Hamas Military Leader Says Palestinian Arab Combatants May Join Israel-Lebanon Conflict

With Israeli tanks and troops amassing on the border with Lebanon, the military leader of the terrorist group Hamas threatened yesterday that if Jerusalem makes good on its promise to march its army to the Litani River in Lebanon, the Palestinian Arabs will join Hezbollah in its war against Israel.

“There is no battle on the ground to occupy Lebanon. If this happens, God forbid, every Lebanese and every Palestinian will defend this land because this is an Arab land and all will defend it,” Khaled Mashaal said in an interview published on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web site.

An Israeli official who requested anonymity said the Israelis had seen the broadcast interview and were studying it.

Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Force shelled a Palestinian Arab refugee camp in Sidon yesterday and said a senior Hezbollah official was taking refuge there.

Should Lebanon’s 400,000 Palestinian Arabs join the battle with Hezbollah against the Israeli army, they would provide a historic irony. In 1982, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon and succeeded in driving out the Palestine Liberation Organization, only to find that their invasion — with the help of Iran — had created a new foe, known as Hezbollah.

While Prime Minister Olmert has yet to authorize a full ground invasion, his defense minister, Amir Peretz, threatened on Monday to invade Lebanon if the U.N. cease-fire negotiations falter.

Yesterday in New York, those talks seemed close to a breakdown after American officials accused France of ceding to the Arab League’s demands for an immediate withdrawal of the 7,000 to 8,000 Israeli troops in southern Lebanon.

The number of Israeli troops available for a ground war in Lebanon can be rapidly increased, as three divisions are currently idle in the nearby Galilee, ready for deployment.

In the past two days, Israeli planes have dropped leaflets on towns near the Litani River urging citizens not to leave their homes and to stay away from the roads. The warnings could be psychological warfare, or a sign that bombings in the area will increase.

Yesterday, Israel’s top general sent his deputy to the border with Lebanon in a move widely seen as preparation for a ground invasion if the prospect of a cease-fire dims.

After the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas’s Mr. Mashaal is likely Israel’s top terrorist target. He is widely credited with orchestrating the June 25 Hamas raid in Gaza that led to the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit. It was that kidnapping raid that prompted Israel to enter Gaza, where their soldiers remain in a campaign to destroy Hamas on the ground there.

In 1997, Mossad agents tried to poison Mr. Mashaal in Amman, Jordan. But the Jewish state was forced to provide Mr. Mashaal with the antidote for the toxin after King Hussein arrested the intelligence officers.

In his wide-ranging interview yesterday, Mr. Mashaal maintained his stance that America and Israel are responsible for the war in Gaza and Lebanon. He also said the resistance in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq was part of a single movement.

A former Israeli military intelligence official, Lieutenant Colonel Moshe Marzuk, said yesterday that he saw the statements from the Hamas military leader as further evidence that Israel is fighting an alliance of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and Syria.

“I think the war now against Hezbollah is not a new front against a terror organization. We see the triangle of Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, and Hamas. All of these organizations and countries do not recognize Israel’s existence and do not accept a political solution,” he said.

Mr. Marzuk added that the new enemies of Israel would only accept a “hudna,” or temporary cease-fire, aimed at stopping the fighting in order to resupply and prepare for a later attack.

An expert on the Levant at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Tony Badran, said he saw Mr. Mashaal’s interview as further evidence of Syria’s and Iran’s role in manipulating the current terror war against Israel.

“Mashaal’s comments point to Syrian insistence to keep the tracks combined and Iranian insistence on keeping its link to the Palestinian issue through the ongoing alliance of Hamas and Hezbollah,” he said.

In December, Mr. Mashaal traveled to Tehran, Iran, and told the Arabic and Persian press that Hamas would respond in Israel if the Jewish state were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Hezbollah’s cross-border raid on July 12 was conducted on the same day that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council formally withdrew their offer of a package of incentives in exchange for Iran abandoning its uranium enrichment plans.