as to whether it will operate as an independent militia.  Any attempt at effective collaboration with Hezbollah would bring into play an inescapable difficulty that militates against harmonious terrorist relations.  Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim organization while Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is inescapably Sunni.  Separated by the full length of Israel – with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon – the intrinsic Islamic clash of traditions could be ignored.  That is scarcely possible were the two forces to attempt operating side by side, each regarding the other as infidels, apostates and heretics.

For example, all was far from sweetness and light when fierce intra-Palestinian fighting broke out last August and September in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, near Sidon.  The clashes, which lasted for three months, were triggered by the attempted assassination of Fatah leader, Mahmoud Khalil.  Sixty-eight people were killed in the conflict, which was finally brought to an end through the intervention of the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri. He spoke with both Fatah and Hamas leaders, and arranged a truce.  Quoting this incident, Lebanese officials have been pressuring Hezbollah not to let Hamas gain military ascendancy inside the refugee camps.

Both Hamas and Fatah have a foothold within Lebanon, and Hamas’s latest recruitment drive is certainly partly aimed at achieving dominance over its Fatah rival.  It has two other constituencies to win round – the dominant Hezbollah organization, and the large Sunni sector of Lebanese society.  While Hamas does not have Fatah’s long-term connection with Lebanon, since October 7 it has, according to Mohanad Hage Ali of  the Carnegie Middle East Center, “gained popularity specifically among Sunnis in Lebanon.” 

The leading Hamas personality is Abu Obeida, the so-called “masked  spokesman” for Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades.  He invariably appears in public with his whole face and head enrobed in a red keffiyeh and only his eyes visible.  His real name is unknown.  He came to prominence in 2006, when he announced the capture of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, later exchanged for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

In late October, exploiting its new-found popularity, Hamas organized a large protest in downtown Beirut. Thousands of people were bussed in from around the country to take part as green Hamas flags filled Martyr’s Square. While much of the crowd was Palestinian, many Lebanese were also present.

Emboldened,, Hamas has since launched military operations from Lebanon – like the 16 rockets fired by the Qassam Brigades targeting the northern Israeli city of Nahariya and the southern outskirts of Haifa.  Israel said that it had identified about 30 launches from Lebanon.

 “The IDF is responding with artillery fire toward the origin of the launches,” the IDF posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Many in Lebanon were convinced that the Hamas recruitment drive would not have been possible without the positive approval, and possible collaboration, of Hezbollah.  How deep that collaboration runs is the subject of speculation.  Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, will be aware that Hamas is trying to use its moment in the spotlight, allied to the unhappy conditions in the refugee camps, to expand its influence in Lebanon.  He may also believe, with some analysts, that with its recruitment drive Hamas is initiating a longer-term aim –  forming a new young cadre of supporters, deeply imbued with Hamas’s beliefs and objectives, to carry on its anti-Israel crusade from Lebanese territory.  Nasrallah, acting in accordance with Iran’s own longer-term strategy, will view any such intention with suspicion.

It is perhaps this disparity in influence that Hamas is intent on redressing, as it strengthens its position inside Lebanon and seeks to make it a second military front from which to continue its struggle against Israel’s very existence.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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