Are Israel and Hizbullah on the verge of a military confrontation?
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
For 26 years, the State of Israel has been tolerating Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hizbullah, the Iranian terrorist organization founded in Lebanon in 1982. Still, the man remains an enigma in the eyes of many in Israel. Nasrallah is the Shiite leader who has transformed the historically persecuted Shi’ite community in Lebanon into a power that dictates the political and military agenda of the Land of the Cedars.
Nasrallah’s defenders see him as a man of his word who stands behind his policy declarations, “a rare Arab politician” who has proven that he means what he says, and a man of deep understanding of Israel.
The truth is quite different: Nasrallah, who has declared himself and his terrorist organization to be Lebanon’s “Resistance Movement,” has managed to penetrate and inject Hizbullah into the Lebanese nation-state because of its inherent weakness and sectarian paralysis. He has exploited Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 as well as the Second Lebanese War in 2006 to present Hizbullah as the alternative shield to the Lebanese national army that has been relegated to military parades and domestic police duties.
Hizbullah Is Iran’s Tool
Hizbullah enjoys this prestigious position in Lebanon because of its “success” in the campaigns against Israel. But Hizbullah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war at the direction of his Iranian patrons raised the wrath of his political opponents in Lebanon the very moment they saw that Hizbullah’s military force, supposedly amassed to fight Israel, was, in fact, directed to quell a Sunni-led rebellion against Bashar Assad’s regime –Tehran’s ally and proxy . The six-year involvement cost Hizbullah not only more than 2,000 fatalities and untold casualties but irreparably stained its image as the “Resistance Movement” against Israel.
Hizbullah funerals after the battle for Zabdani, 2015
Having paid a painful price for its military involvement, Hizbullah is concentrating on rebuilding its units after withdrawing a significant part of its fighting forces from Syria. Lebanon’s economic crisis together with sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran and Hizbullah have resulted in a severe cut of Iranian financial aid and revived the rival political forces in Lebanon – some Maronite Christian and some Sunni Muslim – against Hizbullah’s intervention and paralyzing of the Lebanese body politic.
The battles in Syria have lost their intensity; however, Hizbullah is still engaged in the campaign for Idlib in northwestern Syria. Hizbullah, as Iran’s proxy, has units and advisers deployed in Damascus, Deir el-Zor, Yemen, and Iraq. Relating to Israel, Hizbullah has succeeded in infiltrating the Golan Heights facing Israeli lines. Arab sources indicate that Hizbullah has even succeeded in positioning intelligence units along the border with Israel, in some places deployed less than 200 meters from UNDOF peacekeepers’ positions in the Golan. Where Hizbullah forces are located, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are never far away. The IRGC’s al-Quds commander Qasem Soleimani visited Damascus and then met Nasrallah in Beirut on September 3, 2019, according to press reports.
Since August 2006, the State of Israel has opted not to target Hizbullah in Lebanon and concentrated on intelligence gathering and following closely Iran’s massive efforts to rearm and update Hizbullah’s arsenal. Hundreds of attacks were carried out with great success and generally without great fanfare by the Israeli Air force in Syria. According to unconfirmed sources in Iraq, the attacks against missile depots, supply warehouses, and convoys coming from Iran by land, sea, and air damaged Hizbullah forces. The Israeli campaign extended to targeting the Iranian-Hizbullah process of missile upgrades, but did not prevent the build-up of a huge array of more than 120,000 rockets and missiles of various types.
Notably, Hizbullah did not respond or retaliate to any of those attacks against targets in Syria since it was clear that Israel was dictating its terms on the ground. Even targeted attacks attributed to Israel against Hizbullah military commanders resulted in limited military responses by Hizbullah.
A sort of equation was created over the years: Israel would target and hit outside of Lebanon, and Israel would continue to overfly the Lebanese airspace for its own purposes. Meanwhile, Hizbullah was quasi-immune from attacks in Lebanon and enjoyed freedom of maneuver that brought it to misinterpret Israel’s policy towards Hizbullah as proof of weakness and lack of resolve. De facto, Hizbullah and Israel had agreed on a whole series of unwritten understandings, which determined Israel’s activities and limitations in Lebanon. In this regard, the “Dahiyeh” (Hizbullah’s headquarters in southern Beirut), considered to be the “Holy of the Holies” of the Shiite organization, was definitely off-limits to the IDF’s actions.
Hizbullah’s Immunity and Impunity
Under the cover of this equation between Israel and Hizbullah, the terrorist organization was emboldened day after day. Hizbullah leaders and spokesmen began talking of plans to invade and occupy parts of Israel’s Galilee. Hizbullah began digging attack tunnels to reach the very heart of Israeli urban and rural communities in the north while preparing labyrinths and elaborate bunkers in south Lebanon adjacent to Israel in an area forbidden to the Shiite organization according to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (August 2006).
A Hizbullah tunnel in southern Lebanon under UNIFIL’s noses and feet (IDF Spokesperson)
Recently, the intensity of the Israeli attacks in Syria and the destruction of high-value targets on its soil brought a transformation in Nasrallah’s attitude. His rhetoric changed radically when he suddenly heralded a new formula according to which a new axis had been established between the different forces on Israel’s fronts. Thus, any Israeli attack on Syria, Gaza, or Lebanon would automatically provoke Hizbullah’s response against Israeli targets.
Ignoring Nasrallah’s rhetoric, Israel continued to dictate events, and while continuing to declare that its goal was to prevent the consolidation of Iran and its proxies in Syria and near the Israeli border in the Golan, Israel designated and targeted the Iranian-Hizbullah effort to upgrade the missiles in Hizbullah’s possession into precision weaponry. Since September 2018, Israel has been publicly warning of the precision missile upgrade efforts in various international fora (including the UN General Assembly) and cautioning the Lebanese Government that it would pay a heavy price if the threat were ignored.
On August 30, 2019, Nasrallah claimed that Israel had carried out a night attack with two drones in the Dahiyeh neighborhood, targeting undefined targets (according to the London Times, the target was a sophisticated mixing machine used for the production of solid fuel for missiles). He promised to retaliate. Nasrallah declared that from now on, he would target at his discretion any drone or aircraft penetrating the Lebanese airspace.
Moreover, by attacking an Israeli military vehicle with anti-tank missiles (and missing) in the Avivim area (on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon), the Hizbullah leader declared his resolve to establish new rules of engagement according to which Israel will be prohibited to overfly the Lebanese airspace and act in Lebanon under any circumstance. Nasrallah further warned that Hizbullah’s retaliation will be no longer be limited to the Shab’aa farms area (an area contested between Israel and Syria, not Lebanon, according to the UN) but will encompass the whole border area between Israel and Lebanon as well as Israel’s interior.
Nasrallah has thrown down the gauntlet toward Israel only to see Israel returning it to the sender by making clear again and again that it would not allow Hizbullah’s program to develop into a precision missile project. Judging from the reactions of the body politic in Lebanon against Hizbullah and Nasrallah (and Iran) intending to drag Lebanon into a superfluous and costly war that would bring havoc on Lebanon, as well as the mockery of the Arab press which presented the Hizbullah action in Avivim as a fiasco, it seems likely that Hizbullah would blink first. Both Israel and Hizbullah are interested at this time to contain the events, but any skirmish can suddenly turn into a major military confrontation, with Israel focused on destroying the existential threat created by the precision missile program.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.