The unusual tour for journalists that Hezbollah held along the Lebanese-Israeli border on Thursday seemed like the organization’s attempt to respond to its critics at home, and at the same time to maintain deterrence against the Israeli army. With a good deal of Hezbollah’s military forces invested in protecting the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and suffering as it is from a severe economic crisis, it’s good to remind Lebanese citizens who the real enemy is.
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The Hezbollah military operative who led the tour told the journalists that Israel fears the organization and is therefore entrenching itself. As proof, he showed them the massive fortifications the IDF has dug in recent years.
The logic in these entrenchments is clear: Since Hezbollah has upgraded the capabilities of its commando units in the war in Syria, more obstacles should be put up to prevent a possible strike at a particular point that could escalate on both sides into war. In general, it seems that life is quite comfortable in the Hezbollah PR department: For years, all of the IDF’s actions in Lebanon were presented as proof of Israel’s belligerent intentions. Now that the army is fortifying the border, it is proof that the Jews are afraid. Either way, it’s clear that Israel is to blame.
While Hezbollah is shifting the spotlight to the border with Lebanon, the picture in Syria is mixed at best, although Hezbollah is part of the camp that supports the Syrian regime that over the past year has regained the upper hand. A senior IDF officer said last week he believed Hezbollah has so far seen more than 1,700 of its fighters killed and 7,000 wounded in the fighting in Syria. Some 8,000 Hezbollah fighters, nearly 30 percent of its forces, are deployed permanently in Syria.
Hezbollah has gained extensive and valuable experience thanks to close contact with Russian instructors working alongside the Assad regime and with officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Nevertheless, the organization is fatigued. Assad is moving forward and taking back territory, mainly thanks to Russian air support, but the battle is moving slowly and none of the forces assisting the Assad regime is eager to sacrifice fighters in bloody urban battles.
The senior IDF officer made an interesting comparison. In 2006, the IDF had also convinced itself that its situation was excellent after it was able to rein in the second intifada, but then it discovered in the Second Lebanon War that its capabilities were not up to the next challenge. In other words, there is a difference between Hezbollah’s continuous fighting against the stubborn rebel forces in Syria and facing another round against the Israel Air Force and IDF intelligence and technology.
But it seems Hezbollah’s biggest difficulty is economic. Iran has greatly reduced its financial assistance while Hezbollah’s expenses have risen due its support of the families of the dead and wounded in the Syrian war. Meanwhile, the generation of fighters who fought against the IDF back in the days of the security zone in southern Lebanon has retired and expects financial support. And in Lebanon, and even among the Shi’ites, debate goes on over the value of sending Hezbollah fighters to Syria considering the heavy losses this entails.
The unusual journalists’ tour given by Hezbollah caused quite a bit of embarrassment in Beirut. Prime Minister Saad Hariri quickly took his own tour in southern Lebanon together with the Lebanese defense minister and army chief of staff, emphasizing that his government is the sovereign.
Senior Israeli figures have recently taken advantage of Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s statement that Hezbollah is part of the forces defending Lebanon, using it to threaten that the Lebanese army would also be a target in the next war. Now Hezbollah undercuts the government’s sovereignty along the border and at the same time is caught in an open breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 by bringing journalists to meet with armed fighters in uniform south of the Litani River. It’s true that Hezbollah, Syria and Lebanon have thumbed their noses at the resolution for years now, but this time the Shi’ite group was caught doing so openly.
For Israel, this unwise provocation comes at a good time. On the day the journalists’ tour took place, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said in the Security Council that Iran and Hezbollah are the main offenders in the Middle East and promised that the United States would work against them. On Thursday, in an interview on Fox News, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he believed the Trump administration should “repeal or replace” the nuclear agreement with Iran. The new U.S. administration is behaving in the international arena with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop, but at least as far as its positions on Iran and Hezbollah, the Netanyahu government hopes that the new, rough wind blowing from Washington will help advance Israel’s interests.