Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Hezbollah’s response

The Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah is weighing its options after an Israeli attack on one of its convoys, writes Hassan Al-Qashawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Seeking to retaliate against Israel for its recent strike on one of its convoys, the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah may take military action across the Golan Heights rather than Lebanon’s southern borders, experts say.

Almost ten days after an air strike, that Israel has not publicly claimed, against a Hezbollah convoy close to the town of Qoneitera in the Golan Heights, Hezbollah is still weighing its options.

The air strike left six Hezbollah members dead, including Mohamed Issa, a senior commander, and Jihad Moghaniyah, son of late Hezbollah military leader Emad Moghaniyah. A key figure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards also perished in the attack.

Engaging Israel on Lebanon’s southern borders, Hezbollah’s preferred tactic in the past, does not seem to be the right answer for now as it could jeopardise the country’s delicate political balance.

Lebanese politicians are opposed to any action that could give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an excuse to attack their country. Convinced that Netanyahu is looking for a pretext to start a war in order to shore up his position at home and scuttle talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Lebanese are averse to cross-border provocations.

Hezbollah, embroiled in an open-ended civil war in Syria, is already overstretched. In the Qalamoun Mountains, just across the Syrian border, its fighters are trying to help the Lebanese army stave off threats from Islamist extremists from both the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Nusra Front.

In 2006, the last major showdown between Hezbollah and Israel, the damage to Lebanese infrastructure was incalculable, with most of the destruction caused to the pro-Hezbollah and predominantly Shiite areas in the south.

Hezbollah, which is now involved in a dialogue with Lebanon’s Future Current, knows that Lebanese politics may not survive another round of destruction on that scale. Interior minister Nohad Machnouk, a key figure in the Future Current, recently said that the situation in Lebanon was “worse than it looks.”

Hezbollah’s reaction to Israeli provocations tends to follow a certain pattern. First, the group refrains from saying much, allowing the situation to cool down and giving the Israelis a false sense of security. Then it strikes back, not immediately claiming any attack but perhaps leaking it to the press.

This pattern has the advantage of hitting Israel when it is least prepared and also minimising possible retaliation.

It is almost certain on this occasion that Hezbollah will react, however, as otherwise Israel may be emboldened to carry out more assaults. A source close to Hezbollah said that the group has no option but to respond as otherwise the rules of the game with Israel could change. Its response would have to be carefully calibrated, however, the source said.

Hezbollah does not want to give Israel a pretext to start a war on Lebanon, and it does not want to give Netanyahu an excuse to launch his country into another military adventure either.

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, close to Hezbollah, speculated this week that Hezbollah’s reaction would be “more than a slap on the wrist but less than war.” Observers believe that if Hezbollah reacts, it will do so not from Lebanon, but from the Golan Heights in Syria.

Hezbollah is said to be going more vigorously after Al-Nusra Front fighters in the Golan Heights, who, according to Syrian and Iranian propagandists, are cooperating with Israel.

Hezbollah officials now speak of Al-Nusra Front and IS fighters with the same tone of disdain that they once reserved for Israel. The war on the takfiris (ultra-radical Islamists) is part of the war on Israel, Hezbollah officials say.

If such a shift in the battlefront unfolds, it would be an ironic reversal. For years, Hezbollah and Syria have tried to keep the Golan Heights out of the heat of battle. Due to the civil war in Syria, however, the Damascus regime has lost control of the Heights and no longer cares if Hezbollah uses them as a battlefront while keeping south Lebanon quiet.

Palestinians, who for years have been hoping to use the Syrian border as a launch pad for attacks on Israel, will be intrigued by such a reversal. Many have ended up serving years in Syrian prisons for attempting to infiltrate into Israel from the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, Israel is worried about the possibility of a Hezbollah attack on its offshore oil rigs in the Mediterranean. Lebanese officials, especially parliamentary speaker Nabih Birri, a close friend of Hezbollah, believe that Israel has been stealing oil from Lebanon’s territorial waters.

Israel has waged repeated wars on Hezbollah and Hamas in the past, with the outcomes being severe in terms of the deaths of civilians and the destruction of homes and infrastructure. But the military outcomes of such wars have been negligible.

In recent confrontations with Hamas, the Gaza-based group has been able to hit almost any city in Israel, and Hezbollah’s military capabilities are far mightier than those of Hamas.

As a result, while Israel is not taking lightly threats by the Hezbollah secretary-general that his militia could take the Galilee area by storm, strategists on both sides are cautiously weighing their options.

The war in Syria has been manna from heaven for Israel, which has been thrilled to see Iranian-backed and jihadist militants fighting each other. What Israel wants is to prolong this war, not to have any particular side win, and this is a further reason for the Israelis to keep their involvement to a minimum.

But with Netanyahu at the helm in Israel things are always uncertain. A spectacular conflagration in the region, if only to disrupt the Iranian nuclear talks, could prove too tempting to Israel’s beleaguered prime minister ahead of the country’s elections scheduled for March.

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