Battered by Syria war, Nasrallah warms to an old theme: Israel

Having lost the Arab world’s admiration, Hezbollah’s leader opts to turn on the charm and threaten his longtime foe

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.

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)

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah went back on Tuesday night to doing what he’s always done best: threatening Israel and attempting to divert the conversation in Lebanon toward the back-burner confrontation with the Jewish state. After quite a few problematic, difficult years involving endless criticism from the Lebanese population at large, and particularly its Shiite community, over Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war in Syria, for one night, at least, the sheikh was smiling again.

Nasrallah delivered his combative speech on the anniversary of his predecessor Abbas Musawi’s 1992 assassination in an Israeli helicopter strike on his convoy. After Musawi’s death Nasrallah, then only 33 years old, was appointed Hezbollah’s new secretary general. He quickly put his rhetorical abilities to use, especially when it came to Israel.

But ever since March 2011, and with Hezbollah’s ongoing entanglement in the bloody Syrian civil war, Nasrallah is no longer considered a rising star and his status as an admired leader in the Arab world has suffered considerably. His efforts to assist Bashar Assad’s embattled regime in Syria have made him a deeply hated figure among many Sunnis in the Middle East. His status as the “shield of Lebanon” — built up during the 2006 war with Israel and even beforehand, when the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 — has eroded, in light of Hezbollah’s fierce battles on the side of a despot who has committed countless crimes against humanity.

In recent months, Nasrallah has spoken obsessively, on an almost weekly basis, focusing on the Syrian issue and the situation in Lebanon. He did not completely ignore Israel, but Hezbollah’s tried and true enemy from the south remained on the sidelines. On Tuesday, however, it seemed Nasrallah’s media advisers had convinced him to reprise his verbal onslaughts against Israel, as he invoked an old-new threat to bomb Haifa’s ammonia tanks.

Haifa's ammonia storage facility (screen capture/Channel 2)
Haifa’s ammonia storage facility (screen capture/Channel 2)

“Lebanon’s nuclear bomb,” he called such an attack in his speech.

This is not new; during the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah attempted to hit the chemical tanks. The Israeli public, typically, had forgotten about this danger, but now Hezbollah’s leader has placed it back in the headlines, cuing environmental organizations in Israel to scramble frantically.

Hezbollah fighters carry the coffins of comrades who were killed in battles in Syria during their funeral on September 21, 2015 in the town of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (AFP/STR)
Hezbollah fighters carry the coffins of comrades who were killed in battles in Syria during their funeral on September 21, 2015 in the town of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. (AFP/STR)

In his speech, Nasrallah seemed to be grinning more than of late. Again able to draw on his biggest strength — his personal charm — at least for one night, he mocked the Sunni states for their secret contacts with Israel and wondered aloud how they felt able to rely on the same entity that “killed Sunnis in Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon.” He neglected to mention the thousands of Sunnis murdered at the hands of Hezbollah fighters in Syria.

Nasrallah’s speech came at a convenient time for his group, as the scale in Syria tips back toward the side of the so-called Shiite axis — Hezbollah, Assad’s army, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and of course, the Russians. Nasrallah radiated confidence and promised that his organization is close to victory in Syria.

But the situation in Syria is not so simple. True, the Shiite axis has made progress, as is clearly visible in the northwest region of Aleppo, and in Daraa in the south. Yet it has not even begun to fight against the Islamic State, which is situated hundreds of miles from the scene of the current battles.

Hezbollah has already lost as many as 1,500 fighters in Syria, and criticism of the group in Lebanon echos loudly. More than 5,000 of Nasrallah’s men have been wounded in battle, and we can assume that many more will be injured in the coming months.

But what can be better, to blot out the troubles at home, than a little fiery rhetoric against Israel now that Hezbollah finally has a “nuclear bomb”?

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