How Hamas-Hezbollah Rivalry Is Terrorizing Israel

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When Khaled Masha'al and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah meet in Tehran this week, theirs will be a handshake to strike fear in the hearts of Israelis. The roving power broker of Hamas, 52, and the fiery 41-year-old cleric who leads Hezbollah will be signaling a truce in what has been a violent if largely unheralded struggle to be the leading terror arm of the Palestinian uprising. The two were once allies. But earlier this year, Hezbollah decided it wanted to go its own way. Suddenly two of the most efficient and dangerous terror groups in the world were in competition with each other. It was as if two units of the same army had decided at once to see who could fight the enemy more fiercely — and stopped cooperating in the process. The impact of the split was undeniable: a ratcheting up of anti-Israel terror campaigns.

Now, top sources in both organizations tell TIME, Hezbollah's backers in the Iranian government have called them together to patch up their dispute and focus them on the jihad against the Jewish state. The Iranians, who have kept Hamas at arm's length until now, hope that by bringing the two together again, they can pool their operations and exert even more deadly pressure on Israel. If the Iranians get their way, it will be a dark day both for Israelis — who will face increasingly professional terrorist attacks — and for Palestinians already suffering under a heavy-handed Israeli backlash. Competition between the two groups generated an uptick in attacks. Coordination will make those strikes even more effective.

If you want to understand the complexity of the battles being fought in the Gaza Strip, take a look at Adnan al-Ghoul's resume. An activist in the first intifadeh, al-Ghoul was deported by Israel to Lebanon in 1992. There he hooked up with Hezbollah. Al-Ghoul sneaked back into Gaza City in 1996 with forged documents, but he still maintains close ties with Hezbollah — especially since he runs a major bomb factory in Gaza City, according to Palestinian intelligence officials. Al-Ghoul sells hand grenades for $50 and belts packed with TNT for use in suicide bombs for $1,000. His main client is Hamas, and he's also on the payroll of Yasser Arafat's Preventive Security Service. But it's the spreading tentacles of Hezbollah in the form of men like al-Ghoul — trained and hardened by fighting in Lebanon — that worry Israel most. At least two Hezbollah-style roadside bombs went off in the West Bank last week. Palestinian sources believe they were set by activists working directly for the Beirut organization. Hezbollah gained kudos in the Arab world for driving Israel out of southern Lebanon with its guerrilla tactics last year. Now it's making its first major moves into the West Bank and Gaza Strip through old deportees like al-Ghoul who have become power players in the Palestinian underworld because of the expertise in weapons and tactics they acquired from Hezbollah.

Hamas has had help from Hezbollah for years. But when the Aqsa intifada erupted last fall, Hezbollah's leaders saw a chance to boost their prestige in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to expand their brand of Islamic revolution to the gates of Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest city. They aren't keen to share the spotlight with Hamas. In the past few months, Hezbollah canceled the training of Hamas operatives in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and in Iran. Hezbollah is still training Palestinians, but when it sends them back to the Gaza Strip or West Bank, they'll be working for Hezbollah, not Hamas. A source in the Hamas military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, tells TIME that Hezbollah has recruited several activists from Hamas and from the military branch of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — people who were frustrated by their organizations' ineffectiveness and tempted by Hezbollah's training and weaponry.

Just what does this tussle contribute to the sum of the violence? At the start of last week, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli position on the border with Lebanon, killing an Israeli soldier. That attack prompted a jealous Hamas to step up its mortar offensive along the Israel border, firing for the first time on a town inside Israel. Desperate to demonstrate that it can still do more than put on a defiant show at the funerals of its "martyrs," Hamas fired a series of 82-mm mortars on the Israeli town of Sderot. "We have to prove ourselves," the Hamas military-wing officer tells TIME. Early in the intifada, Palestinian and Israeli security officials say, Arafat freed Hamas fighters from his jails and gave them a green light to bomb Israeli towns. An agent in Arafat's General Intelligence was suspended in December when he tried to arrest a Hamas cell in Gaza that was planning suicide bombings, according to Palestinian security officials close to the case. The highly mobile mortars allow Hamas to strike fear inside Israel much more easily than with suicide bombs. The mortars fired last week were manufactured by a top Palestinian Authority military officer and sold to Hamas, according to senior sources in Arafat's regime.

Soon after the Hamas attack, Israel launched its biggest incursion into Palestinian-controlled territory, taking over for a day a swath of Beit Hanoun, a town in the Gaza Strip from which the mortars had been fired. Inside his Cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced criticism that he moved into Beit Hanoun without consulting other ministers. "No, no, we couldn't convene the Cabinet," Sharon said, brushing aside the critics. "I phoned a few ministers though." Sharon didn't phone his Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, until the operation was under way. Bypassing the elder statesman left Sharon diplomatically exposed and unable to fend off the anger of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who warned of the "risk of broader conflict" in the Middle East.

The Tehran meeting, at the very least, will make it still harder for Arafat and Sharon to find any way to put an end to the violence. After all, it will be a conclave of leaders who suspect Arafat of wanting to find a face-saving way to end the intifadeh by pushing Sharon into an attack — which in turn would claim a large number of Palestinian lives and thus prompt international intervention to separate the two sides, something Israel opposes. But even if Hizballah and Hamas don't bury the hatchet, their knives are still out for Israel.