While Egypt mediated a reconciliation deal between Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah, Iran appeared to be pushing for a thaw of ties between Hamas and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah and both were unwelcome developments for Israel.
Hamas has moved to strengthen ties with Hezbollah after the two parties, which have been engaged in hostilities against Israel, took opposing sides in the Syrian war.
Prior to the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011, Hamas was an ally of the Damascus regime, Hezbollah and regional heavyweight Iran, in what was branded as “the axis of resistance” against Israel.
While initially refraining from criticising Assad, Hamas later announced that it supported the aspirations of the Syrian people in its uprising against the regime. Its position on Syria led to the souring of relations with Iran, which reduced funding of the Palestinian movement.
Iranian and pro-Hezbollah media outlets accused Hamas of actively supporting Syrian rebels, a charge the Palestinian group denied. As the war in Syria appears to be dying down, ties between Hamas and Hezbollah seem to be thawing, likely with encouragement from Iran.
“The alliance between Hamas and Hezbollah is a direct result of the renewed relations between Iran and Hamas,” wrote Khaled Abu Toameh in the website of the Gatestone Institute.
Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s deputy political chief, had a rare public meeting with Hezbollah Secretary- General Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut on October 31. The meeting occurred soon after Arouri visited Iran.
Pro-Hezbollah al-Manar TV said Arouri and Nasrallah discussed “the Zionist aggression against Gaza and its ramifications” following an Israeli attack on a tunnel in the Gaza Strip that killed eight members of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh took part in a Hezbollah-sponsored conference on the Balfour Declaration on November 1 in Beirut, which kicked off with a message from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other senior participants included Hezbollah’s deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qassem.
Observers said both sides were likely to benefit from rapprochement.
“It is no secret that Hamas, despite having different positions regarding the Syrian crisis, needs Hezbollah when it comes to funding, training, securing supply lines for weapons and providing residence for Hamas cadres in Lebanon,” Adnan Abu Amer, wrote on the website Al-Monitor.
“For its part, Hezbollah needs a Palestinian movement, such as Hamas, to restore its popularity among Arab public opinion, which it lost after being involved in the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen against Sunni Muslims. Hamas… may help dispel Hezbollah’s sectarian image,” Amer added.
The meetings between Hamas leaders and Hezbollah officials have raised alarms in Israel.
In September, the head of Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, warned that Hamas and Hezbollah were gearing up for a new conflict against Israel. Argaman’s warning echoed a statement by Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman in August in which he accused Arouri of attempting “to boost the relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah” with the help of Iran to plan attacks against Israel.
Israel demanded Hamas cut relations with Iran but the Palestinian movement responded by saying that the visit by its delegation to Tehran is “a rejection of the Zionist entity’s conditions to cut ties with (Iran).”
The Hamas-Hezbollah thaw is likely to also ire Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Iran and the Lebanese movement had hit an all-time low.
“The Egyptians are trying to rein in Hamas from its past and current ties with Iran, which supports Hezbollah,” wrote Jack Khoury in Haaretz.
Egypt has not publicly criticised Hamas for strengthening ties with Hezbollah and Iran, possibly because the Palestinian leaders have made a number of gestures to win Cairo’s favour.
“To ensure Hamas’s survival, [Hamas leaders] are even willing to sever ties with their mother ship, the Muslim Brotherhood, to appease Egypt, its saviour and Brotherhood nemesis,” wrote Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor.
Despite rising tensions between Saudi Arabia, which is an ally of Egypt, and Hezbollah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Cairo was not mulling measures against the Lebanese movement.
“The subject is not about taking on or not taking on [Hezbollah]; the subject is about the status of the fragile stability in the region in light of the unrest facing the region,” Sisi told CNBC. “The region cannot support more turmoil,” he added.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.