By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 16, 2006; A14
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."
Many Palestinians on the street in Gaza said that Hezbollah and Hamas had their own agendas and goals and would not coordinate military operations. And they said the United States and Israel always blamed everything on Iran and Syria, whether they were involved or not.
"It's not a matter of coordination," said Mahei al-Masri, 44, a fruit vendor in Palestinian Square near Gaza's Old City. "What's common here are the goals. Hezbollah wants Lebanese and Arab prisoners freed, and Hamas wants the Palestinian prisoners freed."
"The U.S. accuses the Islamic states of everything that happens here," said Marwa al-Haddad, 34, who was shopping with one of her seven children at the Friday market in the Beach Refugee Camp along the Gaza City coast.
At the same time, some Gazans said they believed Hezbollah launched its operation at least partly to relieve Israeli military pressure on the strip, which has been relatively quiet since the fighting intensified on the Israel-Lebanon border on Thursday.
Ziad Abu Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian legislature who often acts as a mediator between Hamas and other Palestinian groups, said such beliefs were "naive" because Israel could easily fight wars on two fronts. But it was possible, he said, that the problems in the north and the south were linked, because Hamas leaders living outside the Palestinian territories and the leaders of Hezbollah, Iran and Syria all derived much of their influence from continuing instability.
"Iran definitely has some cards to play against America, and they are using Hezbollah and Hamas to that end, to shift the position on nuclear arms," said Eyad Sarraj, a Gazan psychiatrist and human rights activist, referring to U.S. efforts to have the U.N. Security Council impose punitive actions on Iran for not stopping its uranium enrichment program.
Abu Amr made a similar point, saying, "The whole world is focused on the Security Council meeting to discuss Lebanon" and not Iran.
Palestinians here said they were happy to have another ally in the fight against their sworn enemy. And few showed any compassion for Israelis seen on televised reports scurrying into shelters as Hezbollah bombs rained down on northern Israel. Ismail Abu Ali Mustafah, an unemployed 58-year-old with two wives and 18 children, said he didn't want to talk about how he felt watching such scenes.
"I have a question for the Israelis now in shelters," he said. "How do you feel when you see Israeli jets bombing our homes and killing our people? Are they human beings and we're not?"
But for Abu Islam, 62, also unemployed and with 12 children, the entire crisis simply underscores how desperate Palestinians have become, and how little weight they carry.
"We have 9,000 men, children and woman in Israeli prisons, and for three Israeli soldiers the whole world is calling for their release, including the U.N. and G-8. And they're soldiers, not innocent civilians," he said. "The world is not hearing the Palestinian cries. No one listens to the weak."
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.