Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran: "je t’aime, moi non plus"

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah delivered an unforgettable speech in Beirut last July 25th on the occasion of “Jerusalem Day”, in which he pledged “all means of support” for the “Palestinian resistance”. It wasn’t the first time Nasrallah took the chance to criticise Israel and its actions. It was the first time in months, though, Nasrallah showed signs that links between his organisation and Hamas are thawing. Hezbollah and Hamas had been allies in the region for more than 20 years. The first direct contact between the movements took place on December 17, 1992, when Israel deported 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists from the West Bank and Gaza to Marj Al-Zouhour in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Hezbollah’s resistance in the early 1980s inspired and motivated the Palestinians to launch the first intifada in December 1987, during which the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Palestine created Hamas. Many experts consider Nasrallah’s message as part of a reset in Hezbollah-Hamas ties, after a fallout over differences on Syria in 2012.

The conflict in Syria stressed the relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah, transforming it from one of “intimacy” between allies to a real “quarrel”. Hamas, after months of stuttering, finally made clear it stood behind the Syrian opposition and thus against Assad – its leaders had left its Damascus headquarters in December 2011 and allied with Qatar, the Syrian rebels’ primary provider of political and military support. Hezbollah, already militarily involved in supporting the Syrian regime, then accused the Islamist group of “betrayal” and “lack of loyalty”. After its fighters were denounced for fighting alongside Syrian rebels in the battle of Qusair and taking into account rumours whereby members of Hezbollah had asked Hamas members residing in Beirut’s southern suburb of Al-Dahiya – Hezbollah’s stronghold – to leave the area, Hamas’ first reaction was to seek an urgent meeting to ease tensions with the Lebanese Shia organisation. To no avail, it seems.

The crisis between Hezbollah and Hamas came to a head when Hezbollah was distributing food and aid in May 2013 to Palestinian refugees in the camp of Ein el-Hilweh in Sidon and those burned the aid claiming that Hezbollah was giving them aid with one hand while giving the Syrian regime weapons and fighters with the other. Even though Hezbollah publicly stated it believed Hamas wasn’t directly involved in the Syrian war and internally prevented its officials from criticising Hamas, the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security issued a statement confirming a freeze on the issuance of visas for members of the Hamas office in the country. This move constituted solid evidence that Hamas was no longer welcome by Hezbollah in Lebanon anymore. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the religious authority for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, in turn described Hezbollah as “the party of Satan”. Hamas’ members have however denied for months the existence of a dispute between the movement’s members in Gaza and those abroad, or even between its political and military wings regarding Hamas’ positions on Syria and Iran. Regardless of this, Hamas’ stance regarding the Syrian crisis, in addition to its denouncing of the practices of the regime against its own people,  also affected its relationship with Iran, Assad’s staunchest ally. The financial support Hamas received from Iran waned and that affected some of its internal activity. Ties were not completely severed, though, since there were certain elements inside Hamas – notably its hardliner co-founder Mahmoud Az-Zahar – that took care of the movement’s ties with both Iran and Hezbollah. And all of this in spite of the fact that Hamas’ leaders had advised both Hezbollah and Iran not to fill their hands with blood, aware of the fact that ties with them may never get back to normal.

Rising sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites has clearly affected the relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah. Before the Arab Spring while Hamas and Hezbollah stood together with Syria in the so-called “axis of defiance” (or “axis of evil”, as George W Bush liked to name it) led by Iran, the so-called “axis of moderation” was composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. These axes were replaced by a “Shiite axis” led by Iran, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah and a “Sunni axis” led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Hamas saw itself as part of the latter. But, even though sectarianism is a key factor to take into account, the truth is that the Arab Spring lead to a massive shift in political alliances across the region. Before the Syrian war broke out, Hezbollah was known in Palestine mainly as a party that fought against Israel. But when Assad started massacring its own people and Hezbollah clearly supported it, Palestinian leaders understood the “Party of God” had committed a grave mistake by intervening in the Syrian crisis. This led to a decrease, and later total collapse, in support for Hezbollah in both the West Bank and Gaza – as it later happened in Lebanon, where the party has lost a great share of popular support. Hezbollah was created with a single main aim: kicking Israel out of the country. People now doubt it is still a resistance party, and have started considering it as a political faction fighting for its own interests. What is happening in Syria has been a weighty loss for the party and its reputation in the region as a movement of resistance. Hezbollah, despite its Shiism and thanks to its role during Lebanon’s civil war and the 2006 war against Israel, was dear to the hearts of the Arabs. But when the party decided to put precisely its Shiite doctrine above politics, it gave its intervention in Syria a sectarian dimension.

In turn, and following the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Hamas expanded and consolidated its international relations. One remarkable example was the rapprochement with Egypt that found its peak with the election of Mohamed Morsi as the country’s President. Hamas’ relationship with Tunisia also improved. Hamas reached unprecedented levels of popularity after its short war against Israel in December 2012. The cuddling between Hamas and Qatar – that during some time was called the “rising star” of the region – was quite obvious, particularly after Qatar’s former leader’s visit to the Strip and the announcement that the oil-rich country would support Hamas in the reconstruction of Gaza. The new Arab regimes’ – many of them being called “Islamists” or maintaining close ties with the latter – perspectives on the Palestinian cause gained a moral dimension, reminding many about the creation of the Arab League in 1945 – rooted on the defence of the Palestinian cause, and were no longer based on interests and internal affairs. Moreover, Hamas’ new position certainly had much to do with the fall of regimes accused of siding with or indirectly protecting Israel.

All of this changed when the rising star of political Islam, which offered enormous hope to its subsidiary in the Gaza Strip, crashed and burned much sooner than expected, in Egypt – when Morsi was deposed as president, Turkey – where Erdogan remains popular but has faced enormous disagreement, Tunisia – forcing the Islamists to adopt a much more moderate stance, Libya – certainly on the verge of collapse – and Qatar itself – where the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, abdicated, leaving the throne to his inexperienced son, who had to see his country being kicked out of the Gulf Cooperation Council for a while. The fervent belief that “Islam is the answer” had been progressively undermined. Hamas’ popularity in the Strip also waned, and according to some sources had reached its lowest point when the groups was forced to sign a reconciliation agreement with Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority in April 2014.

What is Hamas and Hezbollah main common ground, besides resistance against the same enemy? Their relationship with Iran, that the Shii’ country has been trying to improve for years, despite the sectarian component. Hamas used its relationship with Iran to break the embargo imposed on the group and took enormous advantage of the financial and military assistance the ayatollahs provided them with. This support allowed it to become the most powerful group in Gaza and the second most influential in the West Bank, as well as in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. Meanwhile, Iran was looking forward to having a say in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, therefore, stretching its influence in the region, adding an ingredient to its decades-long conflict with Saudi Arabia. In spite of what had happened, Hamas’ bureau in Tehran never stopped functioning. After the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in view of the floundering of the Syrian revolution, Hamas showed much interest in healing the wounds.

Actually, and in spite of the breakdown in political ties, Hezbollah had been seeking to keep military contacts with Hamas intact. More specifically, with the Al-Qassam Brigades. When the standoff began, the military wing of Hamas decided to maintain its alliance with Hezbollah and Iran, apparently as a way to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation by force of arms, in the face of an ever-stalled peace process and the lack of solidarity from Arab leaders. The fact that the Al-Qassam Brigades – as a consequence of Iran and Hezbollah’s ceasing their military support after Hamas chose to side with the Syrian revolution – had no alternative logistical and military support may have something to do with it as well. This stance was greatly suported by former Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades leader Ahmed al-Jabari, who was killed by Israel during the 2012 war. Adding to that, Egypt’s military destroyed almost all the tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip which served as Gaza’s economic lifeline and channel for arms. Hamas’ political bureau and its leader Khlaed Meshaal, were aware and even embraced the Al-Qassam Brigades’ maintenance of military cooperation with Hezbollah. Hezbollah, in turn, never stopped providing financial support to Hamas’ Al-Quds TV station.

Even though the political leaders of both groups’ have begun working toward the normalization of their relationship, the outset of the current war in Gaza was the perfect opportunity for Hamas and Iran (and therefore for Hezbollah) to warm the previously chilled relationship. Even though Hamas – as well as Hezbollah – had lost most of their support within their own constituency, it seems public demand for violent struggle – muqawama – against Israel has resumed in view of Israel’s ever more extremist unmovable stance. Nasrallah used the Gaza war as an excuse to make a call to Meshaal, in which he reaffirmed – or reminded – his support for Hamas, according to Hezbollah’s official website. Ignoring the fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains critical of Hamas, Iran has also publicly declared support for the group in its war against Israel. Apparently and by the same token, Iran has contacted Meshaal through its Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The position alleged friends of Palestine – namely Egypt – are adopting will paradoxically contribute to the warming of ties, for any kind of pressure on Hamas to acquiesce to Israel’s terms in a cease-fire will beyond doubt push the movement closer to Tehran.  “At the end, the resistance will eventually force Israel to look for a solution, similar to what happened in 2006”, Nasrallah said in his speech, in which he also highlighted intelligence failures on the part of the IDF. This is for sure something Israel will not appreciate and might not have foreseen. Time to re-think things through, Bibi?

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