Beirut, Lebanon — Palestinian factions in Lebanon are eager to open a second front against Israel if the Shia-backed group Hezbollah leads the charge, fighters and analysts said.
“Wherever [Israel] is ready for [the fight] to happen, it will happen,” said Ahmed Habet, a member of the Palestinian party Fatah in Burj al-Barajneh, a refugee camp in Lebanon’s capital Beirut.
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“I’m the blood of my homeland. I live for my homeland. I don’t live for the future,” he added.
An all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah – backed by Palestinian factions – is a possible scenario that could drag Lebanon and the region into a catastrophic conflict.
Since Saturday, more than 700 Israelis and 500 Palestinians have been killed following Hamas’s surprise operation from the Gaza Strip, a piece of land that it governs and that Israel has besieged for 16 years. Rights groups describe Gaza – home to two million people – as the “world’s largest open-air prison.”
On Monday, Israel announced a “total blockade” of the coastal enclave, cutting off supplies of water, food and electricity in an act of collective punishment that, under international law, represents a war crime.
Unlike fighters in Gaza, branches of Palestinian factions in Lebanon such as Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) can not sustain an assault against Israel on their own.
Enter Hezbollah, which fired mortar strikes from Lebanon into the occupied Shebaa Farms on Sunday. Israel responded with artillery strikes as it continued to battle Hamas fighters inside southern Israel while bombing the Gaza Strip indiscriminately.
Both sides may not be able to avoid – and may even welcome – a major escalation, said some analysts. Whether a broader conflagration actually unfolds could depend on the next steps Israel takes — at home, and against the Gaza Strip, they said.
“A conflict on that scale will be much more likely if [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu is able to form a unity government,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow with Carnegie Middle East Center, a Beirut-based think-tank.
“[Netanyahu] needs to feel secure politically to engage on all fronts,” he added.
Room for escalation?
Hezbollah may also launch a direct attack if Israel seriously escalates its operations on the Gaza Strip, according to Ahmed Abed, an official for Hamas’s branch in Lebanon.
“Hezbollah … decided that they will engage [Israel] if the retaliation against Gaza is excessive. They said they are coordinating with the leadership of [Hamas] in Palestine and that they will intervene at the right time [if need be],” he told Al Jazeera.
Netanyahu has vowed to turn parts of Gaza into rubble and warned residents in the enclave – nearly half of whom are children – to “get out” now. Rights groups and experts have noted that civilians in Gaza have nowhere to flee because of the blockade.
That hasn’t stopped Israel from escalating bombardment on Gaza and amassing 100,000 troops for a possible ground assault.
Hezbollah is capable of launching a sophisticated attack if it chooses, according to Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based expert with the Atlantic Council.
“The Hamas operation is bigger by far than any single operation carried out by Hezbollah [against Israel], although the tactics Hamas used were straight from Hezbollah’s guidebook,” he said. “Hezbollah has been training for these kinds of border-breaching missions since at least 2007.”
Blanford added that he doesn’t predict a larger confrontation erupting between Israel and Hezbollah, but that it can’t be ruled out.
“This is the big question. At this early stage, I would say all bets are off,” he told Al Jazeera.
Fed up with exile
Lebanon maintains a number of discriminatory laws that prohibit Palestinians from working in high-skilled professions, repairing basic infrastructure in the camps and applying for citizenship in the country.
Lebanon’s political class defends these restrictions by claiming that any concessions made to Palestinians – who are mostly Sunni Muslims – will encourage their naturalisation and tip the fragile sectarian balance of the country.
The policies have impoverished about 93 percent of Palestinians in Lebanon, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Many Palestinians dream of returning to the land that their grandparents were expelled from during the creation of Israel in 1948. “The situation for Palestinians in Lebanon is really difficult unfortunately … and the ones that remain in the camps are fed up after nearly 80 years of being here,” a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was not authorised to give his name, told Al Jazeera in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.
“People just want to return home,” he said.
On Monday, some Palestinian fighters reportedly crossed from Lebanon into Israel. The Israeli military said they killed the fighters, while Hezbollah denied involvement in the operation.
In the past, Palestinian factions in Lebanon have fired rockets towards the Shebaa Farms, yet the damage has often been minimal.
After the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the former often retaliated on the camps with precision strikes or along the Lebanese and Israeli borderlands, often in an attempt to send a message without provoking a second war with Hezbollah.
But Israel may respond in full force today if Palestinian factions fire any rockets from Lebanon, said Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
He added that Israel used to differentiate between attacks coming from the Palestinian camps and those launched by Hezbollah, but that it may be less inclined to do that now.
“Israel used to be risk averse and prefer precision attacks [in Lebanon] than all-out war that impacts their economy and security. But with Israeli cities supremely impacted [by Hamas attacks from Gaza], there is no need for caution on Netanyahu’s side,” Hage Ali said.
“I think the Israeli response [to any attack from Lebanon] would be of a different magnitude.”
However, several members of Palestinian factions in Lebanon said that they need a green light from Hezbollah to initiate an attack.
Others said they will support Hezbollah if it engages in war, yet the group has its own considerations such as popular opinion in Lebanon, which is against any escalation.
“We are ready [to fight Israel] at any time,” said Habet, the Fatah member from Burj al-Barajneh camp. “Palestinians in Lebanon are suffering from living on land that is not ours. We are all looking forward to the next life.”