Inside Hamas's southern Lebanon strategy

An attempt by the Gaza terrorist group to build a post in South Lebanon has been foiled – for now.

March 17, 2018 12:57
Security personnel inspect a damaged BMW in Sidon on January 14, after a reported assassination atte

Security personnel inspect a damaged BMW in Sidon on January 14, after a reported assassination attempt on Mohamed Hamdan. (photo credit: REUTERS)

ON JANUARY 14, 2018, Mohamed (Abu Hamza) Hamdan entered his silver BMW car in the city of Sidon in Lebanon. Within seconds, a huge explosion set the car on fire and smashed windows in nearby buildings.

Looking at photographs and videos shot at the scene, it is clear that the assassins meant to kill him. It can also be assumed that the half kilogram of explosives, attached to the car, was assembled by professionals.

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Luckily for him, Hamdan managed to open his door and jump out, and thus saved his life. Initial reports said that he was lightly wounded but later the hospital announced that one of his legs was amputated.

Lebanese media reported that before and after the explosion, Israeli warplanes flew over the area, and the media attributed the assassination attempt to Israeli spymasters from the Mossad.

Some claimed that Mohamed was a target because his brother, Osama Hamdan, is a senior Hamas official and its representative in Lebanon. But it was Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV station that stated Hamdan was not just the brother of but was himself a senior operative of Hamas, and because of that was under surveillance by the Israeli intelligence community.

Days after the failed assassination attempt, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman claimed that Hamas – which, for the time being, doesn’t wish to open a new war with Israel in Gaza – aims to build a new line of confrontation with Israel in South Lebanon.

Actually, yet in September 2017, Nadav Argaman, the head of Israel’s General Security Service (Shin Bet) told the cabinet that Hamas was trying to build a “post” in South Lebanon.

Against this backdrop, reliable Western intelligence sources told me that Mohamed Hamdan was responsible for this Hamas plan and because of that he was targeted in order to foil his efforts.

The plan can be called “Hamas’s northern front.” The group that rules the Gaza movement has tried to establish in South Lebanon, which has a relatively large Palestinian population, a secret infrastructure and launching pad for attacks against Israel.

Now it can be assumed that Hamdan was the architect of the plan, which aimed to assemble a substantive number of rockets to be fired at Israel sometime in the future.

The plot had two objectives. One was to launch rockets against Israel if and when a war with Hamas breaks out in Gaza, thus challenging Israel with the opening of a new front. Behind the second objective lay an even more daring and sophisticated notion.

Hamas hoped that by launching its rockets from Lebanon, as well, it would drag Hezbollah into the war against its will.

According to Western intelligence sources, Hamas was creating its infrastructure behind Hezbollah’s back, making a major effort to hide it.

It sounds unreasonable. After all, the Shi’ite Lebanese movement – despite its religious schisms – cooperates with its Sunni Palestinian partner and perceives it as an ally in the struggle against Israel. In its relations with Hamas, Hezbollah has played the generous host, like an older brother caring for his younger one, who needs help and mentoring.

On the Hamas side, the chief coordinator of the ties between the two Islamist groups is Salah al Aruri. The 52-year-old operative from the West Bank spent 15 years in an Israeli jail for terrorist plots. In 2007, he was expelled and settled in Turkey, where he built an important command center of Hamas’s military wing.

Israel and the US put pressure on the Erdoğan government, and Aruri was asked by Turkish intelligence to leave the country.

Nevertheless, despite its promises in the reconciliation agreement signed in the sum-mer of 2015 with Israel, Turkey didn’t close the Hamas command center. Aruri moved to Qatar but under similar pressure was also forced to leave with some other Hamas operatives.

Eventually he settled in Lebanon and has been rotating between this country, Turkey and Iran. Recently, Aruri was promoted to the No. 2 position in Hamas (after Ismail Haniyeh) with the title of deputy chairman of the Political Bureau but has remained in charge of terror operations in the West Bank.

After the failed assassination attempt on Mohamed Hamdan, Hezbollah, which perceives itself as the “Lebanese master” and has its own security services aspiring to know everything that goes on in the country, opened its investigation of the case.

The inquiry reached the conclusion that it was a Mossad hit. The Lebanese daily, “Al Akhbar,” which is known for its close ties to the Shi’ite movement, wrote that a couple – a man and a woman who entered and exited Lebanon on Georgian and Iraqi-Swedish passports – reported that they were “Israeli officers,” who planted the bomb and detonated it with the aid of a few local helpers.

The Western intelligence sources also told me that despite Hezbollah’s belief that it has spies in Lebanon serving as its “eyes and ears,” Hamas managed to fool it.

No wonder that Hezbollah’s leadership was infuriated. They realized that Hamas conspired to entrap and provoke them into a war against Israel. It is Hezbollah’s doctrine, designed with Iran, which is the patron and paymaster of the movement (most of its budget – one billion dollars – comes from Tehran), that they will launch a war against Israel at their own decision and with the timing that suits them.

The clever Hamas plot was to fire the rockets from South Lebanon, hoping that Israel would think that Hezbollah was doing it, and would forcefully retaliate, leaving no choice for the Shi’ites but to respond accordingly, and all-out war would break out.

In other words, Hamas tried to do to Hezbollah what the small Jihadist renegade groups in Gaza, which refuse to accept Hamas’s authority, are doing to it, by launching their rockets against Israel.

Hezbollah leaders, with the mediation of Iran, summoned Hamas officials and warned them to stop plotting behind their back. For the time being, it seems that the bad blood between the two sides has been stopped and, despite the suspicions, relations have returned to cordial cooperation.

As a result of the failed assassination attempt, Hezbollah exposed the double game played by Hamas and closed down its secret rocket plan.

If indeed Israel was behind the assassination attempt, it is most likely, based on the traditional division of labor in the intelligence community, that the Mossad was responsible for the unsuccessful hit. When the current head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, entered office 26 months ago, he hoped to improve the “operationability” of his organization.

In Mossad parlance, such a phrase means mainly assassinations.

Indeed, in December 2016, when a Tunisian aeronautical engineer Mohamed a-Zwari was assassinated in Tunisia, the operation was also claimed to carry the Mossad’s fingerprints. It turned out that a-Zwari was designing and supervising Hamas’s efforts to build its own fleet of drones, quadcopters and mini-submarines.

Western intelligence sources assume that despite the fact that the Hamas target was not killed, “the message was understood” and, above all, the ambitious Hamas plan to build a “northern front” against Israel has been foiled.

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