Hezbollah has been flexing its muscles of late, sending a drone into Israel and establishing a surveillance and telecommunication system along the border. But both of these deeds should be seen as acts of distress rather than signs of strength.
For the Shiite organization, the situation today, with Sunni Islam ascendant and Bashar Assad stripped of legitimacy and losing power, is reminiscent of the period in the run-up to the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah was desperate for an achievement in the aftermath of the Cedar Revolution of early 2005.
The revolution broke out immediately after the Lebanese Sunni Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was murdered in February 2005, and it left Hezbollah on the ropes. A UN investigation into the murder had been launched, and would later indict four senior Hezbollah operatives for the assassination. Syrian troops, the longstanding backers of Hezbollah, had been ousted from Lebanon after 29 years of occupation. And a growing chorus of voices was calling for the disarming of the world’s most powerful militia. Druze, Christians and Sunni Muslims all reasoned that with both Israel and Syria gone from Lebanese soil there was no need for the existence of a private Shiite army in the south of the state. Even some of the Shiite population was drifting toward the rival Amal party.
Hezbollah is a sophisticated entity. It operates on many levels. But one ploy that always seems to work is to goad Israel into a confrontation.
On November 22, 2005, Hezbollah sent several elite squads into Mghar, a village that lies partially in Israel and partially in Lebanon. The forward squads carried anti-tank rockets and other infantry gear. The rear squad was armed with high-powered off-road motorcycles and ATVs. The goal of the mission was to ambush Israeli troops and kidnap a soldier.
The head of army intelligence at the time, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, contacted the OC Northern Command the day before the attack and warned him of the brewing plans, according to Ofer Shelah and Yoav Limor’s 2007 book “Captives of Lebanon.” Perhaps word was passed down. At any rate, the local Paratroops company commander changed the positioning of his troops the next night, and when the Hezbollah gunmen arrived, a young sniper, only eight months into his army service, picked off the four members of the forward squad and thwarted the plan.
Zeevi-Farkash was not complacent, however. He wrote to then prime minister Ariel Sharon, that the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, “is willing to go all the way.”
The prevailing notion in military intelligence at the time, Shelah and Limor wrote, was that Hezbollah was “under duress” and that it needed to portray itself once again as the defender of Lebanon.
But that December, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the Chief of the General Staff, dismissed this notion during a General Staff meeting, much to Zeevi-Farkash’s chagrin, the authors wrote.
And the following July, apparently far better prepared, Hezbollah achieved its goal — killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two more, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, who subsequently died, in a cross-border raid.
Israel had many options.
Prime minister Ehud Olmert could have responded with a limited but painful strike, such as the one the IAF carried out on the first night of the war, when, as part of Operation Mishgal Seguli, it eliminated the majority of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range rockets. Instead, on the morning of July 13, Halutz announced that the war would take “take weeks.”
Here is not the space to debate the outcome of the war. But one thing is certain: in its wake Hezbollah’s political power rose within Lebanon. In 2008, as a result of the Doha Agreement, it achieved an effective veto in Lebanon’s government, controlling 11 out of 30 cabinet seats.
Today, again, Hezbollah is feeling discontent swirling all around it. Egypt and Turkey are controlled by religious Sunni governments; Jordan may be moving in the same direction; Syria is assuredly being wrested from Allawite hands and will likely be dominated by some sort of Sunni-led coalition; and in Lebanon the Sunni minority is feeling energized and itching to settle past scores.
Jerusalem would do well to consider these factors if, after the drone and the new surveillance equipment, Hezbollah’s next act is more provocative.