Analysis

Israel Frets Over Hamas' New Front - and It's Not in Gaza or the West Bank

The 'sudden friendship' between a senior Hamas official and Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has Israel's defense chief on his toes

Hamas militants attend a funeral in the Gaza Strip, January 12, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

A week ago, a Hamas operative, Mohammed Hamdan, was injured in an explosion while he was getting into his car in Sidon in southern Lebanon. Lebanese media outlets accused Israel of an assassination attempt. Israel, as usual, refrained from commenting, except for a wisecrack by Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz, who said in a radio interview that if this had been an Israeli operation, the man would not have come out alive.

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But meanwhile, it is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who has been alluding to events in Lebanon in statements he’s made over the past few days. Lieberman did not specifically mention the assassination attempt. But while visiting a soldier injured in a clash in Jenin, Lieberman said on Friday that Hamas, “which is finding it difficult to launch operations from the Gaza Strip, is in a very tough spot. It is therefore trying to open new fronts...first and foremost in southern Lebanon.”

Lieberman added: “What should be worrisome is their attempt to develop terror infrastructure in southern Lebanon and also trying from there to threaten Israelall this sudden friendship between the senior Hamas representative, Salah Arouri, and [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah, is something we’re watching carefully and any developments there will be met with an appropriate response.”

Arouri, who according to Israel is Hamas’ coordinator of terror attacks abroad, and is also in charge of deploying Hamas terror squads in the West Bank from the outside, has for the past year been shuttling between Qatar and Turkey. He left the West Bank in 2010 after he was released from lengthy administrative detention. The Shin Bet security service consented to his release on condition that he leave the territories. Since then he’s been moving between various countries in the region – Jordan, Syria and Turkey, settling eventually in Qatar. After Israeli complaints and American pressure on Qatar, Arouri moved to Lebanon, although he sometimes stays in Qatar.

Already as early as 2014 Hamas was reportedly interested in using the refugee camps in southern Lebanon to create another front from which to threaten Israel in a confrontation. During the conflict between Israel and Gaza in the summer of that year, a few rockets were indeed fired at the Galilee from southern Lebanon.

Nasrallah also addressed the car bomb incident in a speech on Friday. “All signs indicate that Israel is responsible for the explosion in Sidon,” Nasrallah said, adding: “There must be no compromise about this and Israel must not be allowed to play freely in the Lebanese court. The incident marks a dangerous beginning on the security level in Lebanon.”

The Lebanese press reported over the weekend that the country’s intelligence services identified the suspects in the action – including a Lebanese citizen who lives in the Netherlands and had already fled Lebanon – and that they found two vehicles that allegedly belong to the assassins. In November, the Lebanese media also reported the arrest of a Lebanese citizen in the south, on suspicion of spying for Israel.

In the middle of the last decade, a series of assassinations of Palestinian terrorists took place in Lebanon that were attributed to Israel. It was claimed at the time that the perpetrators were Lebanese locals deployed by Israeli intelligence. In 2008, the Lebanese authorities uncovered a large network of Lebanese citizens arrested on suspicion of spying for Israel for years.

West Bank coordination

Lieberman also said on Friday that Hamas was seeking alternative fronts to the Gaza Strip, where Israel believes that the organization’s leadership does not want a direct military confrontation at this time. Efforts are still underway in the West Bank to apprehend one of the suspected members of the terror squad that murdered Rabbi Raziel Shevach of the Havat Gilad outpost earlier this month. One of the members of the squad was killed in the clash in Jenin and two other suspects were arrested. The Shin Bet security service said it believes the fourth suspect managed to elude them.

The squad, whose members come from Jenin, was established by members of various organizations and included a Hamas man. It seems that the organizations’ commands outside the West Bank are allowing their operatives to collaborate in an effort to increase terror attacks in the area, in places under the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. Despite PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ belligerent speeches in recent weeks, security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian organizations that answer to Abbas is continuing.