Israeli defense officials are worried about an increase in violent activity by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, agreeing with a French assessment that the Shi’ite group is responsible for recent strikes against the UN force in the area.

Israeli experts are also probing possible connections between Hezbollah and the two recent firings of Katyusha rockets into Israel. These developments may indicate a change in Hezbollah’s policy and may be linked to the erosion of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.

Since the end of the Second Lebanon War in August 2006, Hezbollah has carefully avoided direct confrontations with Israel. The organization repeatedly threatened to launch reprisals for the killing of the head of its field operations, Imad Mughniyeh − an action it attributes to Israel. Apparent attempts by Hezbollah to strike Israeli targets overseas have been thwarted.

Hezbollah is also wary of direct conflict with the UN forces − the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon − even though the Shi’ite group continually tries to bypass UN monitoring and deploy its men south of the Litani River. This contravenes Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War.

Ten days ago, a roadside bomb was detonated near a vehicle operated by a French UNIFIL battalion in Tyre; six soldiers were wounded. It was the third explosion of its kind since July; in one of the others, five people were wounded.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a radio interview last week that “we have reason to believe that these attacks come from Syria, but we don’t have solid proof of this.” When he was asked whether Hezbollah was responsible for carrying out these anti-UNIFIL attacks, Juppe said yes. Hezbollah, he added, is “Syria’s military arm in Lebanon.”

Israeli defense officials believe that Juppe is right. They say Hezbollah is trying to intimidate UNIFIL, particularly the French troops − considered especially assertive − so that they won’t monitor Hezbollah’s activities in southern Lebanon too closely. The attacks are apparently carried out by proxies, smaller organizations, so that they cannot be linked directly to Hezbollah.

In November, Katyusha rockets were fired at the Western Galilee, though no one was injured. This month a Katyusha landed in a Lebanese village near the border; one woman was badly wounded.

After the first incident, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility − an extremist Sunni group named after a Palestinian cleric who was Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentor.
Yet this attribution proved dubious. The identity of the group responsible for the attack on the Western Galilee remains unknown. Israeli officials have not ruled out that it was Hezbollah; again, via proxies.

The recent incidents could be important as a whole, indicating that Hezbollah is shedding its policy since the 2006 war. If this is so, the change stems from the worsening crisis in Syria, motivating Hezbollah’s leaders to take action, however constrained.

“Hezbollah is in a turbulent state,” an Israeli defense official said. “On the one hand, Assad’s regime faces collapse; on the other, Iran has been forced to cut back its financial aid to the organization due to the international sanctions that Tehran faces.

“Under such circumstances, Hezbollah is liable to make a mistake and pursue courses of action that would further complicate its situation.”