Hezbollah, Hamas United by Tactics

A woman, one of 650 people taking shelter in a Beirut school during bombing to the south, rushes her sick child out to Red Cross workers.
A woman, one of 650 people taking shelter in a Beirut school during bombing to the south, rushes her sick child out to Red Cross workers. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 16, 2006

GAZA CITY, July 15 -- When the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid Wednesday and captured two Israeli soldiers, barely two weeks after Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip had done virtually the same thing, Gaza accountant Mohammed Abu Asen saw the events as "completely connected" and a cause for celebration.

"It was an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people, when not a single Arab state had lifted a finger to help us" after two weeks of retaliatory Israeli attacks, he said.

But according to Asen and many others here, the notion that Hezbollah and Hamas had actually coordinated their separate abductions, despite the similarities, is far-fetched.

"I don't think they planned this together," said Khalid Salah, 31, a butcher. "Rather, it's a divine coincidence."

U.S. and Israeli officials have gone a step further, publicly charging -- without offering direct evidence -- that Iran and Syria had a hand in the operations. A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States had intelligence that Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah traveled from Beirut to Damascus to visit Hamas political chief Khaled Mashal shortly before Wednesday's Hezbollah raid, suggesting the operations were linked, the official said.

Jointly planned or not, the capture of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah and Hamas -- both labeled as terrorist organizations by Israel and the United States -- has thrown the two groups together in a way that hasn't happened since 1992, when more than 400 Hamas activists were deported by Israel to southern Lebanon. It was there, in refugee camps, that some Hamas members honed their bombmaking skills with the help of Hezbollah experts, according to Israeli intelligence sources.

Now, both groups say they want to trade the Israeli soldiers they are holding for their own supporters who are being held in Israeli prisons.

Israel is refusing a prisoner swap, saying it would be a bad precedent. Instead, Israel invaded and reoccupied parts of Gaza and launched one of the largest military operations in Lebanon since its 1982 invasion. Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said the goal is not only to secure the release of the soldiers but to stop the continuing rocket attacks that have terrorized Israeli communities near both borders for years.

"It was a well-coordinated operation" between Hezbollah and Hamas, Meir said. "How come it happened in two places simultaneously?"

"Certainly there was strategic coordination," said another senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If Hamas is attacked, then Hezbollah comes to its aid, and vice versa." Furthermore, according to Meir, "the ideological support, the weapons, everything comes from Iran, and in the case of Hezbollah, through Damascus." However, he added, "I'm not saying they had an operational hand in it."

Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas, denied any connections.

"If they have proof or evidence, they should show the world there is cooperation between Hamas and Hezbollah," he said, adding that in attempting to link Iran and Syria to events last week, the United States is "trying to convince the world that all these organizations should be put in one basket, and present this as the image of terror to the world." Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the two kidnappings, he said, "we think there may be an opportunity to talk about one deal for all the prisoners and all the soldiers."

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