BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah made a phone call to Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal on Monday and vowed to support “the resistance in Gaza in any way necessary.” Then Nasrallah, whose fame has spread far and wide over the years as the head of the Iranian-backed Lebanese “Party of God,” called Palestinians Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Salah to talk about maintaining close diplomatic ties in the fight against Israel.
But here’s the real message from Nasrallah: Hamas, you’re on your own.
This is a far cry from those days in the middle of the last decade when Hezbollah, encouraged by Tehran, was staking out a position as the region’s preeminent leader of resistance against Israel and leader of a pan-Islamist movement ready to defend not only Shiites but also Sunni Muslims from, as they were wont to say, Jews and Crusaders.
In 2006, when the Israelis attacked Gaza in the south, Hezbollah started launching rockets attacking Israel from the north and kidnapped Israeli soldiers there, leading to a brief but brutal war in which Hezbollah guerrillas fought the vaunted Israel Defense Forces to a standstill.
But Hezbollah has more pressing strategic imperatives today, and Nasrallah is not known as an impulsive leader. He plots and schemes and bides his time to strike when he thinks the stars are aligned in his favor. Weighing in on the side of Hamas would invite massive Israeli retaliation and force a replay of the 2006 war that, this time around, Hezbollah would be likely to lose—not just because Israel would fight a smarter campaign, but because Nasrallah’s forces are stretched so thin on so many fronts defending its allies—and Tehran’s—in Damascus and even in Baghdad.
“In the ongoing war in Gaza, Hezbollah hardly qualifies as an afterthought,” argues Michael Young, opinion editor of Lebanon’s English-language newspaper The Daily Star and a longtime Hezbollah critic. “The party is too involved in Syria on behalf of its Iranian sponsors.”
The Hamas leadership had worried this day might come. It warned Hezbollah of what it saw as the distraction of intervening full-tilt in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Over a year ago, as Hezbollah was ratcheting up its military assistance to Assad and turning the tide of battle in his favor, Hamas urged Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from Syria and focus on fighting Israel instead.
But Hamas, you see, is part of the international Muslim Brotherhood—the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood—committed to Assad’s overthrow. This inconvenient fact was something that might be glossed over if everyone was focused on the Israeli enemy, but it couldn’t be ignored in what rapidly became Syria’s Sunnis vs Shia civil war.
“We call on Hezbollah to take its forces out of Syria and to keep their weapons directed against the Zionist enemy,” Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas leader, announced on his Facebook page. He warned that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria would stoke sectarian flames across the Mideast—as indeed it has done.
There were even unconfirmed reports that Hamas fighters gave tips to the Sunni insurgents in Syria about how to fight against Hezbollah in urban combat by using tunnels (a technique Hezbollah originally had taught Hamas, which it is now using to try to launch commando raids in Israel and wage a guerrilla campaign inside Gaza).
Nasrallah rebuffed the advice from Hamas, saying his forces would continue to fight alongside Assad, whose dynasty is built on the Alawite sect of Shia Islam.
Over the last year Hamas has found itself increasingly isolated. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt last year not only eliminated a vital ally, it brought to power a military-dominated regime determined to crush the Brotherhood and its regional iterations, especially in Gaza.
Meanwhile the Hamas rupture with Hezbollah and Tehran left the Palestinian group cash-strapped, isolated and increasingly ostracized, according to analyst Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. So Hamas started trying to patch things up.
The rapprochement efforts even involved Meshaal trying to distance Hamas from his previous outspoken support of the Syrian insurgency, arguing that while people “have the right to rise up for their rights,” this “must be done through peaceful means.” The Syrian rebel coalition known as the Army of Islam responded with disdain: “He who performs jihad out of his office should not offer advice to those in the trenches.”
Quite apart from all that infighting, the fact is a confrontation with Israel at this time suits neither Hezbollah nor Tehran.
For the Party of God the imperatives are shoring up Assad, and holding off the threat of extremist jihadists like those of the group formerly known as ISIS. That war has not yet been won. Far from it.
The Iranians are focused on pulling off an accord with the West over their nuclear program, thus guaranteeing their own survival, and they aren’t inclined to risk that for the sake of Hamas. At least not now.
So, yes, Nasrallah is calling up his old protégés in Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to offer moral support, but when he signs off they understand the Iranian-Hezbollah message very well. “Don’t call us,” he’s saying, “we’ll call you.”