A Different Hezbollah Prepares for the Next Big War

Seth J. Frantzman

Seth J. Frantzman

Op-ed editor, The Jerusalem Post

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~ Also by Seth J. Frantzman ~

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A decade after Israel’s last war with Hezbollah, the terror army has been strengthened by the Syrian conflict, expanded its missile arsenal, and tightened its control over Lebanon.

Robert Frost coined the phrase “good fences make good neighbors.” From 1976-2000 Israel’s northern border with Lebanon was known as the “good fence.” During that time, Israel had positive relations with the Christian community in southern Lebanon and the border become blurred by almost two decades of Israeli control of the area.

May 24 marked 17 years since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. The border is quiet now, but every day brings news of ill winds blowing from the north. In early May a man infiltrated Israel from Lebanon and wandered into the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona before being apprehended—an incident that rocked the Israeli defense establishment. Reports indicate that new fencing costing 100 million NIS will be put up along the border, similar to the “smart fences” on the borders with Jordan, Egypt, and Gaza.

As Israel upgrades the fence, the terrorist group Hezbollah is ensconced in Beirut with more power and legitimacy than ever. On May 11 the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah played the pragmatic moderate as he sought to allay Christian Maronite concerns over new elections. The Lebanese parliament’s term expires on June 20 and Christians fear their power is being eroded. Nasrallah isn’t worried, because for all intents and purposes his dream of being the main political and military power in Lebanon has come true. The Israeli withdrawal in 2000 still reverberates throughout the region, including the Palestinian territories, Syria, and beyond. What Israel has learned is that long military conflicts drain its effectiveness and deterrence must come through making the price for the enemy too high.

“It’s a very good thing that we’ve gotten out of Lebanon,” Ariel Sharon told the Knesset in May of 2000. “It was the right decision, though it should have been taken earlier. But while getting out was right, the way it was done was absolutely wrong.” Sharon was defense minister in 1982 when Israel entered Lebanon during Operation Peace for Galilee. The operation was undertaken to stem attacks from Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, which was then based in Lebanon on the northern Israeli border. Sharon was at the center of controversies stemming from the 1982 invasion, especially a massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps by the Phalanges and the decision to lay siege to Beirut. What began as an attempt to bring peace to Israel’s north turned into a “Lebanese quagmire” in which the means justified the ends. Israel was “stuck in south Lebanon, hoisted on its own petard,” wrote Zeev Schiff and Ehud Yaari in their 1984 book Israel’s Lebanon War.

And then there was Hezbollah. The Shia terrorist group emerged from the vacuum left by the PLO. Backed by Iran, Hezbollah marketed itself as “resisting” Israel. Initially, the Shia population in southern Lebanon had greeted the Israelis with smiles, but over 18 years of occupation that changed. The decision to withdraw in 2000 was abrupt, and while Israelis breathed a sigh of relief, others saw a deeper message. “Chaos and humiliation as Israel pulls out of Lebanon,” wrote the Guardian on May 24, 2000. At the Fatima Gate along the Good Fence, Christian fighters and their families who had served alongside the IDF fled their villages. “It was a roll call of defeat that yesterday spread eastwards with astonishing speed across the self-declared security zone. Hizbullah [sic] now controls at least two-thirds of the area,” the Guardian correspondent wrote. The Christian militia called the South Lebanese Army collapsed like the South Vietnamese had in 1976 and Hezbollah felt it had won a victory. There was an “erosion of IDF deterrence,” Sharon said, according to David Landau’s 2013 autobiography.

Palestinian leaders were closely watching events in Lebanon. Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei was surprised by the turn of events. Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, Landau relates, was even more concerned. The hasty retreat “gave out to people the message that violence wins. … The message from [Israel Prime Minister Ehud] Barak was that he would move under pressure, that he would withdraw only if forced to.”

The decision to withdraw in 2000 was abrupt, and while Israelis breathed a sigh of relief, others saw a deeper message.

While the Palestinians and especially Arafat were influenced by how Hezbollah appeared to have chased the Israelis out of Lebanon, Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad was also watching. Having occupied Lebanon in 1976, Assad might have reaped benefits from the final Israeli withdrawal. But by June he was dead and his son Bashar was in charge, unsure of himself and how to handle Lebanon. His father had likely been behind the assassinations of anti-Syrian leaders in Lebanon such as Bashir Gemayal and Kamal Jumblatt. But he balanced that with a nuanced policy that allowed him to stay in the country for decades despite calls for a Syrian withdrawal. The elder Assad’s pragmatic and balanced approach to Lebanon, brutally backed up by murder and occupation, was inherited by his unseasoned son.

Four months after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon the Second Intifada broke out. The intifada had been planned in advance, waiting for a spark to set it off. One of its leaders, the terrorist Marwan Barghouti, who is now serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison, said in 2001 that “the thinking of the entire new Palestinian generation is influenced by the experience of our brothers in Hezbollah and by Israel’s retreat from Lebanon.” It was a “contributing factor” to the launch of the intifada. Farouk Kaddoumi, a PLO aide to Arafat, told reporters in 2002 while meeting with Nasrallah that “we are optimistic Hezbollah’s resistance can be used as an example for other Arabs seeking to regain their rights.”

The Palestinians, however, miscalculated, and after several years of murderous terror and thousands killed on both sides, the intifada was crushed. But it was not without its long-term effects. In 2004 Sharon, then prime minister, decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, where around 7,000 Jewish residents lived among 1.5 million Palestinians. “Both Sharon and [Minister of Defense Shaul] Mofaz made it brutally clear that the army would not be scurrying out of Gaza in disarray as it had—in their view at any rate—out of south Lebanon in May 2000,” writes Landau. To show Hamas it was no Hezbollah, Israel’s air force killed Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March 2004 and his successor Abdel Aziz Rantissi in April. As a result, Nasrallah would stay in his bunker during any future conflict with the Jewish state.

The disengagement from Gaza showed the IDF had learned from its failed tactics in the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. When the disengagement was complete in the fall of 2005, the Gaza Strip gained a short period of calm. However, on June 25, 2006 a cross-border raid by Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and hostilities in Gaza began once again.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah found itself in the midst of a crisis after the February 2005 assassination of Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The public blamed Syria for the killing and two months later, with a groundswell of popular opposition to Syrian occupation, Damascus announced its own withdrawal from Lebanon. Hezbollah was an ally of the Assad regime, so the anti-Syrian protests and the resulting anti-Hezbollah feeling could have sealed the terrorist group’s fate. But Hezbollah was still the only armed organization left over from the Lebanese civil war, because it pretended to be fighting to “liberate” Lebanese land from Israel. It claimed Israel was occupying a small patch of land called the “Sheba farms” along the border. Half a decade later, a UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon presented clear proof of Hezbollah’s involvement in the assassination of Hariri, but by then the group had regained its status and power in Lebanon.

Gal Hirsch, an Israeli general who played a key role in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, wrote in his 2016 book Protective Edge that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon left Hezbollah without a clear agenda of “resistance.” It had been forged in the battle with Israel, but now there “was growing pressure to disarm and, on the other hand, the Syrian withdrawal left Hezbollah as the only non-state entity bearing arms in Lebanon.” Hirsch insisted that Hezbollah was also watching the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. With help from Iranian advisors it created “operational depth,” allowing it to operate from all of Lebanon should there be an invasion of the south. It also produced “long-term stockpiles and additional decentralization and redundancy of ammunition and weaponry.” What the Palestinians never understood about Hezbollah, and why their inspiration for the Second Intifada turned into such a disastrous failure, was that Hezbollah was far more sophisticated than Hamas or Fatah-linked terror groups led by Barghouti and others. “When I assumed command of the 91st Division in April 2005, Hezbollah was deployed throughout southern Lebanon, including all along the border with Israel, with heavily fortified outposts,” recalls Hirsch.

On the morning of July 12, 2006 Hezbollah launched an attack on Israel’s border. They overran a dry riverbed along the fence and ambushed two Humvees, killing three IDF soldiers, including Sergeant Ehud Goldwasser and Sergeant First Class Eldad Regev in an attempted abduction. In response, Israel released shock and awe on Lebanon. The air force pummeled Hezbollah neighborhoods in Beirut for days before the decision was made to launch a full-scale ground operation.

A monument to Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two victims of Hezbollah’s 2006 cross-border raid, in Adamit, Israel. Photo: Avishai Teicher / Wikimedia

Hezbollah was able to launch rockets on Israel throughout the conflict, killing 43 civilians and 12 soldiers over 34 days. According to Human Rights Watch, an additional 33 civilians suffered serious injuries, 68 moderate injuries, and 1,388 light injuries. Even though Hezbollah suffered significant losses, the feeling in Israel was one of failure. “In strictly military terms Israel did not lose to Hezbollah in this war, but it clearly did not win,” a paper co-sponsored by the Brookings Institution noted in 2007. The Economist also thought Hezbollah won.

Over time, Israel’s performance in the 2006 war has been seen in a different light. Benjamin Lambeth at the Institute for National Security Studies said it represented the IDF’s most “inconclusive performance” in any war since 1948. It “reflected manifold failures in objective setting and expectations management.” However, he noted, “the IDF killed nearly 700 of the most seasoned [Hezbollah] combatants and wounded more than a thousand.” Hezbollah’s stock of Zelzal and Fajr rockets was destroyed by the IDF and Hezbollah command centers mostly eliminated. Hezbollah had not expected such a massive air force retaliation. With most of its long-range rockets destroyed, Iran lost most of its investment in Hezbollah. Instead of retaining the capability of using those rockets during a major confrontation, such as an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, they were squandered by Nasrallah’s reckless miscalculation. The INSS report quotes an Iranian National Security Council document complaining that Hezbollah “wasted” Iran’s military investment.

Hezbollah crowed about its victory over Israel after 2006, but it was licking its wounds militarily. In 2008 the opposition parties to Hezbollah, led by the Future Movement’s Saad Hariri—son of the assassinated prime minister—sought to reduce Hezbollah’s state-within-a-state communications network. Anti-Hezbollah factions had not forgotten the Hariri assassination and many had secretly supported the Israeli operation. But instead of relenting, Hezbollah went on the attack in 2008, invading neighborhoods in West Beirut.

Lina Khatib at the Carnegie Middle East Center recalls that “the events of May 2008 marked the first time Hezbollah’s weapons were used against other Lebanese as opposed to just against Israel, and raised questions within the government about their legitimacy.” Khatib notes that Qatari mediation and accords in Doha “granted Hezbollah and its allies veto power within a newly formed national unity government, thereby protecting the party from any government decision that might have threatened Hezbollah’s possession and use of weapons.” In short, by 2008 Hezbollah had gone from an anti-Israel terrorist group based in the Shia minority and enjoying Iranian backing to a group connected to the Assad regime that was holding Lebanon hostage. These were the bitter fruits of Israel’s withdrawal.

Hezbollah realized that the political system put in place by the Taif Accords of 1989 brokered by Saudi Arabia had not benefited them enough. The accords were supposed to weaken the power of the Christians—who hold 50 percent of the seats in parliament—and increase the power of the Sunni prime minister. Under Lebanon’s system the president must be a Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shia. In a sense, the Shia had been the beggars at the table of Lebanese politics, but Hezbollah had made them powerbrokers. In May 2016 Joseph Bahout at Carnegie wrote, “The Lebanese state is deadlocked. Lebanon has no president and parliament has been paralyzed since 2013.” Each deadlock helps Hezbollah. It played this game when pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud stepped down in 2007, and did so again in 2015 and 2016 until it was able to get Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, elected president in October 2016.

In addition to controlling the Lebanese political system since 2008, Hezbollah has also come to control the country’s foreign policy and influence its military affairs. In 2013 Hezbollah began to seriously commit its forces to the civil war in Syria on the side of the Assad regime. “Following the battle of Qusayr, Hezbollah has moved from insurgency to counterinsurgency,” wrote David Daoud in September 2016. Iran, which was sending Hezbollah up to $200 million a year according to a study at the Institute for the Study of War, saw its Lebanese proxy as key to defending its Syrian ally.

In addition to controlling the Lebanese political system since 2008, Hezbollah has also come to control the country’s foreign policy and influence its military affairs.

But the war in Syria has been costly for Hezbollah. It dispatched some 5,000 fighters to Syria, according to research by Jeffrey White at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and by the end of 2015 had lost a third of its strength—around 1,500 killed. But although its fighters were dying, Hezbollah increased its rocket stockpiles from around 13,000 rockets before 2006 to more than 100,000 in 2016. Hezbollah also repositioned itself as essentially the national defense force of Lebanon. In a speech marking 15 years since Israel withdrew from Lebanon, Nasrallah claimed Hezbollah was defending Lebanon from ISIS. Hezbollah members in Lebanon also fought street battles with Salafists. The BBC called Hezbollah “one of the most powerful militant groups in the Middle East.” Efforts by the U.S. and others to close Hezbollah-affiliated bank accounts or target its foreign trade in West Africa never seem to slow the group down.

In Israel, the Home Front Command’s main concern regarding Hezbollah is that its massive stockpile of missiles could overwhelm defense systems such as Iron Dome. Although Iron Dome proved successful at intercepting missiles from Gaza, it can’t defend against hundreds of missiles launched simultaneously.

The Israeli view of the Hezbollah threat today is that any war with Hezbollah will include all of Lebanon. This led to a war of words last year in which Nasrallah threatened to strike Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility and Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz said the next war would damage the entirety of Lebanon. Jewish Home party leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett told Haaretz in March 2017 that Hezbollah “moved their [rocket] launchers from the nature reserves, outposts in open areas, to dense urban areas. You can’t fight rockets with tweezers. If you can’t reach the house where the launcher is, you’re not effective and the number of houses you have to get through is enormous.” The term “nature reserves” refers to Hezbollah bunkers in south Lebanon that were a feature of the pre-2006 period. Bennett noted that Hezbollah is “embedded in sovereign Lebanon, it is part of the government.” In this sense, any provocation by Hezbollah would result in total war on Lebanon. Hezbollah can’t pretend to be just a terror group in southern Lebanon. It is the state. It is Lebanon.

The Iranian “Shia crescent” that begins in Tehran and spreads from Iraq to Damascus and Beirut now threatens to border Israel on the Golan. Israel is concerned that as the Syrian civil war winds down and Assad remains in power, Iran will remain to prop him up. In a February interview, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Oleg Syromolotov told the Jerusalem Post that armed groups like Hezbollah will leave Syria when the war was over. Israel’s concern is deeper. It doesn’t want Iranian bases in Syria or Hezbollah on the Golan. Former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor has said that Hezbollah is stronger than many NATO militaries and ten times as powerful as in 2006.

It seems, however, that Hezbollah and the Arab world learned the wrong lessons from Israel’s withdrawal. It saw Israel as a weak democracy, decadent and prepared to give in. This led to four years of a bloody intifada and the Second Lebanon war. But both the Palestinians and Hezbollah learned that Israel is not weak and paid a heavy price. This gave Israel 10 years of quiet along the Lebanese border. The war with Hamas in 2014 has also bought Israel several years of quiet.

The problem in Lebanon is that both the Christian and Sunni opposition are neutered. They gave up their weapons after the civil war and allowed Hezbollah to keep theirs. The likelihood that Jihadist and Salafi networks will put down roots in Lebanon grows in response to the power of Hezbollah. Whatever fantasies Israel once had for an alliance with Lebanese Christians and the idea that Lebanon, a formerly peaceful country seen as the “Paris” or “Switzerland” of the Levant, could be a good neighbor, is gone forever. Hezbollah will only grow. It is a key Iranian asset, one that is indispensable in the Syrian civil war. Nasrallah has taken to commenting on crises in Yemen and elsewhere, looking beyond Lebanon in hopes of playing a regional role.

Withdrawals always have a price. The U.S. fears it cannot leave Afghanistan without handing it back to the Taliban. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam allowed the communists to take over the country. While countries should manage their military withdrawals so chaos does not ensue, they should also be willing to cut their losses when need be. Israel cut its losses in Lebanon and Gaza, and saved lives by doing so. It has regained its deterrence.

The lesson from this is that states should be wary of long-term military control of enemy areas. It is better to increase deterrence through absolute domination and destruction of the enemy, withdraw quickly, and wait for the next round. Long-term combat with terrorist groups allows them to learn and become more effective while sinking roots into the civilian infrastructure and presenting themselves as legitimate military and political entities.

The question Israel has to ask itself is whether Hezbollah has been bloodied enough in Syria that it will remain quiescent, or whether it will think a new war with Israel will bring it more power. In addition, it must be asked whether Iran thinks it can use Hezbollah against Israel to gain leverage. Political power has not made Hezbollah more moderate—the great myth of most policymakers in the West. It is as murderous and extreme as it was before. It now has the burdens of being a more conventional military force. It doesn’t do truck bombings and kidnappings; it has graduated to long range missiles and armored personnel carriers. In other words, it is a terrorist group that has come to control a state, using that state to conduct terror by other means.

Banner Photo: Amir Levy / Flash90