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Palestinian Groups in Lebanon May Expedite a Clash Between Israel and Hezbollah

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The hill where a rocket fired from Lebanon landed in Israel on Friday.
The hill where a rocket fired from Lebanon landed in Israel on Friday. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Since Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza in May, it’s Israel's northern border that has proven to be the most restive. Rockets were fired into Israel three times from Lebanon and twice from Syria during the Gaza operation – and three more times since the end of July.

Most of these incidents have been attributed to Palestinian organizations. In the latest occurrence, last Friday, when 19 Katyusha rockets were fired at Har Dov on the Lebanon border and at the northern Golan Heights, Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the first time. Still, a mystery remains: What is happening among the triangle of Hezbollah, the Palestinian factions in Lebanon and the militias fielded by Iran in Syria? Who’s doing the launching, who’s giving the directives, who’s approving the attacks?

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Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence is gradually starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together, following a serious initial dearth of information. The launches from Lebanon, apart from the last one, were indeed the work of Palestinians, apparently from the region of the refugee camps near Tyre. The suspicion, though, is that this is not just a local squad, but an effort that is connected in some way with Hamas. As early as eight years ago, according to some appraisals, even before Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Hamas was already forming an infrastructure in the refugee camps in Lebanon that would enable it to launch sporadic rocket fire from the north during a confrontation in the Gaza Strip – something of a second front. Two years later, a senior Hamas figure was wounded in Lebanon when his car blew up, an action that the organization attributed to Israel at the time.

Now, that activity may have resumed. It’s not yet clear whether Hamas' activities in Lebanon are connected to the organization's headquarters elsewhere – in Turkey, Qatar and Gaza – and how deeply the Iranians are involved. The possibility that Iranian footprints will turn up in connection with the recent rocket fire, in which Hezbollah was possibly not directly involved, can’t be ruled out. The Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force now has a command post in Beirut, making it easier for it to carry out operations of this sort without going through Hezbollah.

From Israel’s perspective, the situation poses a double challenge. First, intelligence hasn’t hitherto focused on monitoring the Palestinian networks in Lebanon, and more information needs to be collected if they prove to be a possible risk. Second, the tangle of connections and interests between the different power brokers in the region is becoming even more complex, now that Hezbollah is no longer calling the shots.

In an extreme scenario, Palestinian actions in Lebanon are liable to expedite a clash between Hezbollah and Israel. For the Northern Command, this could mean a situation in which Israel and Hezbollah slide into several consecutive “days of battle” mode, with intensive exchanges of fire, but without these clashes spiraling into a full-scale war.

Last week’s firing of Katyusha rockets was analyzed in retrospect as Hezbollah’s response to the Israeli attack in which fighter planes bombed a road to the town of Rashaya in southern Lebanon, following prior Palestinian fire. For Hezbollah, that was a move too far. But its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, presented a relatively restrained line in a speech he delivered at the end of the week, and Israel, too, apparently wants to turn the page and move on, after making do with another limited response.

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