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BEIRUT — Iran-backed militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah are closely coordinating their next steps in fighting against Israel, a senior Hamas representative in Lebanon told POLITICO on Tuesday, just hours after Tehran warned of “preemptive action” against Israel.
Ahmed Abdul-Hadi, the head of Hamas’ political bureau in Beirut, insisted Gaza-based Hamas had not given its ally Hezbollah any advance notice of its attacks against Israel on October 7, which killed more than 1,400 people. Despite this, however, he described a continual cooperation between the two groups, stressing Hezbollah was now “geared for a major war” against Israel in the north, while Hamas would burst Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “dream” of driving it out of Gaza.
The remarks will heighten fears the conflict in the Middle East could be about to spill onto two fronts and engulf Lebanon, particularly if Israel launches a ground invasion of Gaza, where its bombardments have already killed more than 2,700 people, and Tehran commits its fellow-Shiite Hezbollah proxies into all-out war.
“We have very strong relations with Hezbollah. We were cooperating with Hezbollah before the attack on Israel and after and now we are in full cooperation,” Abdul-Hadi said in an interview in his office in the Mar Elias refugee camp in Beirut, where he was born 55 years ago. The camp is a warren of oppressive, narrow alleys with ramshackle buildings and little sunlight, and is the smallest of a dozen camps in Lebanon for Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Abdul-Hadi identified an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza as one of the key triggers that could bring Hezbollah fully into the conflict. “Hezbollah will pay no attention to threats from anyone against it entering the war; it will ignore warnings to stay out of it. The timing of when Hezbollah wants to enter the war or not will relate to Israeli escalation and incidents on the ground, and especially if Israel tries to enter Gaza on the ground,” he said.
Such a move is widely expected — and Israel is moving armor into position near Gaza. Still, Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht has cautioned against makings assumptions on the next step: “We are preparing for the next stages of war. We haven’t said what they will be. Everybody’s talking about the ground offensive. It might be something different.”
Abdul-Hadi stressed Hezbollah had already shown in border skirmishes it was not going to shy away from combat. “Hezbollah has said it will not remain on the sidelines and the proof of that is Hezbollah has struck along the southern border, that was on the initiative of Hezbollah — they are saying they are geared for a major war,” he said. “Hezbollah has made clear if the Israelis cross the line, it will launch a full attack on Israel.”
Back from the brink
The big question is whether the parties can still pull back from the brink. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been leading an intense Western diplomatic effort to stop the war spreading. President Joe Biden will join the effort with meetings with Arab leaders in Jordan while visiting Israel to show solidarity with the country after the Hamas attack, the worst in its history.
The rocket and artillery skirmishes along the Lebanese border soon after Hamas launched its terror attack on Israel were initially of limited scope, although they killed several people, including Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah.
But in the past three days the strikes have become more intense and amid warnings from Iran and Hezbollah of possible “preemptive” action against Israel. On Monday Hezbollah claimed its fighters struck five Israeli border posts and inflicted casualties. The group also claimed the same day that its fighters had destroyed an Israeli Merkava tank near Dhahira, posting a video of the claimed hit. Hezbollah said Monday four of its fighters had been killed in a cross-border exchange.
Near Abdul-Hadi’s ‘political office’ two armed gunmen stood guarding the military office in the camp. They remained silent and unfriendly when asked their thoughts on the Hamas attack on Israel.
But others in the camp made clear their support for Hamas, including a former fighter with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas’ rival.
“If there’s war, I would welcome it and be willing to help Hamas,” said 61-year-old Shain, who was a fighter from 1978 to 1990. “I think Hamas must have prepared this operation for a very long time and Hamas has played it well and fooled the Israelis.”
Civilians and hostages
Throughout the interview, Abdul-Hadi remained uncompromising, insisting among other things that Hamas “never killed any civilians” during the unprecedented attack on southern Israel more than a week ago, despite copious documentary evidence to the contrary that women, children and the elderly were slaughtered. Hamas fighters themselves uploaded footage of killings as the assault unfolded.
Abdul-Hadi dismissed allegations that any civilians were killed by Hamas as “Israeli propaganda that the West unfortunately is buying into and is being used to divert attention from the Israelis killing thousands of Gazan civilians.”
His comments are in line with other senior Hamas officials who have mounted a PR offensive to distance Hamas from civilian killings. But there have been inconsistencies in their explanations.
While Abdul-Hadi denied any civilians had been killed, Hamas’ head of international relations Basem Naim said Tuesday that Hamas fighters were given clear orders not to target civilians when the militants attacked southern Israel on October 7. But he did not deny killings had taken place, telling Australia’s ABC television that others were to blame. “There are other Palestinian groups who became part of the operation, even ordinary people when they see the prison around Gaza Strip was broken, and the siege was open,” he said.
On the subject of the hostages, Abdul-Hadi said Hamas had not closed the door on negotiations over Israeli captives. “But we must have something in return,” he added. “The Hamas leadership is thinking about how to negotiate with third-party countries. But will Israel stop killing people in Gaza if we release some of captives? I don’t think so.” He said for any captives to be freed: “Israel must end the attacks on Gaza and lift the siege.”
“Captured Israeli soldiers are not on the table for negotiations — they will be only after the war is finished and will require the release of the 6,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails,” he added.
Abdul-Hadi said Hamas had no choice but to attack. “The Israeli government has been trying to liquidate the Palestinian cause and because of that we had to act and that is why the attack took place and has now turned the tables on the enemy and begun a new era for the Palestinian cause,” he added.
Despite the close cooperation with Hezbollah, Abdul-Hadi was adamant to insist the October 7 attack was all Hamas’ work.
“This operation was organized by the al-Qassam Brigades [the military wing of Hamas] and later other Palestinian organizations joined the operation. This was purely a Palestinian mission – its planning and execution. Not even our loyal allies knew what was coming,” he said.
France’s Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna during a visit to Beirut Monday said: ‘Lebanese officials have a responsibility … to do everything possible to prevent Lebanon from being dragged into a spiral.”
But Lebanon’s caretaker government has very limited sway, and the Prime Minister Najib Mikati last week admitted on Lebanese TV that Hezbollah had given him no assurances about whether they will enter the Gaza war or not.
Adding to rising tensions, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Tuesday that if Israel doesn’t stop bombing Gaza, “no one can stop Muslims and resistance forces.”
Abhinav Thawait is a globe-trotting correspondent with a passion for international affairs. With a background in international relations, he offers a global perspective on the most pressing issues around the world. Abhinav’s curiosity takes his to the far corners of the earth, where he seeks to share untold stories and diverse viewpoints.