The 'Sunni facade' of Hezbollah on Israel's northern borders

Is Hezbollah seeking to make the armed wing of the Islamic Group its Sunni façade near the border where war with Israel could spread?

Islamic Group's members in a protest supporting Hamas, Beirut in October 2023
Islamic Group's members in a protest supporting Hamas, Beirut in October 2023

The 'Sunni facade' of Hezbollah on Israel's northern borders

Lebanon’s Fajr Forces claimed responsibility for attacks against Israel in mid-October, in a surprise development for observers of the long-running clashes there at a time of heightened tensions around the border.

A statement from the military wing of the country’s Islamic Group – itself the Lebanese branch of the Muslim brotherhood – left no room for doubt.

It said "missile strikes aimed at Zionist enemy locations in the occupied territories” were carried out, “resulting in direct hits” on 18 October. And Fajr Forces went further, promising "further responses to any aggression against our people in the south."

But it did raise questions. The claim caused surprise in Lebanon and abroad, with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood itself seemingly unaware it was coming before it was released to the public. Some were caught aback by the moves to become involved militarily in border skirmishes with Israel.

And so, observers were left looking at how the Fajr Forces became part of the action on the front line, with some also asking who they are aligned with, as well as who they are.

Read more: A Middle East war motivated by destructive politics

Some were even wondering if the missile strikes were merely attributed to them by the Islamic Group, or what the claim of responsibility might reveal about its structure and the balance of power and influence currently at work.

Al Majalla’s look for the answers begins with the origins of the Fajr Forces. It goes on to look at the way political forces are shifting, and re-shaping the dynamics at work among the groups that will define what happens next at a critical – and dangerous – time around Israel’s northern borders with the Arab world.

Back to the 1980s

The Fajr Forces emerged in 1982 during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, when the country was also still in the grip of its own civil war. It was one of a range of ideologically diverse organisations that took action against the Israeli occupation.

They were around before the rise of Hezbollah, which wanted to centralise the resistance under its control.

In 1989, the Taif Agreement – or National Reconciliation Accord – ended the civil war and required that militia groups surrender their weapons to the state, with the exception of Hezbollah.

After that, the name Fajr Forces only intermittently surfaced, but it retained its place within the Islamic Group and maintained an independent budget.

Read more: The geography of Lebanon may tell whether war is spreading

Two factions

In 2016, Azzam al-Ayoubi was elected as the secretary-general of the wider Islamic Group amid a reformist initiative aimed at tempering the ideological legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood and fostering openness to local political forces and Arab countries.

With that underway, the group's military arm came under scrutiny.

Al-Ayoubi's dismissed the commander of the Fajr Forces, Khaled Badih, and other military leaders, when he discovered financial and organizational shortcomings. He appointed Talal al-Hajjar, from the Iqlim al-Kharoub area south of Beirut, as the new commander.

But the ousted commanders refused to go quietly. When al-Ayoubi backtracked on his decision, the Fajr Forces split into two factions, largely along regional lines.

One of them is led Badih and is made up of members from around his hometown of Sidon, as well as Tripoli, and Akkar.

The other is led by al-Hajjar and is active in Sunni areas along the coast of Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa.

A mourner lies on the coffin of Abbas Raad, son of the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc Mohammed Raad, who was killed in southern Lebanon in cross-border fire with Israeli troops

Extending Hamas' Reach

There was a further split among the Islamic Group’s senior leadership along geopolitical lines.

Al-Ayoubi’s leadership, along with his deputy Imad al-Hout, leans towards Turkey and Qatar.

The other has signs of the influence of Hamas and favours an alliance with Hezbollah and the so-called Axis of Resistance nations led by Iran.

And since Hamas wields significant influence over the Islamic Group, the politics of the two organisations overlap.

Another split in the Islamic Group in Lebanon runs along similar lines to changes at the top of Hamas. The emergence of new leaders – including the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and the deputy head of its politburo, Saleh al-Arouri – followed the removal of Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ former head, from decision making.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah supported and fuelled this conflict of interests to reinforce its alliance with Hamas.

There is a feeling that all this amounts to a deeper form of influence from Hamas – which launched the 7 October attacks on Israel, masterminded by Sinwar – a development that could intensify the clashes around Lebanon’s border with Israel.

Should existing ‘rules of engagement’ be broken there, it could result in the war with Israel spreading beyond the Gaza Strip.

Read more: Israel's conflict management: What could possibly go wrong?

Sources from the senior ranks of the Islamic Group have disclosed that Hamas has intervened in the internal disputes within the Fajr Forces.

They suggest Hamas has endorsed a third faction led by Omar al-Kaaki from Beirut and based around the city. It is also active in Sunni towns and villages in the area, with a presence across various sectors, including service, education, and health.

Security sources – as well as internal sources and people close to Hezbollah – say that this third faction is receiving intensive military training from Hamas alongside direct funding via al-Arouri, who is directing the group.

Well-placed sources suggest Hamas has endorsed a third faction led by Omar al-Kaaki from Beirut and based around the city.

Brotherhood shifts toward Hezbollah

At the same time, there has been a significant political shift at the Islamic Group. Recent internal elections took the group closer to Hezbollah. And there is increasing coordination between them.

Despite having only one member of parliament, the group is one of the oldest Sunni political organisations.  And the Islamic Group's al-Ayoubi was on the verge of securing a second parliamentary seat in Tripoli, Lebanon's largest Sunni city, and has endorsed candidates in other regions.

Hezbollah has sought help from the Islamic Group as it seeks reconciliation with the Sunnis – both among its elites and with the general public – after alienating them with its intervention in the Syrian war.

That effort benefits from the current fragile politics among Sunnis and a lack of clear leadership, or at least one that is backed by clear public support.

In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks, Hezbollah allowed Hamas and Islamic Jihad to conduct infiltration operations on the Israeli side and launch rockets in the areas of the border it controls.

Hamas' military wing – the Qassam Brigades – and Islamic Jihad's military arm – the al-Quds Brigades – were active around on Lebanon's territory. It came as a sign of al-Arouri's ability to use his faction within the Fajr Forces to conduct operations, with the approval of Hezbollah.

Read more: Is a new Israel-Hezbollah war looming?

In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks, Hezbollah allowed Hamas and Islamic Jihad to conduct infiltration operations on the Israeli side and launch rockets in the areas of the border it controls.

Voices of Dissent 

It was an attempt to demonstrate a united, Sunni-Lebanese front to the Axis of Resistance countries. And Hezbollah provided protection, preventing the Lebanese Army from apprehending members involved, as had happened before, including in August when Fajr Forces members were apprehended when preparing rocket attacks.

The October action in Lebanon had consequences for politics there. Christian parties raised concerns, invoking the 1969 Cairo Agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese state. This agreement led to armed Palestinian deployment in the south and other areas, contributing to the outbreak of the civil war.

A shell from Israeli artillery explodes over Kfar Kila, a Lebanese border village with Israel, as it is seen from Marjayoun town in south Lebanon

The series of statements regarding the rocket launches by the Fajr Forces sparked intense discussions within the hierarchy of the group.

They were seen as an internal breach of calculations over the existing leadership's alignment with the Axis of Resistance. Sources highlighted that dissenting voices argue that the rocket launches do not alter the political and military dynamics.

Presenting the Islamic Group as a Sunni shield for Hezbollah, they argue, could have detrimental consequences for Sunni positions at large, opening it to criticism both internally and externally.

Wider unease at a Sunni militia

The sources also said wider, regional parties have expressed their displeasure over the activity of the Fajr Forces. It means live operations have been stopped.

The attempt at providing local cover for the Qassam Brigades has proven ineffective and sparked a negative reaction within Sunni circles. There is a perception that Hezbollah is allowing the emergence of a Sunni militia, which it might later exploit to enforce political realities on its opponents.

Behind the scenes, there are ongoing moves from current as well as former Sunni ministers and members of parliament for unity in rejecting moves toward violence and an emerging Sunni militia.

Islamic Group member of parliament, Imad Hout, is among the most vocal opponents of the current developments. Despite their opposition, they are all committed to maintaining unity, even though the distress is evident on Hout's face in his recent media appearances.

Whatever else, these recent events have highlighted the extent of Hamas' influence within the Islamic Group in Lebanon. Questions are now arising within Sunni circles in Lebanon about the group's role and limitations after the war.

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