How a Hamas point man restored the group's troubled ties with Hezbollah and Iran

The recent assassination of Saleh Al Arouri has focused attention on a web of relationships that is shaping conflict in the region

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Since the assassination in Beirut this month of Hamas’s Saleh Al Arouri, in an Israeli strike, much has been said about his different roles with the Palestinian militant group. Mr Al Arouri was the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, a founder of the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades – the organisation’s military wing – and was a leading figure in the West Bank, his place of origin. But chief among his roles was that as architect of Hamas’s most important alliance – a position whose details reveal much about the movement’s political evolution over the past decade or so.

When a series of uprisings swept much of the Arab world in 2010 and 2011, Hamas, under the leadership of Khaled Meshaal, became supportive of those uprisings, in no small part because of its close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group influential in many of them. But Hamas's geopolitical focus began to shift after its leadership election in October 2017, when Mr Al Arouri was voted into his role as deputy bureau chief.

Prior to his death, the extent to which he remoulded Hamas’s geopolitics went largely underreported. Mr Al Arouri, who spent 18 years in Israeli jails due to his militant activism against Israel’s occupation in the West Bank, had played a key role not only in restoring relations and trust with Iran and Hezbollah, but also in upgrading the relationship to unprecedented levels of co-ordination. He helped to birth the idea of a “unity of fronts” among Iran-backed groups – a kind of Nato of militant groups fighting Israel.

Mr Al Arouri was the right figure to guide this strategic shift for a few reasons. First, by the time he was voted into his leadership role, he had only been out of the Palestinian Territories for seven years and had spent a great deal of his life in Israeli jails. He was also a military man, who ascended to the political leadership from Hamas’s armed wing. These two traits were important in setting his priorities, away from the organisation's traditional links with the Muslim Brotherhood and its politics towards Iran’s “axis of resistance”. He shared these traits with Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip and who today is Israel’s most wanted man.

What Mr Al Arouri had – a fighting background within Hamas, a long history of activism and an upbringing in the Palestinian Territories – stood in sharp contrast to Mr Meshaal – who moved to Kuwait as a 10-year-old and spent most of his life abroad – or another Hamas figure who was supportive of the Arab uprisings, Musa Abu Marzouq, who studied in Egypt and the US and worked in the Gulf. The 2017 Hamas vote for a new leadership represented the sidelining of these men and showcased a thirst within the organisation for a paradigm shift in its strategy.

The discrepancy between the pre and post-2017 Hamas leaders also applies to their intra-Palestinian politics, as both Mr Sinwar and Mr Al Arouri had built and maintained relations with non-Islamist Palestinian groups during their long years of imprisonment and in their activism. They were generally more open to reconciliation efforts with other Palestinian movements, even allowing Fatah – Hamas’s rival that controls the West Bank – to carry out activities in the Gaza Strip. Mr Sinwar and Mr Al Arouri were both in Israeli jails in 2006 when Palestinian prisoners from all factions produced a national accord document, calling for reconciliation amid growing discord between Fatah and Hamas. The prisoners played a leading role in pressuring their factions to join the effort.

It was once widely assumed that the damage done by the Syrian war to the relationship between Hamas and the Hezbollah-Iran axis would require years to repair. That turned out not to be the case

While in jail, Mr Sinwar and Mr Al Arouri had shared with Hamas’s rival factions the grievance of being left out and forgotten. Mr Al Arouri spoke of this sentiment during his jail time, highlighting the need for unity among Palestinians and for the plight of prisoners to be recognised all over the world. A 2007 Al Hayat newspaper article reported that when Mr Al Arouri was told of the UN secretary general’s tears in front of the wife of an Israeli prisoner, he felt the urge to scream from his cell that there are 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom also had wives, mothers and children, with no one crying for them.

All of this is to say that Mr Al Arouri and Mr Sinwar prioritised a united armed resistance rather than the Islamist politicking of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that applied to intra-Palestinian affairs as well as regional geopolitics.

Finally, Mr Al Arouri had witnessed the decline of Hamas's regional alliances in Syria – the country he moved to in 2010 and eventually had to leave following the revolution – as well as Turkey and Qatar, from which he was pressured to leave a few times.

Hamas’s relationship with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group controlling Lebanon, dates to 1992, when Israel expelled 400 Palestinians, including Hamas leaders, to Marj Al Zuhoor, a Lebanese border town. There, the two groups had their first contact. Since then, the relationship saw greater co-operation over the years, and Israel even assassinated three Hezbollah officials involved in developing these ties. Egypt had imprisoned an alleged Hezbollah cell active in smuggling towards the Gaza Strip. But when the Syrian revolution and ensuing conflict began in 2011, the groups parted ways, often fighting on opposite sides.

Shortly before his rise to the senior leadership of Hamas alongside Mr Sinwar in Gaza, Mr Al Arouri moved to Lebanon in 2015. There, he started with a focus on restoring ties with Hezbollah. A week before the 2017 Hamas change in leadership, he travelled to Tehran, and just days later the pro-Hezbollah network Al Mayadeen called him the “godfather of the rapprochement with Iran and Hezbollah”.

It was no easy task. Trust between both sides was ruptured with criticism of Iran’s role in Syria, often in sectarian language, as well as accusations and reports of Hamas’s role in training Syrian rebels. Syrian television had aired confessions to that effect from Maamoun Al Jaloudi, allegedly Mr Meshaal’s bodyguard, while dozens of Hamas operatives were arrested – many of them now either missing or presumed dead.

In Lebanon, Mr Al Arouri weaved an alliance not only with Iran and Hezbollah, but also beyond, forging closer ties with Lebanon’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – Al Jamaa Al Islamiya – activating its armed wing, Al Fajr. For the first time in its history, Hamas was expanding its influence and network in Lebanon, including in Palestinian refugee camps dominated largely by Fatah.

It was once widely assumed that the damage done by the Syrian war to the relationship between Hamas and the Hezbollah-Iran axis would require years to repair. That turned out not to be the case. With new leadership, in just two years a relationship characterised by distrust was transformed into a regional alliance that is coming to shape the war unfolding in the Levant before our very eyes. Mr Al Arouri’s killing and its aftermath start a new chapter in this tale, which is still being written.

Published: January 12, 2024, 6:00 PM