Hamas leader threatens Israel with rockets during Beirut visit
Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Sunday used a Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon as a staging ground to threaten Israel, saying the militant group has missiles that can strike Tel Aviv.
Haniyeh's visit to the Ein El Hilweh camp capped a week-long trip to Lebanon, where he had high-visibility meetings with Lebanese politicians aligned with Iran and was feted by Hezbollah, underlining the sway of the Shiite group on Beirut’s foreign policy.
“When I enter Ein El Hilweh and walk among its men and under its rifles and weapons, it is as if I am walking in Gaza and among the Qassam Brigades,” Haniyeh told a rally at the camp, referring to the armed wing of Hamas.
“When we say we have prepared, we did. Our missiles used to have a range of a few kilometres outside the borders of Gaza. Today the resistance has missiles that can pound Tel Aviv and beyond,” said Haniyeh, who is head of the Hamas political bureau.
Haniyeh met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah at an undisclosed location in Lebanon. A statement by Hezbollah said Haniyeh and Nasrallah “affirmed the solidity of the relationship between Hezbollah and the Hamas Movement”.
Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in the 1980s and its charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Since the 2000s, there have been several wars between the group and Israel, with both sides claiming the other sparked the hostilities.
Gaza was under Egyptian administration before Israel occupied the territory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. But Hamas’s roots can also be also traced to Islamists tolerated for a while by Israel as a counterweight to the secular Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
Hamas defeated the PLO in a 2007 civil war in Gaza and took control of the strip, which is home to almost 2 million Palestinians.
The war erupted a year after Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 but objected to conditions set by the US, Russia and other international powers for peace with Israel.
PLO attacks on Israel – unauthorised by the Lebanese government – were a major factor behind the start of Lebanon's civil war in 1975 and many Lebanese still reject the continued presence of armed Palestinian factions in their country.
In 2008, the US State Department listed Haniyeh as a terrorist. Hamas was already designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union.
Haniyeh arrived in Lebanon shortly after after senior White House adviser Jared Kushner flew from Israel to the UAE last week with a high-level Israeli delegation. It was the first commercial passenger flight between the two countries.
Mr Kushner described the visit as a "historic breakthrough" and a "big turn for optimism" in the Middle East, in an interview with The National.
Jordanian political researcher Hazem Ayyad told The National that Beirut was one of the few Arab capitals where Hamas could “mount an external relations campaign”.
“Hamas has a complex set of relations with players across the region,” Mr Ayyad said. “But with the exception of Turkey, Beirut is the only practical platform available to Hamas.”
Militant Palestinian factions from across the ideological spectrum travelled from Damascus to Beirut to meet Haniyeh, and powerful pro-Iranian Lebanese figures gave him high visibility in the Lebanese capital.
Haniyeh also met Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and the head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate Abbas Ibrahim. The two are among the most effective allies of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hamas said the meetings countered “projects that target the Palestinian cause”.
Haniyeh also met Lebanese caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and attended a rally on Saturday with Islamic clerics.
Among those who met Haniyeh in Beirut was Ziad Nakhaleh, head of Islamic Jihad, one of the most loyal pro-Iranian groups in the region, and operatives from the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
Lebanon has 470,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations. They are barred from obtaining Lebanese citizenship and are banned from holding jobs, except for mostly menial work.