Hamas has quietly established a Lebanon branch of its Gaza-based terror group in recent years in order to open up an additional front against Israel in future conflicts, according to an unsourced report Friday in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
The Lebanon branch’s opening salvo came during the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas last May when four rockets were launched at northern Israel from Lebanon, according to Yedioth. At the time, the IDF attributed the fire to “Palestinian factions.”
The decision to establish the Lebanon branch was made in 2014 after another Gaza war that summer, during which Hamas leaders found themselves isolated in the fight against Israel, the report said. The terror group decided that a new branch would be formed and that it would be subservient to Hamas leadership.
Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri, who splits time between Qatar, Turkey and Lebanon, was charged with leading the unit, Yedioth reported. The branch has initially been tasked with opening up a new front against Israel, with the recognition that its military capabilities will be limited.
Nonetheless, the goal has been to distract Israel’s attention away from Gaza during subsequent wars as much as possible, the Israeli paper said. Hamas recruited ideologically-aligned Palestinian activists living in Lebanon to fight in the unit, which is believed to be made up of several hundred members who operate covertly under the guise of civilian activity.
The branch is based in Tyre on the coast of Lebanon but it is believed to have other outposts throughout the country, according to Yedioth. Training for the fighters is being provided by unnamed Iranian actors and members are currently focused on building additional homemade rockets with a range of dozens of kilometers.
Their operations are funded in part by smuggling and drug sales. Hamas envisions the group eventually acquiring the capabilities to operate more advanced weaponry such as UAVs, Yedioth said.
The Shiite Hezbollah terror group, which controls much of southern Lebanon, is aware of the Sunni branch’s operations and has given them a green light. However, Hezbollah has veto power over the Hamas branch’s activities.
Israel is not yet overly concerned about the new unit’s activities but has started keeping a closer eye on it after last May’s war, Yedioth said.
Jerusalem’s concern though is that the branch will fire a large number of rockets into Israel in the next Gaza war, requiring an Israeli response that could draw Hezbollah into the battle, even if the latter group is not interested in such a development, the report claimed.
Last July, the Hamas branch fired two rockets at Israel, with one being intercepted by the Iron Dome and the other falling in the Mediterranean, even though Hezbollah never authorized the launches.