With Lebanon in virus lockdown, Hezbollah can’t afford an Israel flare-up — yet

The terror group has managed to portray itself as the great defender against the ravages of COVID-19. It would rather avoid a second front, against Israel… at least for now

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.

Israeli mobile artillery units sit in place in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli mobile artillery units sit in place in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Lebanon’s citizens were informed on Monday of a series of new restrictions intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, the most dramatic of which was a lockdown. Until August 10, mosques, cinemas and nightclubs are closed, sports events are canceled, and markets are shuttered. Private businesses, banks and the education system are to close from Thursday, also until August 10. This is all coming into force ahead of this weekend’s Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice.

Hamad Hassan, Lebanon’s Hezbollah-affiliated minister of health, explained: “We have to go back and deal with the situation as though the pandemic was only now beginning.” That’s because COVID-19 has broken out afresh in Lebanon in the last few days, with 132 new patients and eight fatalities — high numbers by Lebanese standards — in the 24 hours preceding the lockdown announcement. Eid al-Adha this year is going to be rather like Passover night in Israel, a singularly constrained celebration.

All this exacerbates Lebanon’s profound ongoing economic woes. Inflation is out of control, sharply hiking the prices of basic supplies. A sack of rice costs three times what it did last year. The national economy is on the verge of bankruptcy, with overseas investors and firms unprepared to put money into the state. Locals don’t even have the money to seek hospital care when they need it.

The Hezbollah terror group, in recent months, has tried to fill this vacuum. It was accused of bringing the coronavirus to Lebanon via its various dealings with Iran. To deflect those accusations, it set up a network of clinics and hospitals for COVID-19 patients. The clinics are mainly in Shiite areas, but they provide services to all sectors, free of charge. Hezbollah has also provided food packages to particularly impoverished families. It even operates a hotline offering psychological help.

Hezbollah supporters lift pictures of its terror chief Hassan Nasrallah and anti-US placards as they protest a statement made by the US ambassador criticizing the group at a rally in the southern suburb of the capital Beirut, June 28, 2020. (Anwar Amro/AFP)

These moves have quieted much of the criticism of its role in facilitating the spread of the virus and the wider economic meltdown. Hezbollah has become perceived as something of a messiah. Branding the coronavirus the great enemy of the Lebanese nation, Hezbollah has portrayed itself as central to the fight against it.

Which brings us to Monday’s border incident with Israel. The question one has to ask is whether Hezbollah, which is currently receiving reduced funding from Iran against the backdrop of the pandemic, the lockdown, and the festival that will be anything but festive, would allow itself military adventurism against Israel?

Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has vowed that Hezbollah will respond to any harming of its fighters, in Syria or Lebanon. And thus if Monday’s attempted attack — if it truly was an attempted attack — achieved nothing, logic would dictate that Hezbollah still “owes” Israel a military response to the killing of one of its fighters in a strike near Damascus last week attributed to Israel.

And yet, the sense is that such logic may be misplaced and that Hezbollah cannot afford a major military entanglement with Israel — certainly not now, and not in Lebanon. That is not to rule out some kind of further Hezbollah response, but it would be one aimed at avoiding a deterioration into war. Alternatively, Hezbollah could try to target Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights, or simply wait until the festival and the lockdown are over.

Anti-Hezbollah protesters hold banners with the UN Resolution 1559, which was adopted in Sept., 2004, that called for disarmament all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, during a sit-in against Hezbollah and Iran in front the United Nations headquarters, in Beirut, Lebanon, July 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

It is worth pointing out that Monday’s events in the Mount Dov area underline the degree to which both sides, Israel and Hezbollah, are proving wary in practice of doing too much harm to each other.

At the declarative level, Hezbollah shows contempt and ridicule for Israel. On Tuesday morning, its Al-Ahbar outlet devoted a full page to what it called “Israel fighting the shadows of the resistance fighters” — implying that Monday’s incident occurred mainly in the Israeli imagination. For their part, Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz threaten repeatedly to target Lebanon, but in practice Israel on Monday fired warning shots at the Hezbollah fighters.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press briefing following an incident on the Israel-Lebanon border in which Israel said it thwarted a Hezbollah attack, July 27, 2020 (screenshot)

In previous incidents, when Hezbollah convoys have been targeted in Syria, Israel has, according to foreign reports, sought to warn drivers and passengers in these convoys before hitting the vehicles themselves. Hezbollah, too, fully understands the significance of hitting Israeli soldiers or Israeli civilians.

Were all that not the case, we would long since have been witnessing a major escalation in the north.

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