As it gears up this week to celebrate 15 years since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is in a very different place.
The IDF’s departure from the south Lebanon security zone in 2000 was seen as a military victory for Hezbollah, one that crowned the Shiite organization as the vanguard of Islamist fighters. Nowadays, by contrast, its primary battles are against fellow Muslims, and that fact cannot be separated from the recent wave of revelations about its ostensible military readiness to wage war against Israel.
On Friday, the Hezbollah-affiliated As-Safir newspaper launched a flattering portrayal of the organization’s battle-readiness in south Lebanon. The report discussed in colorful detail the combat-ready bunkers and tunnels built by Hezbollah in south Lebanon: they are ensconced in concrete, kitted out with electricity and ventilation, and lined with rocket launchers. (This is an underground infrastructure inside Lebanon, it should be stressed, rather than Gaza-style cross-border tunnels dug into Israel.)
The border is watched day and night, the enemy’s movements noted.
Hezbollah’s fighters, the newspaper added, are at a high level of readiness, prepared for war at a moment’s notice.
This may be so. And it is unassailably true that Hezbollah is a fighting force to be reckoned with – one that caused Israel significant damage during the 34-day war in the summer of 2006, and which has only improved over years of combat in Syria.
A senior Israeli intelligence official said last week that Hezbollah has built up a massive arsenal of rockets and other advanced weapons in Shi’ite villages of southern Lebanon. It has 100,000 short-range rockets capable of striking northern Israel, several thousand missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and central Israel and hundreds more that can strike the entire country, the official estimated, adding that some 200 villages in south Lebanon have been turned into “military strongholds.”
But Hezbollah is also a PR powerhouse.
Ever since Israel’s withdrawal and, even more so, since Hezbollah began sending Lebanese men to fight on Syrian soil for the preservation of the Bashar Assad regime – a regime many Lebanese loathe – it has been an uphill battle for Hezbollah on the PR front. Gone is the gloss of battling Zionists. Instead, Muslims are killing and being killed in Syria.
On Friday the organization’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, called the battle in Syria “an existential struggle” and indicated that a general mobilization of the public may be needed to keep the extreme Sunni forces, such as IS, at bay.
This would seem to still be the organization’s top priority. That’s not to rule out possible Hezbollah attempts to drag Israel into a war on the northern border. If Hezbollah’s situation in Syria deteriorates to the point that it is close to losing that war, it could — out of desperation, much as it did in the summer of 2006 — pull Israel into the battle, tilting the war.
This is the context in which one should view a series of recent IDF briefings — to Israeli TV, the New York Times and others — regarding the damage to Lebanon and its citizens if Hezbollah triggers a war. If Hezbollah, with which Israel fought a bitter war in 2006, sparks another conflict, Israel’s air force chief Amir Eshel told Israel’s Channel 10 last month, “Lebanon will go through an experience whose dimensions it cannot imagine. I wouldn’t trade places with a single Lebanese.”
But for now, it seems that Hezbollah is stretched thin. And while its underground fighting bunkers and tunnels are a serious security threat, its focus — despite the festivities planned for Sunday in Nabatiyeh in south Lebanon, under a banner that pledges to invade the Galilee — is on the battle against Islamic State and its ilk in Syria.