Israel’s elimination of the Hamas leadership–most recently Sheikh Yassin and Rantissi, but also several mid-level leaders–has created a power vacuum in Hamas, allowing Hezbollah, and its sponsors Syria and Iran, to move in. With the removal of Saddam, Syria and Iran are making a play to become the dominant powers in the region. To do so they need to do two things: kick the U.S. out of Iraq, and neutralize the region’s strongest military power: Israel. Hamas has key assets to contribute to this Syrian-Iranian gambit.
Hamas’s utility against Israel is apparent. With its network of schools and hospitals and its history of successful terror attacks, Hamas has street credibility not just among the Palestinians, but also throughout the Middle East. For the last several years Hamas has been split between the leadership in Gaza and the leadership in Damascus. The Damascus leadership, which disburses Iranian money within the organization, has grown closer to its patrons. The Gaza leadership hates Israel just as much, but tries to preserve its independence. As the effective Gaza leaders are eliminated the Damascus leadership has a free hand to run Hamas in accord with Iranian-Syrian goals.
Hezbollah has been providing technical and financial support to the Palestinian factions, and building its own network in the West Bank, Gaza, and among the Israeli Arabs since the late 1990s. According to the Israeli daily Maariv, with Arafat sidelined and his organization in disarray, most of the funding for the Arafat-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades comes from Hezbollah. The minor Palestinian factions are already tied into the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad receives all of its funding from Iran. The secular “fronts” are based in Damascus and rely on Syrian support. By pulling Hamas into the fold, Hezbollah becomes the real power behind Palestinian violence.
With Hezbollah pulling the strings, Israel will face a coordinated campaign along three fronts. In addition to terror attacks, the Katyusha rockets threatening Israel’s north could be augmented by artillery and rocket attacks from Gaza and the West Bank capable of reaching Israel’s population centers and commercial airspace–effectively encircling Israel.
Hamas’s assets will also be useful to Hezbollah and its patrons in Iraq, where they seek to undermine the American endeavor and create a weak Iraq dependent on Iran. Hamas has already opened offices in southern Iraq to foment anti-American activities. Gaza and the West Bank could be fertile recruiting grounds for jihadists wishing to fight the United States in Iraq.
Hamas has links to radical Sunni groups throughout the Middle East and could build relations between them and Shiite Hezbollah. Jordan–a key U.S. ally bordering Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia–could be target number one. With a majority Palestinian population, Jordan is particularly vulnerable to Palestinian unrest, and Hamas has close ties to Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood and particularly the Islamic Action Front. Indeed, Jordan recently thwarted a massive terror attack. But another incident, in Kosovo–where a Jordanian policeman serving with the U.N. contingent shot and killed two U.S. policemen–is a warning that, even within the security forces that prop up Jordan’s monarchy, there is unhappiness with the regime’s pro-Western tilt. If Jordan fell into the Syrian-Iranian camp it would become a base for attacks on Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, Hamas could augment Hezbollah’s already formidable ability to launch terror attacks around the world. Hezbollah has already unleashed terror on Europe, the Middle East, and even Latin America–and attempted to do so in Asia. Hamas has an international fundraising network (particularly in the United States, where Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzuk lived for nearly 20 years) that can also be used to provide logistical support for terrorist operations and recruitment. The April 30, 2003, attack on a Tel-Aviv bar by two British citizens of Pakistani descent who were recruited into Hamas is a harbinger of this possibility. In another ominous sign, in November 2003, Israel arrested a Canadian citizen of Palestinian birth for training and plotting terror attacks in North America. This ability to recruit Westerners is an important asset in conducting international terror, which Hezbollah and its sponsors have already used effectively around the world.
Hamas personnel, resources, and “brand name” fit neatly into the regional and global plans of Hezbollah and its sponsors. To head off this threat, the U.S. should not merely support Israeli action against Hamas. The U.S. should be actively coordinating with Israel to neutralize and destroy Hamas, particularly by pressuring sponsors Iran and Syria. In the Middle East one often hears the old saying: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Surely, then, the enemy of my friend is my enemy. And Hamas’s enmity is not reserved for Israel alone.