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In one neighborhood in Saida, a poster depicts Abu Obeida, the spokesperson of Hamas's military wing (Hanna Davis)

Israel’s Gaza War Fuels Hamas’s Popularity in Lebanon

As Israel aims to eliminate Hamas in the Gaza Strip, its war is fueling the armed group's support in Lebanon.

Words: Hanna Davis
Pictures: Hanna Davis
Date:

At a seaside cafe in southern Lebanon’s Saida, 32-year-old Ahmad* recounted a family lineage of exile that is familiar among Palestinians in the diaspora. When Zionist militias displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians before, during, and after the 1948 war, his ancestors had fled Amqa, a village near Acre. Ahmad was born and raised in Ein al-Hilweh, the largest of Lebanon’s impoverished Palestinian camps. 

That life in exile, in part, and a desire to return to his ancestral country, led Ahmad to join the armed wing of Hamas some 15 years ago. “My ultimate goal is to free Palestine,” he said. “The best and only way to return our rights and land is resistance.” 

During the decade and a half since he signed up as a fighter in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Ahmad has undertaken four years of intense religious training, two months of military training in Iran, and has largely abandoned daily pleasures like coffee and tobacco. In recent months, the young fighter said, he has spent time posted on Lebanon’s southern border to support the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah in its escalating fight against Israel

On Oct. 7, Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, led a deadly attack that saw Palestinian fighters reach deep inside present-day Israel. Israeli forces then launched a military operation — the longest, most destructive, and deadliest of its five wars on Gaza since late 2008 — that has killed more than 25,000 people in the besieged coastal enclave. 

Although Hamas had already enjoyed widespread popularity in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, many had considered it a “fringe group” in Lebanon’s crowded Palestinian political scene, according to Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. In Lebanon, Hage Ali said, Hamas kept its military recruitment activities largely secretive. 

But throughout the more than three months of Israeli airstrikes and ground invasion that has left Gaza in ruins since Oct. 7, Hamas’s popularity has surged in Lebanon, where growing numbers of people are joining its ranks. 

As part of its recruitment strategy, Hamas “is trying to capitalize” on widespread anger over Israel’s war in Gaza, Hage Ali explained.  Bolstered by its soaring popularity, the group has now “come out in the open” and “is recruiting at unprecedented levels within this short timeframe.”

“The Arab population at-large has been radicalized by what’s happening in the Gaza Strip — the massacres, the US and Western-backing of everything that has contributed to Palestinians suffering in Gaza,” Hage Ali added. 

War crimes fuel recruitment

Swords and daggers decorate the snug sitting room belonging to a local Hamas leader in Saida, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Abed Shanaa. Framed on a wall is a photo of Shanaa with Ismail Haniyeh, a founding Hamas member and chairman of the group’s political bureau. 

In Saida, local Hamas leader Abu Abed Shanaa's living room is decorated with photos with party brass (Hanna Davis)
In Saida, local Hamas leader Abu Abed Shanaa's living room is decorated with photos with party brass (Hanna Davis)

Across the room, scenes of the immense destruction in war-stricken Gaza flash from a flatscreen television mounted on the wall. “They are killing the children, the women, destroying homes and hospitals,” Shanaa said, turning toward the television. “People are now dying not just from the warplanes, but from hunger at levels not seen in hundreds of years.”

Human rights watchdogs have expressed alarm over unlawful and indiscriminate Israeli attacks on the Strip, which have caused mass civilian casualties and may constitute war crimes. Meanwhile, Israel’s onslaught has toppled the healthcare system and its blockade of humanitarian supplies and goods entering the strip has caused the world’s worst hunger crisis. South Africa has filed a case accusing Israel of committing crimes of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. 

The Arab population at-large has been radicalized by what’s happening in the Gaza Strip …

– Mohanad Hage Ali

To hear Shanaa tell it, Israel’s “war crimes” over the past three months have driven “thousands” of new members to join Hamas’s ranks, especially in Palestine and Lebanon. “They want to enter the resistance as a way to express their anger towards the Zionists,” he said. 

Support for Hamas is now widespread throughout Lebanon. In a poll conducted by the Washington Institute examining Lebanese attitudes towards the Israel-Hamas war conducted between Nov. 14 and Dec. 6, nearly eight-in-ten Lebanese respondents expressed a positive opinion of Hamas. In an earlier poll, conducted on Oct. 11 and cited in the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese daily, al-Akhbar, more than 80% of respondents supported Hamas’s “al-Aqsa Flood” operation, the group’s name for their Oct. 7 attack. 

The support for Hamas stretches across sectarian lines, although a lower percentage (60%) of Christians expressed favorable views of Hamas in the Oct. 11 poll, compared to their Sunni, Shia, and Druze counterparts. 

“So, of course our resistance has gotten stronger,” Shanna said, adding that Palestinians of all backgrounds and some Lebanese, even Christians, have signed up.

The infrastructure for armed groups to operate and recruit from Lebanese soil was initially set by the Cairo Agreement, signed in 1969 by the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Yasser Arafat and the Lebanese parliament. 

Although Hamas has been operating on Lebanese soil since the 1990s, it was not until about 2019 that Lebanon became an important hub for Hamas’s political and security presence in the region. The country offered a safe haven for its leaders as much of the region normalized ties with Israel, according to the Carnegie Middle East Center.  

Yet, as Lebanon became a key haven for Hamas, Israel took notice. Earlier this month, an Israeli drone strike killed Salah al-Arouri, a senior party leader and a founding member of the armed wing. Al-Arouri had been the mastermind behind Hamas’s rapprochement with Iran and Syria, which had faltered due to Hamas’s support for the 2011 uprising against the Syrian government. 

With those ties restored, Hamas was able to significantly expand its presence in Lebanon, both politically and militarily — at a time when the Lebanese state has been weakened by one of the world’s worst economic crises. 

Public Services 

Since late 2019, the severe and far-reaching economic crisis, thanks to years of financial mismanagement by the country’s ruling elite, has rattled Lebanon. Wages have plummeted, hunger has soared, and public services have withered. The economic catastrophe has hit already marginalized Palestinian refugees especially hard. 

As part of its push to expand its appeal, Hamas has also sought to ease the pressure placed on Palestinians by the economic decay. In one neighborhood in Saida, the local party branch has filled potholes in the neglected roads, installed a well, built a recreation center, and even constructed a water fountain for residents.  

Inside the neighborhood, there is little trash, while directly outside garbage piles up high along the unkept streets. The neighborhood is home to about 200 families, around 80% of whom are Palestinian, according to Hamas leader Shanaa. 

“In Lebanon, we are oppressed,” the Hamas leader said. “Hamas is the party of the Palestinian people. It helps its citizens and helps return people their rights.” 

Trash piles high along the street in Saida (Hanna Davis)
Trash piles high along the street in Saida (Hanna Davis)

Even before Lebanon’s economic collapse, Palestinians had faced barriers in the country. They are restricted to their legal status as foreigners, which prevents them from owning property and working in certain “high-skilled” professions, and accessing healthcare, education, and other social services. So, the help from Hamas is welcomed with open arms.

“I don’t remember a day without facing difficulties,” Ahmad said about his life in Ein al-Hilweh. However, as a Hamas fighter, he is able to make a sustainable salary of about $600 a month. He said other, lower-ranking members might make about $200 or $300.

Although Fatah, the leading party in the Palestinian Authority (PA), gives camp residents food and monetary support, it pales in comparison with the support Hamas provides, Ahmad added. “I feel Hamas helps more than Fatah,” he said.

Armed struggle  

Hamas’s popularity has been on the rise in Ein al-Hilweh, even prior to Oct. 7, threatening the long-held dominance of their political adversary, Fatah. Fatah is increasingly “feeling that they’re being squeezed out of the role they’ve been playing as the dominant actor” in the camp, said analyst Hage Ali. 

In recent years, Fatah — whose strategy towards Israel mostly follows the path of negotiations, rather than armed struggle  — has been weakened by the failure of the Israel-Palestine peace process to bring about any real achievements. “Now, Fatah will be even further weakened by the Israeli campaign of destruction and their inability to do anything in the face of that destruction,” Hage Ali said. 

On Dec. 4, Hamas called on Lebanon’s “young and heroic men” to join the “resistance fighters,” in what was said to be a newly created unit known as the “Al-Aqsa Flood Vanguards.” The announcement stirred controversy in Lebanese political circles, with some politicians accusing Hamas of “violating Lebanese sovereignty” and creating “uncontrolled armed hotbeds.”

More young people now want to engage in armed struggle.

– Souhayd Jawhar

Souhayb Jawhar, a Lebanese researcher of Islamist political movements, told Inkstick Media that Hamas’s “al-Aqsa Flood” announcement has encouraged many youth to “flock to join the movement.” Jawhar explained that the widely broadcasted announcement was part of Hamas’s move to publicize itself, as they compete with Fatah for dominance in the Palestinian camps. “More young people now want to engage in armed struggle,” he said.

Hamas leader Shanaa said the “Al-Aqsa Flood Vanguards” is not for military purposes, rather just a new name for one of Hamas’s existing youth education programs, formerly known as “Talaq al-Aqsa.” While these programs are focused on Islamic education and character-building activities, he explained that students often decide to join Hamas’s military brigades later on. In fact, it was a similar youth program that inspired Ahmad to fight with Hamas years ago.

“Widen their net”

In the “next phase,” Hage Ali said, Hamas may attempt to harness its wartime popularity and  “widen their net” to attract recruits from beyond Palestinian communities — hoping to attract a larger base of support from within the country’s Sunni Muslim population.

The success of their future recruitment largely hinges on whether Hamas will “survive the war,” he added, as well as the extent to which Lebanese politicians and Hezbollah will rein in its activities. 

But for now, Hamas’s popularity is soaring and its recruit pool is rich — the “unintended consequence” of Israel’s onslaught in Gaza, Hage Ali said.

Back outside the café in Saida, the sun began to set over the ocean as Ahmad reiterated his certainty in the importance of the resistance. “There is no other alternative,” he said, adding that he nonetheless believed all Palestinian factions would need to unite to fight Israel. “One hand can’t clap alone. Hamas alone can’t liberate Palestine.” 

*Denotes the use of a pseudonym.

Hanna Davis

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

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