Hizbollah has been providing the Palestinians in Gaza with “every type of support” possible for some time, the deputy leader of the powerful Lebanese Shia movement has said, in a remarkable admission of a widening regional role.
Sheikh Naim Qassem’s frank comments to the Financial Times are the first clear confirmation of Hizbollah’s broad assistance to the Palestinian Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
The comments are likely to alarm Israel, which fought an unsuccessful war against Hizbollah in 2006. The statements will also worry the new US administration as it steps up its engagement in the Middle East. Hizbollah and its allies stand a good chance of winning the June 7 parliamentary elections in Lebanon.
“We have always said that we supported the resistance in Palestine but we have not mentioned how or given details of such support,” Sheikh Qassem said, in a rare interview at a secret location in southern Beirut. “But Egypt has now revealed that we have given military support to Palestine. We have done so for a while but we have not talked about it.”
Last month Egypt said it had arrested 49 men suspected of being part of a Hizbollah cell, which it said was planning to attack Egyptian institutions and Israeli tourists.
Hizbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, admitted that one of the men was a member of its movement but said he was on a “logistical mission” related to the Gaza Strip, which was devastated during three weeks of Israeli attacks at the turn of the year.
Hizbollah has long maintained that it is a purely Lebanese, anti-Israeli resistance movement but the arrests were the first suggestion that it was working outside the country’s borders.
Sheikh Qassem left no doubt that Hizbollah, which proved itself surprisingly strong militarily during a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, was now acting regionally to oppose the Jewish state.
“It is one of the secrets of the resistance that we don’t talk about the details of our support, but suffice to say that we are giving them every type of support that could help the Palestinian resistance. Every type that is possible,” he said.
Pressed on whether Hizbollah was supplying arms or training, the sheikh said: “We leave this to be seen in time to come.”
Hizbollah is the strongest party, though not the largest, in the so-called March 8 opposition coalition, and remains the only group in Lebanon that is armed.
The election will be tightly contested and any changes would be nuanced.
Nevertheless, western governments are closely watching the parliamentary vote because a victory by the opposition could boost the influence of Iran and Syria in the region.
The US has said this would force it to reconsider its military assistance to the Lebanese army, which has totalled $1bn in the last three years.
Sheikh Qassem suggested the west had double standards in saying Hizbollah should not be supporting Palestinian resistance groups.
“We are asked about our specific and limited support for Gaza while nobody questions the US about their total and unflinching support for Israel,” he said. “We are always questioned but nobody questions the US.”