Expert on Arab affairs, Marianna Belenkaya, delves into the escalation with Hezbollah, the influence of terror leaders in Tehran, and the implications of the new Palestinian government.

This week, there has been a noticeable increase in the intensity of hostilities between Israel and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah and its allies, including on Syrian territory.

According to Arab media, this happened immediately after the unsuccessful conclusion of negotiations mediated by the UAE on creating a demilitarized zone between Israel and Lebanon. As a result, there is growing fear in Beirut of Lebanese territory turning into a second Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip itself, preparations are being made for the start of an Israeli military operation in Rafah, which is considered almost inevitable. Against this backdrop, contacts among resistance movements have intensified: leaders of the Palestinian movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad visited Tehran. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has not been forgotten either. On Sunday, a new government will be sworn in, hoping to take on the function of managing the Gaza Strip with external support.

Another step towards war between Lebanon and Hezbollah?

“We are on the verge of repeating the Gaza experience in south Lebanon,” declared Sami Gemayel, Kataeb Party chief, which primarily represents the interests of Maronite Christians, on Thursday. He addressed the Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah: “Stop the farce of the support front and Israel’s distraction, seeing as you are bringing destruction to the south.”

Photo: AP Photo/Hussein Malla

These words were a reaction to a widely circulated statement in Lebanese media by an unnamed Israeli official, that Israel would enter Lebanon immediately after the end of the operation in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. 

Among Christians, Druze, and also Sunnis, there is growing dissatisfaction with the actions of Hezbollah, which exposes the population in the south of Lebanon to Israeli strikes. This week, there were reports of a conflict between residents of the Christian town of Rmeish, located practically at the very border with Israel, and Hezbollah militants who wanted to place their rocket launchers there. Hezbollah called these reports slander and an attempt to incite discord among the Lebanese.

It's worth recalling that Hezbollah supported the attack by the Palestinian movement Hamas on Israel on October 7 and began shelling Israeli territory the following day. To which Israel retaliated with attacks. Since then, both sides have been exchanging strikes, and there have been casualties on both sides. From the Israeli side, eight civilians and 10 military personnel have died. On the Lebanese side – more than 300 people, most of whom are Hezbollah militants, but also, according to media reports, more than 60 civilians. 

This week, the geography of Israeli army strikes on Lebanese territory has expanded. In particular, Hezbollah facilities in the Baalbek area – about 100 km from the demarcation line between Israel and Lebanon – were attacked. This is the furthest target Israel has hit since the beginning of the war. Newly populated areas in the south were also struck. Among them, is a medical center in the village of Hebbariye, where seven volunteer medics died. It is claimed that the center was associated with al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya. This organization was established in the 1960s as the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and has maintained close ties with Hamas for decades, but recently, there has been almost no news about it. The situation changed after the front between Israel and Hezbollah opened in October. Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya revived its armed wing, Al-Fajr Brigades, which joined the war against Israel. The connection of all those killed in Hebbariye with this group has not been fully established, but many families in the village are considering temporary evacuation. 

Last week, there was also an increase in the number of attacks attributed to Israel in Syria. The targets are facilities associated with Hezbollah. Besides the movement's militants, there have been casualties among the civilian population and Syrian military personnel. In particular, on the night of Friday, more than 30 military personnel died – the largest number since the beginning of Israeli attacks in Syria.

The targets of Israeli strikes also include militants of pro-Iranian formations, as well as officers of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. One of them died in northeastern Syria on Monday when an Iranian military shipment for Hezbollah was destroyed.

Tehran continues to support the Lebanese movement, as well as Palestinian groups. However, it sends very mixed signals. Hamas's political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh's visit to Iran in November is worth mentioning. At that time, Reuters, citing sources, claimed that Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei promised moral and political support to Hamas but refused to engage in direct confrontation with Israel. He also reportedly requested to silence those calling for Tehran or Hezbollah to intervene in the war. Hamas denied this report, and Iran remained silent. It is also known that Tehran persistently advised Hezbollah not to cross “red lines” in the confrontation with Israel, to prevent a full-scale war in the region. Meanwhile, Tehran continues to supply weapons to Hezbollah, as evidenced by Israeli strikes in Syria, and financial support to both Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements is not ruled out either. According to the U.S. Department of State, Iran has previously provided Hamas and Islamic Jihad with $100 million annually. Hezbollah received $700 million in 2020 alone.

However, it's also possible that, influenced by Tehran, Hezbollah has shown interest in various mediation missions that can prevent a major war with Israel and allow the movement to emerge from this confrontation without losing face. Previously, this issue was actively pursued by the USA and France, and now the UAE has joined in, maintaining active contacts not only with Israel but also with Iran and Syria.

According to information from the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, during a visit to the UAE, Wafiq Safa, Hezbollah's head of communication and coordination, discussed the creation of a demilitarized zone along the demarcation line between Israel and Lebanon, where only Lebanese military and UN peacekeepers would be present. Safa informed the UAE about Hezbollah's readiness to stop military actions in the south of Lebanon and declare the border area a “demilitarized zone” provided that the ceasefire is followed by the signing of an agreement with Israel on demarcating the land border. The publication's sources report that the response from Israel came very quickly: there will be no agreement with Hezbollah until the militants hand over all their weapons to the Lebanese army. Abu Dhabi strongly advises Hezbollah to do the same. The UAE believes that it is better to surrender weapons by mutual consent rather than under pressure and pay for it with the destruction of Lebanon. However, Safa returned to Beirut empty-handed, and the intensity of the shelling sharply increased. 

Hezbollah-affiliated newspaper, Al-Akhbar, reminds readers of statements by the movement's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, that hostilities will not cease as long as it is necessary to support the Gaza Strip. At the same time, it is noted that Hezbollah does not aim to expand the war, but it may take this path in response to escalation from Israel. It is also emphasized that Hezbollah seeks to maintain the geographically narrow scope of the battle to reduce damage to the civilian population of Lebanon. Such statements are particularly important against the backdrop of dissatisfaction among residents of southern Lebanon. Unlike residents of the Gaza Strip, Lebanese citizens clearly understand who is responsible for dragging them into war, although Lebanese media, regardless of political orientation, consistently describe Hezbollah's attacks as a response to Israeli actions, and not vice versa. However, Israel should not be under any illusions – dissatisfaction with Hezbollah does not mean that other political forces in Lebanon are ready to oppose this movement. And it certainly does not imply sympathies towards Israel, especially when the number of civilian casualties is rising. 

It's also important to remember that the Lebanese are deterred from actively confronting Hezbollah by memories of the civil war (1975-1990). No one wants a repeat. Therefore, all political parties try to quell emerging internal conflicts as much as possible. This includes Hezbollah, which is trying to justify itself to fellow citizens and remove responsibility for escalation.

Haniyeh and al-Nakhala in Tehran

Palestinian groups traditionally shift the responsibility of the war and its consequences onto Israel. In particular, this week, Hamas once again accused Israeli authorities of sabotaging ceasefire negotiations in Qatar. In the Gaza Strip, preparations also began for an Israeli invasion of Rafah, which is considered inevitable based on statements from Israeli politicians. As one Hamas representative, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Qatari publication Al-ArabyAl-Jadeed, the upcoming operation “will not be a picnic’ for the Israeli army. Arab media are actively discussing traps prepared for the Israelis, as well as how Israel will be obstructed by the international community when it begins the operation.

A Hamas representative also warned that the Rafah operation “is leading the entire region to an explosion.” In this context, he pointed to the coordination between resistance movements, referring to the new visit of Hamas's political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh to Tehran, which took place this week. The secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhala, was also there. Both held separate meetings with Iranian leadership representatives, starting from the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi. Haniyeh was even given a red carpet welcome at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. 

In addition, the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad met with each other during negotiations with the Secretary of Iran's National Security Council, Ali Akbar Ahmadian. What they discussed among the three of them remains unknown. Statements from other meetings are quite mundane – assurances of the Palestinian people's resilience and the determination of the resistance movement to confront the Zionist entity and the USA. However, it seems that both Haniyeh and al-Nakhala feel quite confident. The consequences of their negotiations may become apparent in the near future. In any case, Hamas and Islamic Jihad coordinate their actions in the Gaza Strip quite successfully. Both movements announced a joint operation in the area of Al-Shifa Hospital. 

There's just over a week left until the end of Ramadan – and it is one of the most tense moments in terms of security and the potential for conflict escalation. April 5th – the last Friday of Ramadan and the day of Al-Quds (Jerusalem), observed by Muslims, especially Shiites, to express solidarity with the Palestinians, will be particularly indicative.

The New Palestinian Government

Amidst the international activity of the resistance movement, the developments in Ramallah cannot be overlooked. On Sunday, the 19th Palestinian government, comprising 23 people, will be sworn in. The future Prime Minister, Mohammad Mustafa, will also hold the position of Foreign Minister.

Even before taking office, Mustafa declared that the national priority of his government would be to cease fire and the complete withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza Strip. The government's program includes developing a comprehensive plan for providing humanitarian aid to the population in the Gaza Strip and its reconstruction, as well as stabilizing the financial situation and structural reforms. The fight against corruption has not been forgotten. Mustafa also promised to work on reunifying the Palestinian government institutions, which have been divided since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, and to take responsibility for the situation in the sector. 

The focus on reforms is not coincidental. This is particularly demanded by the USA and Arab countries in the hope that, eventually, the Palestinian Authority will take over the governance of the Gaza Strip. However, Israel categorically opposes this for now, claiming that the authorities in Ramallah are no different from Hamas. Moreover, the issue of Palestinian reconciliation remains relevant, i.e., potentially, representatives of Hamas could receive leading positions in the Palestinian Authority, which Israel finds unacceptable. However, the theme of Palestinian unity is lobbied by Arab mediators and Russia, albeit with limited success. 

The creation of the new government was supposed to be the first step towards unification. It was said that it would consist exclusively of technocrats without any party affiliation, but the list of ministers would be approved by representatives of all Palestinian factions, starting with Fatah and Hamas. However, instead, the government became another reason for discord among Palestinian groups. The decision of Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian National Authority, to assign the formation of the government to Mohammad Mustafa immediately caused dissatisfaction within Palestinian ranks, primarily with Hamas, which had its candidates for the position. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestinian National Initiative condemned Abbas's decision, describing it as “a reinforcement of the policy of exclusivity and deepening division.” The rest of the ministerial list also did not receive approval, although at least five people in it are representatives of the Gaza Strip. A Hamas politburo member, Husam Badran, told the newspaper Asharq that Abbas had not conducted any political consultations regarding the composition of the government or its program. 

However, for now, it is sufficient that external mediators approve the formation of the government – from the USA to Russia and Arab countries, meaning it can potentially count on diplomatic and financial support. However, how this government will function, especially in resolving the problems of the Gaza Strip, is unclear. This question is seemingly postponed to the day “after the war.” Like many other questions, answers to which cannot be provided by Israel, the Arab world, or external players.