Wary of Hezbollah, Israel unsure if Lebanon turmoil an opportunity or threat
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Wary of Hezbollah, Israel unsure if Lebanon turmoil an opportunity or threat

IDF spokesman says recent demonstrations could be a ‘good opportunity’ to limit terror group’s power, but increased pressure could also push Nasrallah into diversionary attack

Israeli Army soldier Samuel Boujenah, center, gestures as he explains the Israel-Lebanon conflict to foreign journalists in the military base of Har Dov on Mount Hermon, a strategic and fortified outpost at the crossroads between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, on October 30, 2019. (JALAA MAREY/AFP)
Israeli Army soldier Samuel Boujenah, center, gestures as he explains the Israel-Lebanon conflict to foreign journalists in the military base of Har Dov on Mount Hermon, a strategic and fortified outpost at the crossroads between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, on October 30, 2019. (JALAA MAREY/AFP)

AFP — Looking down on Lebanon from the Israeli Golan Heights, soldiers wonder whether the political turmoil in the neighboring country will weaken arch-enemy Hezbollah or make it more dangerous.

“There, Hezbollah is very, very strong,” said Samuel Boujenah of the Israeli military, gazing at a valley where calm had recently been shattered by clashes with the Iran-backed Shiite terror group.

He was standing on Mount Hermon, a strategic and fortified outpost at the crossroads between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria where Israeli military vehicles patrol and drones buzz in the sky.

It was in this region where, on September 1, three Hezbollah anti-tank missiles hit near the Israeli township of Avivim, the first attack near a civilian area since the 2006 war between the armed Lebanese movement and Israel.

Motorists travelling along the winding mountain road still feel the bumps in the bitumen left by the strikes.

An army armored personnel carrier removes a garbage container set on fire by anti-government protesters in Beirut, Lebanon, October 28, 2019.. (AP/Hussein Malla)

The front-lines have been unchanged for years, but it is the events of recent weeks in Lebanon that, Israel hopes, may weaken its foe, Hezbollah.

Lebanon has been rocked by unprecedented, cross-faith civic protests that have bridged sectarian divides to demand the removal of the entire political class, whom the demonstrators accuse of systematic corruption.

‘Opportunity for change’

Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of Hezbollah — a major political player — has warned that the unrest could lead to “chaos and collapse” of the economy.

Now Israel wonders whether Lebanon’s troubles — and the rising street pressure that is also being felt by Nasrallah — could spell a threat or an opportunity for the Jewish state.

“We are monitoring what is happening in Lebanon, of course, we have an interest,” Israeli army spokesman Jonathan Conricus told reporters, during a recent Mount Hermon visit.

“We don’t have any involvement in what is going on,” he stressed.

But he said Israel remains worried about Hezbollah, which could “collect intelligence, patrol the area and, when they want to, attack Israel” from southern Lebanon, including with precision guided missiles it has been manufacturing.

An Israeli soldier with a map and a picture of the chief of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Hassan Nasrallah, near the township of Avivim on the border with Lebanon, October 30, 2019.(JALAA MAREY/AFP)

Conricus argued that Lebanon should “get rid of” Hezbollah.

“As long as they allow Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, to do what they want in Lebanon, that becomes a threat for us, and maybe now it is a good opportunity to change that,” he contended.

Aid as leverage

Israel is trying to convince the international community to limit Hezbollah’s influence.

The Jewish state believes leverage could be exerted through economic aid for Lebanon, a country burdened by public debt of $86 billion, or 150 percent of GDP.

“Israel has asked the United States and European countries to make any aid to Lebanon conditional on the closure of Hezbollah missile factories,” a senior Israeli official told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Middle East expert Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University said such a strategy could achieve “some minimal progress,” including pushing Hezbollah to back off developing missiles, but cautioned that it would not resolve the wider conflict.

A far worse outcome would be for an under-pressure Hezbollah to seek to divert attention and rally support by unleashing new attacks against Israel, warned Orna Mizrahi, a former security executive in the Israeli prime minister’s office and now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies.

If Hezbollah “want to demonstrate that they continue the fight against Israel and they are the protector of Lebanon, you can’t ignore the scenario of deterioration — that if they are doing something, and Israel is retaliating, then we get some kind of deterioration,” said Mizrahi.

A location near the northern Israeli town of Avivim shows the site where an anti-tank missile fired by fighters of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah hit the ground in September, seen on October 30, 2019. (JALAA MAREY/AFP)

In the long term, Israel must face the danger that Hezbollah will maintain its influence in Lebanon, or even increase it if chaos sets in, as Nasrallah has already suggested.

Such a scenario, said Mizrahi, “might be more complicated for us.”

For the time being, however, said the Lebanese daily L’Orient-Le Jour, the country’s self-inflicted chaos means that “if anyone is having a laugh,” it is Israel.

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