Gaza this summer was a reminder, if anyone needed it, that even when both sides in a conflict are not interested in total conflagration, an escalation often has a dynamic of its own. Mindful of this, Hezbollah has kept to a low profile its constant presence on Israel’s northern border.
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Tuesday’s improvised explosive device attack on an Israel Defense Forces patrol near the meeting point of the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria, on Mount Dov, was not surprising; the fact that Hezbollah was quick to take responsibility certainly was.
The Lebanese militia has been heavily involved in the fighting in Syria’s civil war, on the Assad regime’s side, for three years, and has sustained hundreds of casualties there. At the same time, it has been forced to dedicate considerable forces to protecting its own Shi’ite strongholds within Lebanon from retaliatory attacks by Sunni groups.
While its arsenal of 100,000 rockets is still aimed at targets in Israel, it is in no shape right now for a prolonged battle with the Israel Defense Forces.
So why did it claim responsibility for the blasts that moderately wounded two Israeli soldiers?
Hezbollah’s television station Al-Manar TV Lebanon claimed the attack was carried out in retribution for the death of an explosives expert for the organization last month while trying to dismantle an Israeli listening device last month, allegedly by an Israeli air strike. But Hezbollah had the men and the means: Why did it wait a month? And if it is so eager to exact revenge, then why has it not yet done so for the 2008 death in Damascus of its operations chief, Imad Mughniyeh, in what is widely believed to have been a Mossad hit? And why publicize the fact that it was its men who laid the IEDs when in the past it stayed mum?
Not that Hezbollah lacks reasons, real and imagined, to get even with Israel, but in this case they almost certainly had little interest in causing a large number of IDF casualties. The attack seems to have been calculated to achieve a moderate physical impact, not enough to provoke a massive response by Israel, which is no mood for another big military operation right now, so soon after Gaza, but just enough to allow them to take responsibility and remind the Lebanese and the wider Arab world that they are still “the resistance.”
That is why the attack took place near Shaba Farms, which Lebanon claims as its sovereign territory, and two days after the IDF fired at suspicious movements across the border in Lebanon. More than anything else, this was a PR operation, an exercise in face-saving in which Hezbollah tried to reclaim a bit of the prestige it enjoyed in the previous decade when it claimed to have “beaten” Israel in south Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s military success in the 2006 Second Lebanon War looks a lot less impressive as time passes and it is clear how hesitant it is to confront Israel again. If anything, it can consider the battles it has fought in Syria these past three years a much more significant victory. With Iran’s logistical support, Hezbollah has played a central role in ensuring the survival until now of President Bashar Assad’s rule over large parts of Syria. But that has come at a price to the movement’s standing in the Arab world, certainly by most Sunnis, who now view Hezbollah as a mortal enemy, and even by many Shi’ites in Lebanon who see the militants as a liability, endangering their communities and destroying their relations with their neighbors.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who eight years after the Second Lebanon War still spends most of his days hidden away in a bunker, has claimed in recent speeches and television appearances that Hezbollah is “defending Lebanon” by fighting in Syria, but as far as most Lebanese are concerned he has only brought more them more chaos and bloodshed. Tuesday’s attack was a forlorn attempt to redeem Hezbollah in the eyes of the Lebanese public and to don once again the mantle of “the resistance.”