Hezbollah digs in for more conflict with Israel

Though stretched by its war alongside Assad, targeted by extremist Sunnis, and losing popularity, Nasrallah’s group deepens its hold near the Israeli border

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 fighters take an oath during a parade to continue the path of resistance against Israel. (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla)
Hezbollah fighters take an oath during a parade to continue the path of resistance against Israel. (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla)

This week brought more wonders from the new and utterly unpredictable Middle East.

Just a few months ago, an Islamist regime hostile to Israel ruled Egypt. In the blink of an eye, a group of officers grabs power — with popular support –, manages to pass a new constitution by a referendum, and becomes Israel’s closest ally in the region.

Last summer, the Syrian civil war was about to end with an American operation that wouldn’t leave much of the Assad regime behind. Now the Syrian Army is standing firm, and so is its president. But he’s losing his chemical weapons and the opposition is slowly crumbling, leaving behind a massive vacuum which al-Qaeda-linked global Jihadist groups are rushing to fill. Last week alone, 700 people died in the infighting between the various opposition factions, causing many Syrians to long for the quiet days before the civil war.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel, while emphatically still bitter enemies, suddenly find themselves confronting a common enemy in the form of radical Sunni Islam. On Thursday, three Lebanese were killed in a car bomb next to a government building in the city of Hermel on the Syria-Lebanon border. Earlier in the week, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, linked with al-Qaeda and active in Lebanon, took responsibility for two recent suicide attacks in Beirut — in Dahiyah and at the Iranian Embassy. The group, whose leader Majid al-Majid died two weeks ago under mysterious circumstances while in detention in a Lebanese hospital, promised to continue in the path of its commander: “We will strike Iran and its party [Hezbollah] and the aggressive Jews in order to protect the Sunnis.”

These are not empty slogans. Israeli security forces have obtained explicit evidence of attempts by members of global jihadist groups in Lebanon to attack both Hezbollah and Israeli targets, and even to try to create new tensions between the two. For example, extremist Sunni militants, in a group that calls itself Ziad al-Jarrah, received arms from al-Qaeda members in Syria that were intended for use against Hezbollah. Some of the rockets were indeed fired at Dahiyah, the Hezbollah stronghold, but in August the rest were fired at Nahariya, in northern Israel.

For now, at least, the bulk of the global jihadist groups’ activities are focused on Hezbollah. But it is not impossible that in the future, members of these groups will escalate their fighting against Israel, in order to further raise tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, and even drag the two sides into a military conflict neither side wants.

Hezbollah’s multiple challenges

The challenges facing Hezbollah and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah these days are complex. It is waging nothing less than a war in Syria, fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces. It constantly maintains and seeks to boost its military capabilities for another conflict with Israel. And it needs to counter the growing terror threat it faces inside Lebanon.

As if didn’t have enough problems, on Thursday the trial of those accused of killing Rafik al-Hariri, the former Lebanese PM, opened at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. All the suspects are active in Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks during a rare public appearance, in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, on November 14, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Bilal Hussein)
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah speaks during a rare public appearance, in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, on November 14, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Bilal Hussein)

Theoretically, Hezbollah has the military power to take over Lebanon by force. But as it looks at the new reality in Iraq, in which Sunni terrorists attack Shiites almost every day, it evidently understands that grabbing power might not be the smartest move right now.

In the meantime, the people suffering from Hezbollah’s policies in Syria are primarily the group’s core supporters, Lebanese Shiites, who woke up one sunny morning to a new reality, in which they find themselves targets for suicide attacks and rocket launches.

Hezbollah members stand near the coffins of four people, who were killed a day after two suicide bombings struck the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, during their funeral procession, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Bilal Hussein)
Hezbollah members stand near the coffins of four people, who were killed a day after two suicide bombings struck the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, during their funeral procession, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Bilal Hussein)

One day recently, a false rumor spread that seven car bombs were heading along Dahiyah’s main street — named after Hadi Nasrallah, Hassan Nasrallah’s son — and to the main mosque in the al-Hadath neighborhood. The previous day, a rumor spread about a car bomb in al-Merija, a neighborhood in Dahiyah. The rumors, widely publicized on social media, detailed the types of cars and even their license plate numbers. All false, but enough to make the terrified residents close their stores and clear the streets.

Digging in along the Israeli border

From the Israeli side of the border, even with an untrained eye, it was possible to see the woman walking close to the Shiite village of Maroun-a-Ras. She was making her way from the village to the grave of a sheikh on its slopes, which almost touch the Israeli border. The sheikh’s grave is said to have special powers for barren women.

It was in this village that the first major land battle of the 2006 Second Lebanon War unfolded. Five soldiers from the IDF’s Egoz unit were killed in the fighting. Since then, Hezbollah has been barred from the area by UN Security Council Resolution 1701. But its fighters are in Maroun-a-Ras nonetheless, as well as in the other villages across south Lebanon.

From the Israeli side, too, it’s hard to miss the golden dome in the village — a model of the Dome of the Rock, built with Iranian money as part of the “Museum of the Resistance” that commemorates the war — from the Hezbollah perspective, of course. Until not long ago, a large Iranian flag flew here. But increasingly vocal allegations by some parts of the Lebanese public, that Hezbollah has become an Iranian agent, caused the flag to be taken down.

You can make out three towers as well, with bridges connecting them, and a long tunnel where visitors can see the remains of equipment that the IDF left behind. The museum displays, among other items, a Merkava tank that was hit and abandoned in Lebanon.

Hezbollah members don’t move around in uniform, in organized fashion, but it’s obvious to IDF forces on the border that they are there. The Israelis know the vehicles they move in; when a “TV crew” arrives in the area and doesn’t act like a television crew, it is clear who they are. On more than one occasion, Hezbollah activists have dressed as shepherds. But when three “shepherds” move around with just 15-20 sheep, and without much success in controlling them, they tend to stand out.

Right at the border fence, Hezbollah members have hung a metal sign featuring the pictures of six Lebanese killed on Nakba Day — when Palestinians and their supporters mark the catastrophe of Israel’s establishment — a year-and-a-half ago. On the sign, the phrase, “They are definitely returning,” is written in sloppy Hebrew. Last Nakba Day, the Lebanese Army deployed in the area and prevented protesters from reaching the border, thwarting a planned joint demonstration with a group of Israeli Arabs.

The call of the muezzin is audible from Israel too, calling believers to a special class on the Prophet Muhammad after the evening prayer.

Arab demonstrators hold Palestinian flags as they approach the border between Syria and Israel, on Nakba Day last year (photo credit: Hamad Almakt/ Flash90)
Arab demonstrators hold Palestinian flags as they approach the border between Syria and Israel, on Nakba Day 2013. (photo credit: Hamad Almakt/Flash90)

Hezbollah still enjoys considerable support of its activities for the local population, but it is no longer as popular as it was right after the 2006 war. The war it is waging in Syria has a cost, and not only in bodies. Hezbollah has become non grata in some non-Shiite villages. Its members were chased out of the Sunni village of Marwahin.

The bitterness created by its involvement in the Syrian civil war doesn’t endanger the organization, but it is also not only limited to Sunni villages. At a recent funeral in the Shiite city of Bint Jbeil for a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria, cries denouncing the organization were heard.

To date, around 300 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria, almost half the number of approximately 700 who died in the Second Lebanon War.

In the meantime, Hezbollah is preparing. Despite the number of casualties in Syria, despite the resources its conflict with Israel require, and despite its deteriorating status in the Arab world in general and in Lebanon in particular, the organization is showing no signs of wilting.

It has sent one-third of its fighting force to Syria, while more than a third continue to prepare for another round of hostilities against the IDF.

It is not really trying to hide the massive excavations underway in Shiite towns and villages in the south, where it stores thousands of rockets — recent Israeli estimates talk of 100,000 rockets in Hezbollah hands — and where it is possibly trying to dig a tunnel it can use for an attack inside Israel. Bulldozers and heavy engineering equipment are working overtime in Shiite villages, and the organization offers to build shelters inside residents’ homes, in order, among other reasons, to convince them to stay instead of flee when the next conflict erupts. These engineering efforts are clear to the watching Israeli defense establishment, and the current estimate is that a key part of the fighting in the next war will be in built-up areas, and not in the “nature reserves” as in 2006.

Hassan al-Laqis in an undated photo distributed by Hezbollah.
Hassan al-Laqis in an undated photo distributed by Hezbollah.

For Israel, the Hezbollah threat is not limited to just the “next war.” A recent promise to avenge the blood of its senior commander Hassan Laqis, killed in Beirut last month — Hezbollah blames Israel — by one of the organization’s spokesmen, Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the newspaper al-Akhbar, is not regarded as an empty threat. “Wait and see,” he wrote. “I expect blood on the southern border.”

Doubtless there are senior figures pressing Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to respond to the assassination, in order to deter Israel from carrying out more of the same.

Nasrallah said in one of his recent speeches that Hezbollah “has an old, new, and renewed score to settle” with Israel. It may not be seeking a wide confrontation with the IDF at present, but that does not mean it will not try to initiate limited attacks — the kind that can hurt Israel badly without leading to war.

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