In the wake of the May 2021 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, reports in Israel suggested that Iran helped the terrorist group out of a Lebanon-based nerve center or joint operations room. Reports concerning this nerve center are scarce. However, what is known is cause for significant concern, particularly if the goal is to prevent future conflict in the Middle East.
Hezbollah leaders confirmed the existence and operation of the nerve center via the pro-Hezbollah, Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen television network. Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem claimed that the nerve center provided "sensitive and influential intelligence." Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah also confirmed that Hamas received intelligence through this structure.
One representative of an Arab intelligence agency told me in July that he believed that the nerve center was virtual, with no fixed location. This assertion was also made by the Middle East-focused website, The Cradle. Israeli officials, however, believe there is a physical location in Beirut. This would corroborate journalist Ibrahim al-Amin's claim that the center was visited twice by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Esmail Qaani during last year's fighting in Gaza.
The founding of the nerve center dates back to 2019, according to al-Amin, the editor in chief of the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, which is widely associated with the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. The project was born of Iran's perceived need to coordinate among various factions of the "axis of resistance" to thwart Israeli military plans for the next major conflict—a likely reference to what Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi's "victory workshop" held in February 2019. However, the activation of the nerve center likely did not occur until the 2021 Gaza war.
The nerve center, according to the Hezbollah-owned al-Manar website, includes representatives from the IRGC-QF, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Some sources, such as the Palestinian Sama News Agency, claim that as many as 12 Palestinians factions—including splinter groups from Fatah and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine—also participate. At minimum, Palestinian groups maintain communications, as asserted by Muhammad Sinwar, a member of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades—Hamas's military wing—and brother of Gaza-based Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.
There is no evidence to suggest that the nerve center maintains ongoing operations. Rather, it is likely active during times of escalation and dormant during periods of calm. For those calm periods, Hezbollah has a Palestinian affairs office that routinely interfaces with various violent groups.
Based on available information, the primary purpose of the nerve center appears to be intelligence-sharing. Specifically, the nerve center provides Hamas with aerial intelligence derived by Hezbollah and the IRGC, perhaps through reconnaissance drones dispatched from Lebanon and Syria. Several have been targeted by Israeli air defenses in recent years, according to news reports. One focus of this reconnaissance effort appears to be mapping the movement of Israeli forces. This may have helped Hamas avoid an Israel Defense Forces ambush on the group's tunnel network in the 2021 war. Reports also suggest that the nerve center provided Hamas with better capabilities to conduct "sensitive hacking operations" against Israel.
Nasrallah stated that "all the information we had was provided to the Palestinians through the joint operations room." Sinwar similarly acknowledged these intelligence flows. Al-Akhbar further asserts that it was the "information and coordination that saved the whole axis, primarily Gaza, from a great nightmare if the enemy's plans succeeded." Again, this is likely a reference to the Israeli plan to target a labyrinth of Hamas tunnels in Gaza. This kind of public bravado by Iran and its proxies has become rather common in recent years; bragging about the center's supposed achievements in public is likely part of Hezbollah's psychological operations.
The nerve center may have other functions related to Tehran's proxies in the region. For example, it may have helped transfer weapons or material to Gaza during the 2021 conflict, according to Israeli officials I have met over the last year. According to al-Manar, the center may also have facilitated the travel of several Hamas leaders to Lebanon. According to the Israeli nongovernmental organization Alma, which tracks Hezbollah activities, the nerve center may have helped coordinate the language used by the various Iran-backed factions in the media during the war.
The very fact that Hamas is actively cooperating with Iran and Hezbollah is significant. A decade ago, Hamas leaders left Syria in protest after years of close cooperation, owing to the Iran-backed military campaign against Sunni and Palestinian fighters in the Syrian civil war. Rapprochement reportedly began in 2017, when Hezbollah officials held talks with senior Hamas officials amid reports of a resumption of Iranian funding for the group. Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri led several Hamas delegations to Iran and Lebanon in 2017. By 2018, the Israeli mission to the United Nations charged that Arouri was collaborating with Iran and Hezbollah to establish rocket-launching facilities in Lebanon with the goal of drawing Israel into a two-front conflict, with attacks from Gaza and Lebanon in the future.
Since then, Hamas has made observable advances in surveillance and technology capabilities. Hamas has also started to produce rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles with help from Hezbollah. The establishment of the nerve center appears to be an attempt to build on this activity. It certainly fits with the overall Iranian strategy of cultivating proxies and then seeking to enhance control over them. Indeed, the raison d'être of the IRGC-QF is to export the Iranian revolution this way. Of course, Hamas denies it is an Iranian proxy. But there is no denying that Hamas has consistently received significant financial, military, and technological assistance from Tehran since the group's inception in the late 1980s.
Much more needs to be gleaned about this nerve center, but the coordination between Iran and its proxies is clear. What is unclear are the center's specific plans.
Since the 2006 Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, Israelis have assiduously avoided renewed conflict in Lebanon for fear of unleashing chaos amid the country's economic and political unraveling. However, between Hezbollah's existing arsenal of at least 150,000 rockets, its buildup of lethal precision-guided munitions, and increasing evidence of an Iranian-operated fusion center that coordinates military activity against Israel, a clash appears increasingly inevitable.
Jonathan Schanzer is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @JSchanzer