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Hezbollah-Backed Palestinian Fighters in Lebanon Prepare for War

“Israel took over our land and we must fight to return.”

Words: Hanna Davis
Pictures: Hanna Davis

Palestinian fighters in Lebanon are ready for battle, as the country’s southern border emerges as a potential second front in the war between Hamas and Israel. 

“Because I’m Palestinian, it’s my right to fight,” Mahmoud Sarhan, a military officer for the Palestinian party, Fatah, said from his home in Ein al-Hilweh, the largest camp for Palestinian refugees in the country. 

“Israel took over our land and we must fight to return,” the officer stated.

Mahmoud Sarhan shows Inkstick Media a bullet wound incurred in fighting between warring Palestinian factions in the camp on Oct. 2, 2023, in Saida, Lebanon

Ein al-Hilweh, like other Palestinian camps in the country, is a safe haven for various Palestinian militant groups and a breeding ground for their fighters. In recent years, Hamas and other Iran-backed groups have grown more powerful in the camp, at times threatening the long-held authority of Fatah, their political adversary.

But the high tensions between vying Palestinian factions in the camp have temporarily cooled as the factions unite against their common enemy, Israel. “In the war with Israel, all political arguments are forgotten,” the media officer for Fatah in Ein al-Hilweh, Yusuf al-Zuraei, said.

Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is not part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” and its strategy toward Israel tends to focus on negotiations, rather than armed resistance. But if the war escalates in Lebanon, al-Zuraei said that the party’s 4000 fighters in the country are “ready.” 

“Fatah will be there, fighting with Hezbollah,” the spokesperson said.  

About an hour’s drive south from the camp, clashes are escalating between Hezbollah, alongside Hamas and its Palestinian allies, and Israeli forces. On Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023, six more Hezbollah fighters were killed in the fighting, raising the group’s death toll to 26 killed since the conflict erupted on Oct. 7, 2023. Hezbollah has also fired multiple precision-guided missiles from its estimated 130,000-large stockpile for the first time toward Israel this month.  

Hezbollah fighters during a military show on May 21, 2023 in Aaramta, Lebanon
Hezbollah fighters during a military show on May 21, 2023 in Aaramta, Lebanon
Hezbollah fighters during a military show on May 21, 2023 in Aaramta, Lebanon
A Hezbollah fighter carries a rocket at a military show on May 21, 2023 in Aaramta, Lebanon
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Hezbollah fighters during a military show on May 21, 2023 in Aaramta, Lebanon

Although the fighting has so far been concentrated within a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) radius of the Israel-Lebanon demarcation line, it could easily erupt into a broader, more violent, and destructive conflict within Lebanon and potentially ignite a regional war.

And positioned on the front lines are the thousands of Palestinian fighters, like Sarhan from Ein al-Hilweh.

“Especially in Lebanon’s camps, we still have the energy to fight Israel,” al-Zuraei said. The nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, including Ein al-Hilweh’s near-60,000 residents, lack basic rights and have been some of the most hard-hit by the country’s economic crisis.

“The only reason for this whole situation, why we are here [in Lebanon], is Israel,” al-Zuraei said. “So there is no choice for us but to fight Israel — the one who’s made our lives miserable.”

Iran’s “Joint War Room”

Not far from Ein al-Hilweh in Lebanon’s southern town of Saida, an old apartment building has been transformed into an office for leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the second-largest armed group in Gaza, after Hamas. Inside, PIJ leader of communication in Lebanon, Shakeb al-Aina, sits sternly in his office, the militant group’s flag, depicting two pistols, clenched fists, and the al-Aqsa mosque, setting the backdrop.

“We are ready for anything against Israel,” al-Aina told Inkstick Media about a week before the Hamas-Israel war broke out. “As long as our land is occupied, we must resist with all forms of resistance … with a missile, a stone, or with a knife,” he stated.

A sign at a military show for Hezbollah on May 21, 2023 in Aaramta, Lebanon

Just two days after Hamas’ attack on Israel, PIJ operatives organized a cross-border raid into Israel from Lebanon, where they clashed with Israeli troops. They have also likely been involved in other attacks from Lebanon, although they have not claimed responsibility.

The office is not the only for the PIJ leaders in Lebanon. The country is now a strategic center of operations for multiple Palestinian armed groups, with the “chaos” of Lebanon’s economic crisis opening space for Hezbollah and its Palestinian allies to grab more influence and control, said Souhayb Jawar, a Lebanese researcher of Islamist political movements.

Down the road from the PIJ’s office, past yellow Hezbollah flags and green Hamas flags that billow in the wind, is Ayman Shanaa’s office, a media relations officer for Hamas in Lebanon. Here, he spoke to Inkstick Media about Hamas’s rising popularity in Lebanon and the camp over the past two years. 

Coordination between Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PIJ has been growing notably since the Gaza war in 2021, following an Iran-coordinated effort to open a  “joint war room” in Beirut to “unify the fronts” against Israel, Jawar said.

Jawar added that the idea for the “joint war room,” one of former Iranian General Qasem Soleimani’s, is meant to “open spaces for the Palestinian factions in Lebanon and Syria, to replace Hezbollah’s direct entry into war, and to strengthen Hamas in the Palestinian camps and the southern regions [in Lebanon].”

A Palestinian woman from Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon attends Hezbollah’s military show on May 21, 2023 in Aaramta, Lebanon

While the PIJ has been operating under Hezbollah’s blessing in Lebanon since the late 1980s, Hamas’ warming of ties with the Lebanese group has been more recent. Hamas had undergone a nearly decade-long period of estrangement with Hezbollah and Iran due to the groups’ backing of opposing groups in the Syrian war.  

“Today the resistance [Hamas, PIJ, Hezbollah] is in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. We’re all in one hand, united by our resistance against Israel,” the Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leader al-Aina stated from his office.

And it was in offices just like al-Aina’s where the heads of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the PIJ met and brewed the plans for Hamas’s offensive into Gaza, according to a L’Orient Today article.

Coordination between Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PIJ has been growing notably since the Gaza war in 2021, following an Iran-coordinated effort to open a  “joint war room” in Beirut.

“It was an organized, calculative, and coordinated attack, originating from this joint operations room, after which Hezbollah escalated tension along the Israeli border, in order to distract, while Hamas prepared the attack,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

Commenting on the raging war in Gaza, the Hamas officer, Shanaa, said: “The Israelis are criminals bombing innocent people in Gaza. When our people are subject to genocide, all of our people will become fighters,” adding that he expects the situation to intensify in Palestine and Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s “Calculative Engagement”  

Hezbollah is still playing a “calculative engagement game,” Ghaddar said. But their game is “very, very risky,” she added. “A mistake, a miscalculation, or a wrong target from either side could take this into a fully-fledged war,” she said.

Hezbollah party leader Hassan Nasrallah has so far remained silent, likely unwilling to make any commitments until a clearer picture unfolds. Ghaddar added that “Iran is still enjoying the gains and the attention [of the war] and they don’t want to waste it,” referencing the Saudis’ decision to pause normalization talks with Israel.

Meanwhile, if Iran were to commit Hezbollah to a broader conflict, “they’d be able to overwhelm Israel but would pay a heavy price,” Ghaddar said. 

“Using Hezbollah means sacrificing Hezbollah,” she added, “it’s not easy to reconstruct its arsenal and its fighting force.”   

A fully-fledged war in Lebanon would be “much harsher” than the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, when 1,200 Lebanese were killed and another one million displaced, Ghaddar said.

Since 2006, Hezbollah has significantly developed its arsenal and improved its fighting techniques and intelligence capabilities, learning from its Russian allies on the ground in Syria. Compared to 2006, Hezbollah is also now “spread all over Lebanon.” Ghaddar added that Israel is less able to distinguish between Lebanese and Hezbollah targets. 

Hezbollah’s arsenal has developed significantly since 2006. Hezbollah displays weapons during a military show on May 201, 2023 in Aaramta, Lebanon

“Today, Israel sees Hezbollah and Lebanon as the same thing,” she said.

And the Palestinian camps, like Ein al-Hilweh, are a likely battleground — Israel is likely to target the bases of Hamas, the PIJ, and other militant groups, Jawar said.

“We will fight for Palestine. We won’t wait,” said the Fatah spokesperson from Ein al-Hilweh camp, al-Zuraei. “The Palestinian people in Lebanon won’t wait for any decision from any Palestinian faction,” he added.

“I’m not scared,” said the Fatah officer, Sarhan. “I was kicked out of my country. It’s my land.”

All photos taken by Hanna Davis.

Hanna Davis

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

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