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Just as Hezbollah is Iran’s Strategic Asset in Lebanon, Israel has Hamas in Gaza

The number of rockets fired at Israel from Lebanon this week is similar to the number Hamas launched at Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the targeting of Jerusalem as the crossing of a red line, even though rockets were fired at the capital in 2012 and during the 2014 Gaza war.

The rockets from Lebanon didn’t earn this description, even though they hit residential areas and broke the status quo that was in place for a very long time.

Regarding the launch from the Gaza Strip, Hamas announced it in advance, gave an ultimatum and carried out its threat. The firing from Lebanon was attributed to Palestinian militants without any organizational affiliation, but the panic in Israel didn’t stem from the damage but from the fear that another front had been opened under the auspices, or the direct instructions, of Hezbollah.

The Israeli response shows that Israel decides when it’s a “war of choice” or a “war of no choice” – what can be contained and what’s a red line.

This isn’t a purely military decision but a strategic and political one that depends mostly on the nature of the attack, and especially on the political circumstances in Israel.

Just as in Gaza, the concept concerning Lebanon is identical: the notion that Hamas and Hezbollah don’t want another war. This thinking is based on the assumption that after massive Israeli attacks, such as during the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the 2014 Gaza war, the other side has learned its lesson and won’t want to once again break the balance of deterrence.

With Gaza, this notion has suffered from overconfidence a number of times – and in Lebanon too it’s still valid despite the rockets fired into Israel this week.

Israel’s working assumption on both fronts doesn’t relate to the military strength of either of the two organizations. After all, Hezbollah’s military capabilities are so much greater than Hamas’.

Israel estimates that Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal reaches the hundreds of thousands, as opposed to the tens of thousands of Hamas.

Plus the Lebanese border is much longer than Gaza’s, Hezbollah’s supply lines are much more efficient and plentiful than Hamas’, and Hezbollah’s strategic depth – Iran and Syria – gives it a broad financial and military cushion compared to the funding problems and large space separating Hamas from its potential sources of support.

According to these factors, the threat from the north would be the one that requires root canal, which would include an operation to destroy Hezbollah’s missiles along with the continued bombing of its headquarters and the elimination of its political and military leaders.

Cool to Hamas in Lebanon

Lebanon’s policies depend on, and often are dictated by, Hezbollah. It’s a partner in the government recognized by the international community, even among countries that consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The group’s political strength has been accumulated over the decades thanks to its confrontations with Israel, making it the defender of Lebanon, a senior partner in the Lebanese army. It shares the monopoly on violent force with the government.

The Second Lebanon War marked a turning point, and from the defender of Lebanon it began to be viewed as a threat to Lebanon, but this status actually gave Hezbollah freedom of action and many more bastions of power. Without its consent, the government can’t pass key decisions such as the budget. The president and prime minister are dependent on Hassan Nasrallah nodding yes, the negotiations on the maritime border with Israel couldn’t have been conducted if Hezbollah objected, and the vital economic reforms, or at least international aid, are dependent on the rules of the game set by the organization.

As far as Hezbollah is concerned, the quiet with Israel is a strategic asset that lets it run Lebanon and doesn’t erode its threat to drag the country into a war.

In addition to Hezbollah’s relationship with the Lebanese state, it must also take care of the interests of Iran and Syria and prevent situations that could play into Israel’s hands and harm these countries’ control in Lebanon.

The destruction of Israel may be a nice slogan for the Jerusalem Day festivities in Tehran and the rhetoric of Iran’s radical leaders, but until this vision is fulfilled, it’s important to maintain Lebanon as a branch managed remotely and not let Hezbollah’s threat to Lebanon blow up in the faces of Tehran and Damascus – not even on behalf of Palestine.

So Hezbollah took its time to organize a few demonstrations at the border fence, and this week, when Nasrallah deputy Naim Qassem met with Hamas’ Osama Hamdan and Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, who lives in Lebanon, Qassem sufficed with an expression of support and solidarity – but no military commitments.

In September, after Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh met with Nasrallah, he declared that the missiles that would hit Tel Aviv were in Beirut and would be launched from there.

His statements caused an uproar in Lebanon, as well as criticism that Haniyeh was dragging Lebanon into a war and violating its sovereignty.

Later, Haniyeh was the star of a Hamas military parade held in his honor by Hamas activists in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp. Nasrallah told Haniyeh that such parades were “inappropriate” because of the issue of Palestinians bearing arms in Lebanon – both inside and outside the refugee camps – and especially because this could reawaken the question of disarming Hezbollah. At that meeting, by the way, the participants were photographed in a room bereft of Lebanese or Palestinian flags, only a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Also interesting: Hezbollah hasn’t made any demands to whittle down the list of around 40 professions where Palestinian refugees may not work in Lebanon.

Thus it’s easy to cast doubts on the declarations that the missile fire from Lebanon – if it really was done by Palestinian groups – was done with the permission or instructions of Hezbollah, which is very jealous about preserving its monopoly on the use of weapons against Israel.

Reining in rival organizations

In Lebanon, the constraints on Israel’s actions against Hezbollah include political and economic ties that limit the organization’s activities. In Gaza, the situation is different. The balance of deterrence with Hamas rests on the destruction that Israel can cause. But here lies the big contradiction in Israeli policy, because Iran and Syria’s role in Lebanon is filled by Israel in Gaza.

Just as Hezbollah is a strategic asset for Iran, Hamas is an Israeli asset.

Its existence guarantees that Israel won’t be dragged into a renewed occupation of Gaza.

This saves the costs of day-to-day management, the direct responsibility for providing public services, and especially, it halts any plan for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories as part of a peace agreement, as long as Hamas adheres to its principles of nonrecognition of Israel and an armed struggle against it.

Hamas maintains the principle of a separation between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which is so critical for Israel to dish out blame for the failure of any negotiation attempt – as long as the Palestinian Authority is incapable of ruling Gaza or receiving Hamas’ support for its actions.

Paradoxically, for Israel, Hamas is fulfilling Ariel Sharon’s vision that a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would prevent a withdrawal from the West Bank.

All told, Hamas doesn’t have to worry about being brought down even after its military wing takes a serious blow.

And for Hamas to fulfill its “mission,” Israel must open the supply lines for essential goods so that the power and water grids can be repaired and money can be received from Qatar to pay salaries and ignore Hamas’ rearmament – as long as the arms aren’t aimed at Israel.

These weapons let Hamas control its citizens and rein in rival organizations. From here, when Hamas attacks Israel, it treats it as a partner that violated an agreement, not a target for destruction.

Thus in the same way Iran uses Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen to influence the Gulf states, and the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Israel has turned Hamas into its arms-bearer whose value goes far beyond the territory it controls. And the patent on this method doesn’t belong to Israel; even Iran doesn’t have exclusivity on it.

The United States signed an agreement with the Taliban, which was defined as a terrorist organization, so Washington could withdraw its forces from Afghanistan after decades of fighting.

It supports the Kurds in Syria not just because of their success in the war against the Islamic State but because the Kurds justify Washington’s intervention in Syria after it stayed out of the campaign there for years.

The United States has also removed the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations – to advance the negotiations to end the war in Yemen.

But while the good relations between the United States and the local groups are temporary tools toward strategic goals, the relations between Israel and Hamas, similar to the relations between Iran and Hezbollah, are long term and an independent strategic goal.

Source: Zvi Bar’el – HAARETZ