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Fighting with Israel signals coordination between Hamas and Hezbollah, analysts say

Israeli forces launch artillery fire toward southern Lebanon from the border zone in northern Israel on Monday, while Hezbollah denied involvement in clashes or "any infiltration attempt" into Israel.
Jalaa Marey
/
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli forces launch artillery fire toward southern Lebanon from the border zone in northern Israel on Monday, while Hezbollah denied involvement in clashes or "any infiltration attempt" into Israel.

AMMAN, Jordan — Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has denied Iran was involved in Hamas' attack against Israel over the weekend. But in televised comments Tuesday, he said: "We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack on the Zionist regime."

Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials have accused Iran of providing training, money and other assistance to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, who carried out an unprecedented, multifront assault on Israel on Saturday.

The leaders of France and Germany on Tuesday signaled that officials are still looking for evidence of Tehran's direct involvement in the Hamas attacks. But analysts interviewed by NPR say the link is undeniable.

Fighting between Israel and militants in Lebanon

Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 and has since had a series of wars with Israel, which has imposed a blockade on the territory in coordination with Egypt. But Hamas is not the only militant group fighting against Israel.

This week, militant groups in southern Lebanon escalated their attacks on neighboring northern Israel, prompting Israel to launch artillery and cross-border airstrikes.

The Israeli military said Monday it killed several fighters crossing the border from Lebanon. The Lebanese militant and political organization Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed in Israel's retaliation. The armed group Palestinian Islamic Jihad claimed it had injured seven Israeli soldiers.

Monday's fighting follows rocket and drone attacks in the region on Sunday. Both Hezbollah and Israel fired across the border, leading the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon to urge "everyone to exercise restraint ... to de-escalate to prevent a fast deterioration of the security situation."

The fighting around the northern Israeli border is at a much smaller scale than in southern Israel near Gaza, the Palestinian coastal enclave to Israel's southwest. But the double-pronged attacks at both poles of Israel left many fearing a more widespread, regional escalation of violence.

"Hezbollah's response from southern Lebanon is not opportunistic," said Lina Khatib, director of the SOAS Middle East Institute at the University of London.

She said Hezbollah, which is a Shia Muslim organization, and Hamas, a Sunni group, have coordinated for years.

Several analysts said both groups receive financial, military and rhetorical support from Iran.

On Sunday, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, said that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has met with Hamas leaders.

"We know that there were meetings in Syria and in Lebanon, if I remember correctly, with the other leaders of the terror armies that surround Israel," he said. Spokespeople for Hamas did not return requests for comment.

Raisi also held phone calls with leaders from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad after the attacks against Israel began, Iran's state-run news agency, IRNA, said Sunday.

Iran projects its Islamic Revolution abroad

Iran has been ruled by Shia fundamentalists since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Hezbollah was created shortly after, said Northeastern University associate professor Max Abrahms, to help export the Iranian revolution and project Iranian power in the region.

Abrahms, an expert on terrorism in the region, said that Iran's influence over both Hamas and Hezbollah varies and that the Sunni organization operates with more autonomy than Hezbollah does.

"I don't think [Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan] Nasrallah would authorize a major attack against Israel without approval of Iranian leaders," he said Monday. "Whereas I don't know that Hamas waits for Iranian authorization ... although this one might have been different," he said, referencing thesurprise attack from Gaza on Saturday morning.

Abrahms called state sponsorship of terrorism a "risky game," and he said Iran's link to Hamas and Hezbollah "substantially increases the likelihood that Iran will be directly attacked by Israel."

Israeli intelligence analysts call the relationship among Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran "the resistance camp." They share the goal of weakening Israel and creating a Muslim-run land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, said Neomi Neumann, former head of research for the Israeli Security Agency.

Neumann, now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said despite sharing the same goal, the groups operate on different levels. Hezbollah has a far larger fighting force and is more well equipped than Hamas.

"There's no comparison between Hezbollah and Hamas," she said, "not by the amount and not by the quality."

But Hamas has managed to impress its Iranian backers — and Hezbollah.

"Since 2021, Iran and [Hezbollah leader] Nasrallah have understood that Hamas is a better player than they thought. Hamas is necessary in order to weaken Israel."

They realized this, Neumann said Monday, after Hamas sought to unify disparate groups of Palestinians amid clashes with Israel in 2021, among them Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Arab Israelis, who constitute about 20% of Israel's population.

The first day of the current war showed that Hamas is now a capable fighting force, breaching the Israeli fortifications around Gaza and firing thousands of rockets toward Israel from Gaza.

The Israeli military says more than 900 Israelis were killed by Hamas attackers and rocket fire in what it has called "the worst day in Israeli history."

"I want to be precise," Neumann said, adding that without Iran, "none of this would be doable."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Granitz
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