Lebanon could pay a 'hefty price' if Hamas leaders relocate there in post-war deal

Experts fear potential agreement with Hamas leadership could exploit Lebanon's vulnerability

Hezbollah supporters march in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. AFP
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Lebanon could pay a “hefty price” if a regional deal to relocate Hamas leaders to the country takes shape, experts have warned.

The US has reportedly asked Qatar to reconsider hosting the Palestinian group once the Gaza hostage crisis is resolved.

The move could put further pressure on an already unstable Lebanon, said Mohanad Hage Ali, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, a Beirut-based think tank.

“Lebanon, given its current weak state, could bear a hefty price in a regional deal in the event of a solution that requires relocating Hamas leadership,” he said.

A US official said last week that Qatar, where Hamas opened a political office in 2012, was open to reconsidering its association with the group amid heavy criticism from the US Congress.

A source from the Qatari Foreign Ministry told The National that they are “aware of reports that the US has asked us to reconsider our hosting of Hamas leaders in Doha”.

Qatar talks still in early phases

Several Hamas leaders, including the group's supreme leader Ismail Haniyeh and former head Khaled Meshaal, regularly reside in Doha.

The Washington Post reported that an understanding had been reached at a meeting in Doha between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim.

This reassessment of the relationship may entail either the full relocation of Hamas leaders from Qatar or the adoption of alternative measures, the Post said.

But the talks are still in their initial phases for now.

“Qatar was approached by various parties to open this channel of communication and we will continue to keep that channel open as long as it serves in peacemaking and de-escalation efforts,” the Foreign Ministry source said.

Doha, a close ally of the US, has positioned itself as the principal mediator in the Israel-Gaza war.

It has leveraged its ties with Hamas to negotiate the release of hostages taken during Hamas's attack on Israel on October 7.

A 'soft spot'

Experts caution that Lebanon could be among the countries with ties to the “Axis of Resistance” that might host Hamas exiles if that option were chosen.

“It appears to be the most vulnerable part of the equation,” he said, stressing that it is still early in the negotiations, as the fighting in Gaza intensifies, with no ceasefire in sight,” Mr Ali said.

Lebanon is seen as a “soft spot” due to its continuing leadership crisis, he explained. It currently lacks a president and a fully functioning government, with some crucial positions being filled by acting heads.

“In essence, the entire government structure is vacant, making it a prime point for external pressure, particularly given Lebanon's existing embroilment in the continuing conflict,” Mr Ali said.

Experts also stressed that in deeply polarised Lebanon, with staunch pro-Hezbollah and anti-Hezbollah factions, relocating Hamas leaders may never be accepted as a viable solution.

Other countries, such as Iran and Syria, could be seen as a more appropriate location.

“This seems like a highly unlikely deal, given the current political discourse in Lebanon,” political analyst Joseph Daher said, stressing that such a move would spark a political backlash.

But, for Mr Ali, “we're already halfway there”, as many Hamas leaders are already in Lebanon, having left Turkey after the country initiated a rapprochement with Israel, and Qatar, during the 2017-2021 blockade imposed by other Gulf states.

'The dawn' of the Fajr Forces in southern Lebanon

'The dawn' of the Fajr Forces in southern Lebanon

In 2018, Saleh Al Arouri, a senior leader of Hamas and a founding commander of its military wing, reportedly moved from Turkey to Lebanon.

Even before the war, “Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been operating in South Lebanon, engaging in rocket launches and attacks, to an extent that was not seen before”, Mr Ali said.

In April, the Israeli army reported 34 rocket attacks launched from Lebanon by Hamas. This was, at the time, the most significant attack since the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

“I see that dynamic playing out in the next phase,” he added.

In Lebanon, Hamas can rely on Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militia and powerful political party. Both are part of the “Axis of Resistance”, and they maintain close co-ordination.

Following Hamas's rampage, Hezbollah publicly praised the operation and escalated its confrontations with Israel along the southern border, which has been the scene of deadly clashes for almost three weeks.

On Wednesday, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, hosted a meeting in Lebanon with Ziad Al Nakhalah, the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Saleh Al Arouri, deputy chief of Hamas, to assess the unfolding situation.

Political backlash

A Lebanese Forces spokesman, a Christian right-wing party opposed to Hezbollah, said when asked about a potential relocation of Hamas leaders to Lebanon: “As long as we and the opposition groups are here, meaning the people advocating the state and its institutions, any similar scenario will never be implemented and will be confronted all the way to ensure it never happens.

“What Hezbollah and his friends – old and new – are doing is to put Lebanon on the list of wanted and proxies Thus preventing the Lebanese from any possible solution to the Palestinian issue in Lebanon.

“What has been happening is the opposite of what we have been advocating: a complete reluctance from the state, a complete control of Hezbollah of the southern front, and an invitation of other Lebanese and Palestinian militias to join forces.”

With additional reporting by Ismaeel Naar

Updated: November 01, 2023, 10:19 AM