BEIRUT — A senior Hamas official on Monday said only a small number of top commanders inside Gaza knew about the wide-ranging incursion launched into Israel, but that allies like Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah “will join the battle if Gaza is subjected to a war of annihilation.”
Ali Barakeh, a member of Hamas’ exiled leadership, spoke to The Associated Press in his Beirut office as Israel bombarded Gaza and vowed a total blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.
The surprise attack on Saturday caught Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence services completely off guard, as hundreds of Hamas gunmen poured through holes blown in the border fence and rampaged through several towns, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians, and capturing scores of others.
Barakeh said the attack was planned by around a half dozen top Hamas commanders in Gaza and that even the group’s closest allies were not informed in advance about the timing. He denied reports that Iranian security officials helped plan the attack or gave the go-ahead at a meeting last week in Beirut.
“Only a handful of Hamas commanders knew about the zero hour,” Barakeh said, adding that no one from the central command or the political bureau of Hamas was in the Lebanese capital last week.
He acknowledged that Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group have helped Hamas in the past, but said that since the 2014 Gaza war Hamas has been producing its own rockets and training its own fighters.
Asked whether the U.S. has seen evidence of Iranian involvement, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby at the White House noted “there’s a degree of complicity“ from Iran due to its years of support for Hamas, however, the U.S. hasn’t ”seen hard, tangible, evidence that Iran was directly involved in participating in or resourcing, planning these sets of complex attacks that Hamas pulled off over the weekend.”
Barakeh also denied speculation that the attack, which had been planned for more than a year, was aimed at derailing U.S. efforts to convince Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel.
Instead, he said it was driven by a range of actions taken by Israel’s far-right government over the past year, including provocative visits to a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site and increased pressure on Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. He also said Hamas believed Israel had plans to kill its top leaders.
He said even Hamas was shocked by the extent of the operation, dubbed “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm,” saying it had expected Israel to prevent or limit the attack.
“We were surprised by this great collapse,” Barakeh said. “We were planning to make some gains and take prisoners to exchange them. This army was a paper tiger.”
His claim that Hamas has only planned a small operation is belied by the fact that an estimated 1,000 fighters took part in the incursion, attacking by land, sea and even motorized paragliders.
Israel has declared all-out war and vowed to punish Hamas like never before, and the mobilization of 300,000 Israeli reserves has raised the prospect of a ground invasion or even a reoccupation of Gaza. The Israeli military says it has already killed hundreds of militants and bombed numerous Hamas targets.
Barakeh said Hamas has so far employed only a small number of its own forces. He said nearly 2,000 Hamas fighters have taken part in the latest fighting, out of an army of 40,000 in Gaza alone.
Hamas may also be able to count on its allies if it faces a major setback. On Sunday, Hezbollah fired several rockets and shells at three Israeli positions in a disputed area. On Monday, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group claimed it sent four gunmen across Lebanon’s border into Israel.
The militants said they had wounded seven Israeli soldiers. Israel said its own forces shot and killed several gunmen who crossed into the country from Lebanon. It also shelled southern Lebanon in response.
Barakeh, who was Hamas’ representative in Lebanon for years and is now in charge of coordinating with other Palestinian factions, said his group will use the scores of Israelis it captured in the raid to secure the release of all Arabs detained in Israeli jails and even some Palestinians imprisoned in the United States on charges of funding Hamas.
“There are Palestinians held in America. We will ask for their release,” he said, without specifying who he was referring to.
In 2009, a court in Dallas sentenced two founding members of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the largest U.S. Muslim charity, to 65 years in prison for funneling millions of dollars to Hamas. Three other men were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 to 20 years for conspiracy.
Barakeh said Hamas is ready to fight a long war with Israel, saying it has an arsenal of rockets that will last a long time.
“We have prepared well for this war and to deal with all scenarios, even the scenario of the long war,” he added. “We will bring life to a stop in the Zionist entity if the aggression does not stop on Gaza.”
Associated Press journalist Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.