With support of Iran and Hezbollah, experts believe Hamas well established in Lebanon

Rockets fired by Palestinian terror group at Israel last week likely originated from Iran; group may have significant firepower after at least five years of force buildup

Emanuel Fabian

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

The crater from a rocket fired from Lebanon that landed in Shlomi, northern Israel, April 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
The crater from a rocket fired from Lebanon that landed in Shlomi, northern Israel, April 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A rare rocket attack from Lebanon last week gave Israel a glimpse into the military capabilities of the Lebanese branch of Hamas.

The rockets fired at northern Israel — apparently by a wing of the Palestinian Hamas terror group — appear to be Iranian in origin and may have been supplied by Iran or its proxy Hezbollah, according to experts.

On April 6, the Israel Defense Forces said at least 36 rockets were launched into Israel from Lebanon, with many of them downed by the Iron Dome air defense system. Two people were lightly injured by shrapnel.

It was the heaviest rocket barrage since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and was blamed by Israel on the Gaza Strip-based Hamas.

A well-known Western weapons expert who writes anonymously on Twitter under the pseudonym of Calibre Obscura, and whose reporting has been cited by The Guardian, AFP, Vice and others, said that the rockets were likely Iranian variants of Russian and Chinese projectiles.

Some unfired rockets were found by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the days after the major barrage. Calibre Obscura identified them as 122mm Grad-type rockets and 107mm rockets, with around 21-kilometer (13-mile) and 8-kilometer (5-mile) effective firing ranges, respectively. He noted that the Grads could also be a long-range variant with a 40-kilometer (25-mile) range, as externally, the models are near-identical.

A composite photo showing unlaunched rockets found by the Lebanese army in the Qlaileh area, southern Lebanon, April 8, 2023. (Lebanese army)

The Grad-type rockets were found in western Lebanon and aimed at the Upper and Western Galilee in northern Israel, where a majority of the projectiles were fired in the attack. Calibre Obscura said the rockets matched shrapnel found in the northern Israeli town of Shlomi, from one of the rocket impacts in the main barrage.

The Grads and their Iranian variants are not new to the region and have been used by both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are “basic, simple and inaccurate” weapons, Calibre Obscura told The Times of Israel. But as the successor to the Soviet Katyusha, they are capable of causing significant damage when launched in large barrages.

“In Ukraine, we see them being fired from launch vehicles, 40 at a time. An entire salvo could be hundreds. [It’s] essentially an area destruction weapon,” he said, noting that the warhead can be deadly even against lightly armored targets.

The IDF said two rockets were also launched at the town of Metula on April 6, with local officials identifying them as 107mm rockets, matching projectiles and a launcher found by the LAF in the Marjayoun area.

This photo released by the Lebanese Army official website, shows unfired rockets that were set to be launched to Israel, in Marjayoun town, southeast Lebanon, Friday, April 7, 2023. (Lebanese Army Website via AP)

In all cases of the apparent Iranian rockets found by the LAF, the projectiles appeared to have been fired at Israel using makeshift launchers and not the official truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher system (MRLS). However, the fact that several rockets that had not been fired were later found indicated that the makeshift launchers are not particularly reliable.

“It may be too much effort to give [Hamas] an entire launch vehicle. If they want to send a message and not cause too much damage, they can fire a few and position them with a simple smartphone application, and launch them with a car battery and some wires,” Calibre Obscura said, noting the difficulty for Israel to locate such a launch site compared to the much larger truck-mounted MRLS.

Israel warned in 2018: Hamas is setting up shop in Lebanon

Hamas has quietly established a Lebanese branch in recent years in order to open up an additional front against Israel in future conflicts.

The branch is based in Tyre, according to a report last year in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, but it is believed to have other outposts throughout the country.

The powerful Hezbollah terror group, which holds tight control over southern Lebanon, has similar equipment in its arsenal, sparking fears it may have also handed over some of its accurate missiles to Hamas, which were not used in last week’s barrage.

A US official told Sky News on Tuesday that Hezbollah had supplied Hamas members in Lebanon with long-range rockets to use against Israel.

There is no question among military officials and analysts that Hezbollah was involved to some extent in the rocket fire last week, as Hamas could not have carried out such an attack without the Lebanese group’s consent. The IDF was probing whether Iran was involved as well.

Israeli security at the scene where a rocket fired from Lebanon hit the northern Israeli town of Shlomi, April 6, 2023. (Fadi Amun/Flash90)

Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, said Hamas’s military infrastructure in Lebanon was first made public in 2018 in a letter by Israel’s then-ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon.

“The letter details quite plainly what Israel believed Hamas to be doing. And predictably, the UN did nothing. And five years later, we’re on the precipice of a Middle East war,” he told The Times of Israel.

Danon’s letter, dated May 11, 2018, stated: “I wish to draw your attention to the strengthening of ties between two internationally recognized terrorist organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy. As I informed you in my letter sent 27 June 2017, Hamas has been colluding with Hezbollah and its sponsor in Tehran to expand its malicious activities beyond Gaza, Judea and Samaria to areas within Lebanon.”

“The increasing cooperation between Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran constitutes a major threat not only to Israel but to the stability and security of the entire region… it is led by Saleh al-Arouri, the Lebanon-based deputy head of Hamas’s Politburo,” Danon wrote in 2018.

File: Then-ambassador Danny Danon speaks in the Security Council, at United Nations headquarters, Monday, April 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

“Hamas has been building its own military force covertly in Lebanon. Hamas has recruited and trained hundreds of fighters, mostly men of Palestinian origin, and plans to recruit thousands more who will comprise a force that will operate on Hamas’s behalf in Lebanon,” he added.

Lebanon is home to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Many live in the 12 refugee camps that are scattered around the small Mediterranean country. By longstanding agreement, the Lebanese army does not enter the camps, leaving security inside to Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

Al-Arouri, a founding commander of Hamas’s military wing, is thought to be responsible for the firing of rockets from Lebanon last week.

On Sunday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah met with a Hamas delegation in Beirut to discuss cooperation. The delegation was led by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and included al-Arouri.

After the rocket fire from both Gaza and Lebanon, al-Arouri said the barrages “proved there is someone who defends the Al-Aqsa Mosque” atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“The resistance forces have the power and means to stop the aggression against the mosque and will work for its liberation,” he said at an event in Beirut.

Hamas deputy political chief Saleh al-Arouri, after signing a reconciliation deal with senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, during a short ceremony at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, October 12, 2017. (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)

Schanzer said al-Arouri used to be based in Turkey full-time, until he was placed on a US most wanted list, following Hamas’s claim of responsibility for the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank that sparked the 2014 Gaza war.

“That ultimately led to a strange arrangement where he was not based in Turkey full-time but began to shuttle between Turkey and Lebanon. And this begins the story of the [Lebanese] infrastructure,” Schanzer said, noting that al-Arouri had Hezbollah and Iranian support.

“He could not do it without the knowledge or assistance of Hezbollah. Iran undeniably provided the material and some of the engineering and training necessary to create this infrastructure,” he said.

Schanzer said he estimated the Hamas branch in Lebanon might be even more capable than the main organization in the Gaza Strip, as Iran has much easier access to Lebanon to transfer weapons and training, and Israel rarely conducts strikes in Lebanon to foil attempts to build up forces there.

Hezbollah fighters raise their hands as their leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a video link during a rally in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, April 29, 2022. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

“On the Gaza front, [Israel] is able to destroy a number of targets on occasion, when a rocket is fired. They use those opportunities. There is no striking in Lebanon for fear of a wider confrontation,” he said, referring to Hezbollah.

Iran-backed Hezbollah has long represented the most significant military threat on Israel’s borders, with an estimated arsenal of nearly 150,000 rockets that can reach anywhere in the country, hundreds of which are precision-guided missiles.

Schanzer said the Israeli defense establishment should be asking itself if Hamas in Lebanon possesses precision-guided missiles, which Hezbollah has been amassing and producing using parts imported from Iran.

“Has Hezbollah shared the precision-guided munitions with Hamas?” he asked. “If they are operating in the same theater, if they are already cooperating hand in glove, if they have the same sponsor, the same weapons purveyor, what is to say that Hamas has not acquired these weapons?”

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