Israel troubled that war in Lebanon drove its enemies closer
Lebanese and Palestinian militants are now showing greater coordination.
JERUSALEM — Over the next few days, Israel hopes to bring home its remaining troops from south Lebanon, marking the end of its withdrawal after the 34-day war with Hizbullah guerrillas.
In Beirut, Hizbullah plans to mark the occasion Friday with a celebration in which supporters will claim "victory" despite the massive devastation in Lebanon.
But even though a calm continues to hold, Israelis say the war that started July 12 with the capture of two of its soldiers has created a much more dangerous enemy as the conflict has deepened ties between Lebanese guerrillas and Palestinian militants each with ties to Syria and Iran.
The result, Israeli analysts and military officials say, may be the further entrenchment of Hizbullah within the Palestinian territories and among militants connected to the ruling Hamas party. That could lead to future coordinated attacks on Israel more sophisticated in nature than the Palestinians have so far demonstrated.
The war will further cement ties that have been developing for more than a decade as Palestinian militants are eager to learn the techniques that allowed Hizbullah to withstand superior Israeli firepower while inflicting damage on Israel, say analysts and Israeli intelligence officers.
"The connection is all the global jihad," says an Israeli political official who works closely with Israel's intelligence branch and therefore could not be named. "It doesn't matter if we call them bin Laden or [Hamas leader Khalid] Mashaal or [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah. They are all working toward the same ends."
The extent of the connection between the Iranian and Syrian-supported Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as between Hizbullah and Fatah-linked militias and the radical group Islamic Jihad, has been revealed through interrogations of Palestinians over the years, documents seized in raids on Palestinian offices, and other intelligence that Israeli sources refused to discuss specifically.
Experts trace the connection between Hizbullah and Palestinian militants to 1992, when Israel expelled more than 400 Palestinian extremists to Marj-el-Zhour, the Valley of the Flowers, in southern Lebanon. After their expulsion, the Palestinian militants, mainly from Hamas, set up a camp in Lebanon that was supported for months by Hizbullah. Some of Hamas's expelled Sunni leaders were eventually brought to Beirut, and introduced to Hizbullah's Shiite leaders there, experts say.
While that direct coordination between the Iranian-Hizbullah alliance and Hamas began in 1992, the die was first cast at the end of the Iraq-Iran war, when Iran reevaluated its strategic security, says Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian expert who is currently writing a book on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's nuclear-weapons program.
"After that war, Iran realized that offense was the best defense," says Mr. Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli who still retains extensive contacts in the Islamic Republic. "The Palestinian groups became a way of creating a strategic belt in the region."
Estimates given by three top generals in the Israeli military's intelligence unit and by the Israeli political official state that anywhere from dozens to hundreds of Palestinian militants have been brought to Lebanon and Iran, and sometimes Syria, over recent years.
There, they received advanced guerrilla and terrorist warfare training by Hizbullah militiamen and Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers, says Brig. Gen. (Reserve) Shalom Harari, a 32-year veteran of Israeli military intelligence, and a special adviser on Palestinian affairs to Israel's Ministry of Defense.
Though he disputes the numbers, saying the number of militants trained abroad amounts only to "handfuls," Magnus Ranstorp, author of the 1997 book "Hizb'allah in Lebanon: The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis," says Palestinian militants have admitted to receiving such training in those locations.
"There are secret flights, unscheduled flights between Damascus and Tehran, but we're not talking about a lot of people," says Mr. Ranstorp, who is also the research director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College. "Hizbullah is very cagey, very worried about any security breaches. They are overzealous when it comes to security checks on individuals because they want to avoid the Israeli infiltration."
Though the level of interaction between Hizbullah and the Palestinian groups differs, the common denominator they share, as does Iran, is the ideology that calls for Israel's destruction and the use of violence to accomplish the goal, says Brig. Gen. (Reserve) Yossef Kuperwasser, who until June was the No. 2 in the Israeli Defense Force's (IDF) intelligence unit and its chief intelligence analyst.
To all the Palestinian factions that conform to that ideology, Hizbullah provides training for their fighters and technical information on building weapons, a fact acknowledged by former Palestinian presidential candidate, Sattar Kassem, who ran as an independent after the death of Yasser Arafat.
"To a great extent, this is true," Mr. Kassem says when asked whether Palestinian militants were trained by Hizbullah.
"They get into Gaza at night by sea or by underground," says Col. (Reserve) Eitan Azani, the former head of Intelligence in the IDF's Lebanon Division. "Hizbullah is one of the more expert terror groups. They don't do anything by accident, everything is planned."
Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the Gaza-Egyptian border nearly a year ago, Hizbullah's efforts and successes in smuggling Palestinians in and out of Gaza have picked up steam, the political official says.
This was confirmed by a Palestinian journalist with close connections to the militant groups in Gaza, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of repercussions from the factions against him. "We know for sure it's happened, not just the deeper political [coordination], but even the members of the factions here in Gaza going out," he says.
But according to Kassem, Hizbullah's coordination with the Palestinian groups to date has been limited, not because of a lack of desire on Iran and Hizbullah's part to gain a foothold inside the West Bank and Gaza, but because Hizbullah does not trust the Palestinians.
Hizbullah "believes that the Israeli intelligence is infiltrating these factions," Kassem says. "We are not professionals, we talk too much and do very little."
All of those interviewed for this article say Islamic Jihad has essentially acted as a proxy for Hizbullah and Iran inside the Palestinian territories, carrying out attacks under their orders.
In at least one case, in 2002, Hizbullah sent fighters from the Lebanese town of Tyre over the border where Islamic Jihad members helped them to carry out a suicide bombing in Mitzuvah, a collective community close to the border, which killed 13 Israelis, Colonel Kuperwasser says.
The relationship between Fatah and Hizbullah is much older and intertwined as the people in charge of the organizations have known each other since the days before Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was based in Beirut.
But the strengthening of ties with the Islamist Palestinian factions is the direction that future Iranian-Hizbullah-Palestinian relations will likely take, Javedanfar says, since the ideology is one in the same, whereas the relationship with secular Fatah was more a marriage of convenience for both sides.
At both the outbreak of the war and after the Israeli bombing of Qana, in which 26 people were killed, a total of five Palestinians with suicide bombing belts were caught by the IDF outside of Nablus, where the Israeli army said it broke up a Hizbullah-affiliated Fatah cell just before the war.
But that is just the beginning of the coordination to come, says Kassem, adding that Hizbullah's standing among the Palestinians grew exponentially during the war with Israel. The Palestinians, like most Arabs, he says, "care about their dignity.... The Arabs have been humiliated for 60 years and suffering from defeat, so to see somebody achieve a victory is somewhat unbelievable for them," he says.