All is not quiet on Israel’s northern frontier
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Analysis

All is not quiet on Israel’s northern frontier

Increased cooperation between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army grew from common efforts against Islamic State. The Golan may be next

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Indian UN peacekeepers with their armored personnel carrier, right, stand guard next to a giant poster that shows Hezbollah fighters and the Al Aqsa Mosque with Arabic and Hebrew words reading: "We are coming," near the barbed wire that separates Lebanon from the Shebaa Farms. April 16, 2014. AP/Hussein Malla)
Indian UN peacekeepers with their armored personnel carrier, right, stand guard next to a giant poster that shows Hezbollah fighters and the Al Aqsa Mosque with Arabic and Hebrew words reading: "We are coming," near the barbed wire that separates Lebanon from the Shebaa Farms. April 16, 2014. AP/Hussein Malla)

ALONG THE LEBANESE BORDER — Standing on the Israeli side of the frontier with Lebanon, one doesn’t need binoculars to see the UNIFIL (the United National Interim Force in Lebanon) vehicles moving along the patrol road, accompanied by troops from the Lebanese army, just a few hundred meters away.

The patrol, with UN and Lebanese army vehicles shuffled among each other, is intended to keep everyone on the same page and prevent mix-ups, especially with Israel.

But on a high point just a few dozen meters away from the vehicles is a military outpost where Hezbollah troops keep close track of the movements on both side of the border.

Security Council Resolution 1701, adopted at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, prohibits any Hezbollah presence south of the Litani River, well north of here. But that doesn’t stop the Lebanese terror group from maintaining a large presence in the area.

This is its kingdom, and no one — not the peacekeepers of the UNIFIL or the Lebanese army — can change the reality that has been created here over the past decade.

A UN patrol near the Israeli-Lebanese border, November, 2016. (Doron Horowitz/FLASH90)
A UN patrol near the Israeli-Lebanese border, November, 2016. (Doron Horowitz/FLASH90)

To the contrary. On the Israeli side, officials are following, almost in astonishment, the deepening cooperation between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah.

A spokesperson for UNIFIL, when asked about Hezbollah’s presence near the border, said the blue helmets “haven’t seen entry of weapons or increased tension.”

“The situation along the Blue Line remains calm and stable with the [Lebanese Army and Israel Defense Forces] fully committed to the cessation of hostilities,” spokesman Andrea Tenenti said in a message. “In the last 10 years, the south of Lebanon has witnessed an unprecedented period of calm.”

But according to Israeli officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the cooperation between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah is neither isolated nor apparently is it temporary. The coordination between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army is turning into an almost strategic development that will require Israel to put a great deal of energy and thought into figuring out what to do about the Lebanese army in the next war.

The next time Israel fights the terror group, will the Lebanese army join in the battle against Israel? Will it transfer arms to Hezbollah? Or will it stand on the sidelines for fear of the enormous damage that it could suffer at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces?

These are not easy questions, particularly when considering that the Lebanese army receives assistance from allies such as the United States, France, and even China.

Lebanon and Hezbollah’s new close relationship came together not because of Israel, but as a consequence of a common fight against the Islamic State.

Hezbollah is working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Lebanese army in the Qalamoun, Zabadani, and Bekaa regions, among other places near the Syrian border.

The purpose of the cooperation there is to address the threat that Islamic State poses to the army and to Hezbollah; in southern Lebanon, however, they work together to deal with the Israeli threat.

A UN patrol near the Israeli-Lebanese border, November, 2016. (Doron Horowitz/FLASH90)
A UN patrol near the Israeli-Lebanese border, November, 2016. (Doron Horowitz/FLASH90)

While Lebanese army troops make up most of the obvious presence along the Israeli border, it is clear that Hezbollah operatives, sometimes in civilian clothing and sometimes in Lebanese army uniform, often join them for vehicle patrols, Israeli officials say.

In southern Lebanon, it’s Hezbollah that calls the shots. There is no village in the south (with the possible exception of several Sunni villages) that has not been transformed into a fortified bastion of Hezbollah, which possesses an entire array of command and control, communications systems, and a variety of arms including rockets (of course) and anti-tank weapons.

The Lebanese army is doing nothing to change this. Perhaps the very fact that Hezbollah approves the appointment of this or that person as an army commander or the chief of staff says a great deal about the relationship between these two players.

Still, it is likely that there is another explanation for this increasingly enmeshed cooperation. Hezbollah is dealing with complex military challenges, to put it mildly, particularly in Syria, so it needs the Lebanese army’s assistance, however minimal, in the region of the border with Israel.

Nasrallah tightens his belt

Hezbollah in 2017 is nothing like the group that fought against Israel in 2006. It is an army in every way. It operates artillery forces and UAVs, gathers combat (and non-combat) intelligence, and cooperates with other armies, including apparently the Russian Air Force in Aleppo, Syria.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses Lebanese TV viewers in a speech broadcast Tuesday, February 17, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses Lebanese TV viewers in a speech broadcast Tuesday, February 17, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)

Led by firebrand cleric Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah has extraordinary military capabilities by any measure. According to Israel, the group has more than 100,000 rockets in its arsenal, together with strategic weapons such as anti-ship missiles, with reserves of elite commando troops and impressive anti-aircraft capabilities.

But Hezbollah’s challenges have also shifted sharply from 11 years ago.

First, Israel is not its top priority at the moment, as shown by what seems to be reduced motivation to engage in terror attacks against Israel over the short term. Hezbollah is spread out over two countries — Syria and Lebanon — and is engaged in combat on almost every battlefield in Syria.

Hezbollah, which allocated at least one-third of its combat force to Syria, has lost more than 1,700 of its people in the fighting there, according to some estimates. For comparison’s sake, the number of casualties that it suffered during the Second Lebanon War is estimated at 650 to 700. Approximately 6,000 of its people were wounded in Syria.

Hezbollah militants attend a ceremony at the Martyr's cemetery in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on February 12, 2017. (AFP/ ANWAR AMRO)
Hezbollah militants attend a ceremony at the Martyr’s cemetery in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on February 12, 2017. (AFP/ ANWAR AMRO)

The war effort is also putting a strain on Hezbollah’s coffers, as it tries to keep up its social welfare programs and provide for the families of those killed and wounded on top of everything else.

So Hezbollah is doing what any other army would do — tightening its belt, according to Israeli officials, who monitor the terror group’s movements closely.

Hezbollah is consolidating various militant units and trying to decrease the enormous operational expenditures resulting from the fighting in Syria, and at times tries to do something that Israeli army officials will recognize: reduce service conditions.

That’s not to say Hezbollah is neglecting preparedness for another war with Israel, even as it refuses to draw down in Syria.

Members of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah hold their flags during the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter, who was killed while fighting alongside Syrian government forces in Syria, March 1, 2016. (AFP/MAHMOUD ZAYYAT)
Members of Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah hold their flags during the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter, who was killed while fighting alongside Syrian government forces in Syria, March 1, 2016. (AFP/MAHMOUD ZAYYAT)

Hezbollah troops are positioned around Aleppo in northern Syria, as well as on the Syrian Golan Heights in the south, just across the Israeli border. Recent victories by the Syrian army have led to a relative calm from rebel groups, and its main rival, the Islamic State, is on its heels thanks to the US-led coalition’s bombing campaign.

The Islamic State’s losses are good news for the whole world, but the upshot is that the Shiite axis of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are gaining control throughout Syria, including on the Syrian Golan Heights — just over the border with Israel.

With all three of them enjoying unfettered access to the Israeli frontier, Jerusalem will be forced to contend with threats all across its northern front.

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