'A Smell of Blood on the Israel-Lebanon Border’

Changes are afoot these days along the Lebanon border, where Hezbollah is wielding an increasingly overt and belligerent presence, perhaps in response to Israeli actions.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israel-Lebanon border
Israel-Lebanon borderCredit: Yaron Kaminski
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel’s border with Lebanon looked quiet this week during a brief tour of the area, but the commanders of the Israel Defense Forces battalions that are deployed there tell a different tale.

Over the past few weeks, key developments have affected the balance of deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah. However, only a tiny fraction of them have become known to Israelis, who are perhaps justly preoccupied with more pressing concerns, such as Maccabi Tel Aviv’s ascension to the Final Four of the Euroleague in basketball and the finals of the latest cooking reality show.

In early March, a large, lethal bomb exploded in the Har Dov area along the northern border, and it was by mere chance that it caused only superficial damage to an armored vehicle of a Paratroops company. West of there, the soldiers of a Combat Engineers battalion are now discerning more overt and provocative activity by Hezbollah. Members of the Shi’ite organization frequently patrol close to the border fence, albeit in civilian attire but in vehicles that have become very familiar to the United Nations force in southern Lebanon, and in some cases openly bearing arms.

Further to the east, along the border with Syria on the Golan Heights – particularly in the Mount Hermon sector, which is still held by units loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad – a series of attacks have taken place during the past two months with the use of explosive devices and rocket fire. In the most serious of them, a Paratroops officer and three of his soldiers were wounded – one of them is still in serious condition – when a bomb exploded on March 18.

The string of attacks, attributed to the alliance between Syria and Hezbollah, was viewed by foreign media as a response to the incident in the town of Janta, in the Lebanese Bekaa, on February 24. The media reported that the Israeli air force attacked a Hezbollah arms depot a few dozen meters inside the “wrong” (i.e., the Lebanese) side of the border with Syria. Hezbollah, which had shown restraint when convoys of weapons destined for its arsenals were attacked in Syria, responded with the attack at Har Dov and afterward was directly or indirectly responsible for the attacks on the Heights.

Hezbollah’s actions were described as an attempt to draw a line in the sand for Israel: You can attack in Syria, but if you violate Lebanese sovereignty you will pay a price. In practice, a suspicion is taking root that something deeper is happening – namely, that Hezbollah is trying to redefine the rules of the game in the confrontation with Israel after years of relative stability along the border. Possibly the series of incidents, whose true roots lie in events that occurred last year, portend the end of the seven-plus, quiet years along the border since the last serious eruption: the war in the summer of 2006.

In Hezbollah’s perception, the formative experience that shaped its attitude toward Israel is also its greatest success: the IDF’s withdrawal in May 2000 from the security zone in South Lebanon. Following the Israeli pullback, the Islamic movement consolidated itself in that region, assuming full control over the events there, and displaying an open and provocative presence opposite the Israeli forces along the border.

At the same time, Hezbollah preserved a low-level arena of struggle in the Har Dov region, where it claims Lebanese sovereignty at the Shaba Farms. The results of the 2006 war changed all that. Although the IDF failed in its attempt to vanquish the Hezbollah, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 distanced the organization from the border and ordered the deployment of a UN force and the Lebanese army in its place.

A situation of mutual deterrence set in, in which the sides restricted themselves to point-specific actions, usually far from the border. These included the assassination of a senior Hezbollah figure, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus in 2008, and the killing of five Israeli tourists in a suicide attack carried out in Bulgaria in the summer of 2012. Hezbollah was also compelled to revise its deployment in southern Lebanon. The organization concentrated its headquarters and arms depots in Shi’ite villages, left most of the Christian villages and removed its outposts from the open areas dubbed “nature reserves” by the IDF in the 2006 war.

A further change took place in 2011, when the civil war broke out in Syria: There ensued a tightening of ties with Assad, who in the previous decade had placed all the factories of his military industries at Hezbollah’s disposal. Not only did the organization tip the scales toward the Syrian ruler in the key battles of Qusayr a year ago and in Kalamoun early this year; today, between 3,500 and 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are stationed in Syria, where they are securing the sites most important to Assad, shoulder to shoulder with the loyal Alawi division of the Republican Guard.

Hezbollah’s involvement in the war has cost it hundreds of losses and generated internal criticism in Lebanon, but the standard analysis one hears from the IDF General Staff about the organization’s strategic distress would appear to be exaggerated. Hezbollah has accumulated important operational experience, together with growing confidence in its military capability. Concurrently, it has created an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets that are capable of hitting any target in Israel, and has reinforced its religious and economic hold on the Shi’ite population of Lebanon.

‘Open’ to terror attacks

Still, from the Islamic organization’s perspective, this picture contains one frustrating element: the series of attacks on the weapons convoys in Syria since the beginning of 2013. Hezbollah seems to have gradually concluded that this is a systematic Israeli campaign aimed at preventing the transfer of advanced weapons into Lebanon. Already in May 2013, after two aerial attacks near Damascus, in which Hezbollah-bound Fateh-110 rockets were destroyed, Assad declared the Golan Heights “open” to the resistance organizations – in other words, “available” for launching terrorist attacks against Israel. Hezbollah spent the following months organizing itself for the possibility of operating from there.

The watershed came in Dahiya, the Shi’ite quarter in the southern part of Beirut. That’s where, on the night of last December 3, Hassan al-Laqis, a senior figure from Hezbollah’s military wing, was assassinated. For Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, that was a formative event. If Israel (which Hezbollah accused openly of the killing) or its envoys could send assassins into the heart of Dahiya in the dark of night – that was even scarier than the bomb in the automobile headrest that took Mughniyeh’s life. Did Nasrallah understand that he might be the next in line?

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman once observed that life in the Middle East proceeds in a completely opposite way from how it does in the West. Western leaders lie to their constituencies without batting an eyelash, but in private talks they tell each other the truth. In the Arab world, the logic is different, Friedman wrote: Leaders lie in closed forums but mean every word of what they say in public declarations of strategy.

In a public speech after the slaying of Laqis, Nasrallah noted that his organization had one old account to settle with Israel (Mughniyeh), one new account (Laqis) and one renewable account (apparently the entire struggle). Immediately after the speech, the Lebanese commentator closest to Nasrallah, Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the Al Akhbar newspaper, published an article that concluded with a warning: “There is a smell of blood on the southern border. Wait and see.”

From the Israeli perspective, that was almost a strategic warning: Hezbollah is returning to the border at what is an appropriate time for it, wielding a greater overt presence that also includes terrorist attacks. In short, in the face of the Israeli campaign, Hezbollah launched a counter-campaign.

Then came the attack in Janta, in February. Three hours after it took place, Al Manar, Hezbollah’s television network, reported that a large explosion had occurred in the Lebanese Bekaa, “on Syrian soil.” A day and a half later, the network issued a correction: It was an Israeli attack, and it took place inside Lebanon. And Hezbollah would respond accordingly. There is no doubt that Nasrallah approved every letter of the statement.

The new strategy was formulated in December, in the wake of the Laqis assassination. It was implemented at the end of February, after Janta. Since then we have had the bomb at Har Dov, the two explosive devices in the Golan Heights and rockets fired at Mount Hermon. For dessert, the Thai police uncovered a Hezbollah plan to attack Israeli tourists in Bangkok, in the wake of which they arrested two Lebanese citizens and are hunting for seven additional suspects from the organization. According to the media in Thailand, the information that led to the prevention of the attack came from Israeli intelligence.

Hezbollah’s response to the Janta attack appears to be a far-flung campaign, at Har Dov, the Golan Heights, Mount Hermon and overseas – and it’s unlikely to have come to an end. Its geographical boundaries and intensity are still being clarified, from the perspective of the top ranks of the Shi’ite organization and its patrons in Damascus and Tehran.

Nasrallah does not seem to want another war with Israel. The scars of 2006 are still painful, and particularly the accusation that the organization, for external motives, brought ruin on Lebanon by inviting the harsh Israeli response. On the other hand, Hezbollah seems prepared to take a greater risk, even to practice brinkmanship, in order to send a message to Israel not to attack its personnel in Lebanon again or the transfer of weapons to Syria.

For the first time since 2006, the Islamic organization has been bold enough to launch attacks on the border with Israel. It remains to be seen whether its actions will be relegated to reactions to Israeli moves, or whether it will initiate new provocations on its own.

These developments raised anew the question of whether Israel comported itself with appropriate caution on the northern front during the past year and a half. Was it the series of attacks that have been attributed to Israel – from the stores of weapons in the outskirts of Damascus to the parking lot in the heart of Dahiya – that should be held responsible for the change in Hezbollah’s approach? In the long run, if there is indeed an additional escalation along the northern border, it will not be possible to ignore the Israeli contribution to this development.

The mask task

The massacre perpetrated by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians with chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus last August sparked a chain reaction that led to a concrete improvement in Israel’s security situation. True, the Israeli leadership was very critical of the last-minute U-turn by Washington, when it canceled a decision to launch a punitive attack on Syria. But the alternative agreement, brokered by the United States and Russia, brought about the gradual dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

It bears repeating that, when those weapons were acquired and manufactured by the Alawite regime in the 1970s and 1980s, it was not for use against its Sunni enemies. Their purpose was to deter the danger posed by the country’s greatest threat, as perceived by then-Syrian President Hafez Assad – namely Israel, whose artillery was poised just 40 kilometers from Damascus toward the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Eight months after the August 2013 massacre, the Syrians, with international assistance, have already dismantled more than 60 percent of their chemical weapons stocks. The diminishment of that threat led to decisions in Jerusalem, too.

In January, the security cabinet decided to suspend the distribution of gas masks to the public. For the time being, the masks will remain in the hands of the 60 percent of the Israelis who already have them at home. No new kits will be distributed, however, and the two factories manufacturing them will focus on orders they received before the end of 2013: for the manufacture and supply of protective kits for “first responders” – i.e., security forces and rescue units.

The decision followed an intelligence assessment that the immediate risk to the civilian population had decreased substantially. However, since last month, new reports have arrived – which have not yet been verified absolutely – about additional cases of chemical-weapons use in Syria, apparently by the Assad regime. In one case, at the end of March, the report was confirmed by Israeli intelligence, though the weapons in question are of a type that causes paralysis and not death, as was the case with the ones used last year.

The security cabinet’s decision, in the wake of a recommendation by the Defense Ministry and the IDF, also has an economic component. The project of the gas masks never came with a budget to pay for it. Those in charge are probably tired of having to make a budgetary request anew every year, and leaped at the opportunity afforded by the change in Syria.

Still, the latest reports raise the question of whether the decision was not premature, and whether it would not have been better to wait a little longer to see the developments in Syria and the completion of the dismantlement of the chemical weapons stocks there, before it was made.

Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks in the Golan Heights near Israel's border with Syria March 19, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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