Analysis Brazen Hezbollah Renews Operations Along Israel Border

Israel must reexamine the prevailing assumption that Hezbollah is still deterred by the IDF following the 2006 war and is not interested in a confrontation.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, February 14, 2014.
Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, February 14, 2014. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A recent article in Al-Akhbar, the Lebanese newspaper considered close to Hezbollah, seems to back Israeli claims that the Shi’ite organization has resumed overt military activity along the Israeli border – a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006. This, along with taking responsibility for the two explosive devices that blew up on Mount Dov two weeks ago, may reflect a worrisome change in Hezbollah policy that in the long term could have problematic ramifications for Israel.

On October 7, Hezbollah activated two explosive devices alongside a group of the Golani Brigade’s Egoz unit and an Engineering Corps bomb squad operating along the Lebanese border. Two Israel Defense Forces sappers were wounded.

Hezbollah later announced that the operation was in response to the explosion of an Israeli spy installation that a Hezbollah sapper was trying to dismantle in south Lebanon on September 5.

Resolution 1701 (from August 2006) forbids armed Hezbollah fighters south of the Litani River. Hezbollah’s claim of responsibility for the explosion is a blatant admission that it violated the resolution, which until now the group had been careful to publicly uphold. In mid-September, the IDF distributed photos in which Hezbollah fighters could be seen near the border fence, presumably gathering intelligence on IDF troop movements.

The Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors Arab media outlets, posted on its website a translation of the article from Al-Akhbar that appeared on October 8, the day after the explosions. The article states that the group has resumed operations south of the Litani, similar to its operations between the years 2000-2006 after the IDF had withdrawn from the security zone.

The newspaper describes Hezbollah’s activities as a necessary response to the joint efforts by Israel and Sunni opposition groups on the Golan Heights working to depose the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The report, based on unidentified Lebanese sources, claims that Israel has intensified its cooperation with various opposition groups (including, it claims, even the Nusra Front, the extremist Sunni group identified with Al-Qaida). It warns that Israel is encouraging Sunni extremists to enter Lebanon through the Hermon region, and that it is planning to stir up residents of the Syrian Druze villages near Mount Hermon, which are trying to stay neutral in the civil war.

The argument is that Israeli meddling in events in the tri-border region obligates Hezbollah to take extraordinary defensive measures. Accordingly, the explosive devices planted at Mount Dov were aimed at an IDF tank and were meant to warn Israel that it would pay a price for changing the rules of the game in Lebanon.

The explosive charges that went off on Mount Dov were more sophisticated and deadly than those Hezbollah detonated there in March, when an IDF vehicle was damaged but there were no casualties. If the IDF forces had not acted carefully when approaching the devices this time, the incident could have ended with several deaths.

These developments require that Israel reexamine the prevailing assumption that Hezbollah is still deterred by the IDF following the 2006 war, is further deterred by Israel’s display of military prowess in Gaza this summer, and, in general, is not interested in a confrontation with Israel because it is deeply entrenched in the Shi’ite-Sunni wars in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

But the recent explosions were a gamble for Hezbollah. Assuming the group’s leadership expected the attack to succeed, it means Hezbollah was prepared to absorb at least one round of violence with Israel (based on its expected response to the deaths of its soldiers), if not an all-out war. This indicates Hezbollah’s self-confidence is growing, probably because its fighters are accumulating valuable battle experience in the Syrian civil war.

There could be other reasons for Hezbollah’s actions. It might want to deflect attention from the internal struggles in Lebanon, in which the group has suffered losses at the hands of extremist Sunni groups like Islamic State. Hezbollah might also have been trying to establish a new deterrent balance with Israel, so the latter will stop attacking the group in Lebanese territory.

Israeli forces near Mount Dov on October 7, 2014. Credit: Gil Eliyahu

According to the U.S. administration and Arab media, over the past two years the Israel Air Force has attacked several weapons convoys going from Syria to Lebanon; the most recent time, last February, the attack was on Lebanese soil. Now Hezbollah has raised the bar, Israel may have to rethink how to respond in the future.

The question remains: what did Hezbollah expect to achieve with a direct attack on the IDF like the one at Mount Dov? Is the military experience it has gained in Syria being translated into new combat techniques and a different battle plan if there’s a flare-up with Israel? How will the group approach such a campaign, given its massive rearming with short-term rockets with large warheads over the past year – a move that could be evidence of a readiness to heavily bombard the border region?

A whole line of senior Israeli defense officials say they do not, at this stage, see any change in Hezbollah’s interests or plans, and maintain that the group is not seeking a confrontation with the IDF. Still, it’s hard to forget that overconfidence led Hezbollah to make a bad move in 2006, when it kidnapped reserve soldiers on the border and sparked a war. One can’t rule out the possibility that such bad judgment could repeat itself.

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