Analysis |

Nasrallah Boasts About Stretching the Israeli Army to the Limit. He’s Not Wrong

The Israeli public and media may have forgotten, but Hezbollah is still hell-bent on exacting revenge for the killing of an operative in July

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers and 155-mm self-propelled howitzers near the Lebanese border, August 26, 2020.
Israeli soldiers and 155-mm self-propelled howitzers near the Lebanese border, August 26, 2020.Credit: Jalaa Marey / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The high alert on the northern border has been in force for more than a month and a half. Under the flood of other news, it’s not the main thing on the mind of the Israeli public and media.

Hezbollah has tried twice to avenge the death of an operative killed in July in a bombing raid at Damascus Airport that was attributed to Israel, but these attempts were scuttled on the Lebanese border. A third attempt, apparently initiated by Iran to settle a different score, was foiled on the border with Syria in the Golan Heights.

The devastating explosion at the Beirut port on August 4 completely changed the agenda in Lebanon. But very quickly it became clear that it had no effect on the plans of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who is determined to kill an Israeli soldier before declaring a return to calm on the border.

Nasrallah is trying to hold the rope at both ends. He denies the Israeli reports about the foiling of attempted attacks, but is proud that the Israeli army is so tense waiting for Hezbollah’s response.

His first claim is a blatant lie, but the second isn’t far from the truth. The alert along the border has been long and nerve-racking, taking up the time of Military Intelligence as well, far beyond what Israelis might think. The army is continuing to call up reservist officers to reinforce command posts, to deploy relatively large forces in the north and to keep its distance from the fence. It doesn’t want to provide Hezbollah with a target for an attack.

The containment policy was decided at the very top, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and army chief Aviv Kochavi.

In the first incident, when Hezbollah sent three fighters to cross the border and open fire on an outpost on Har Dov (Shaba Farms), Israel mounted a “warning attack” from the air, so the intruders hustled back across the border. And after sniper fire that missed an intelligence force near Kibbutz Manara, the army responded with an attack on empty Hezbollah positions.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gives a televised speech following the blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 7, 2020. Credit: Reuters

For the most part since the Second Lebanon War 14 years ago, Nasrallah has made sure not to cross red lines against Israel. He was reprimanded by his Iranian patrons for his decision that launched the war – to abduct two badly wounded reservists who later died, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. In doing so, Nasrallah endangered Tehran’s interests.

But this time, despite the earlier failures, the Israeli warnings and the explosion at the port, Hezbollah is going its own way, apparently in the belief that it can afford the price it will pay when the Israelis respond. Nasrallah is ready to take a risk because he believes Israel is no more keen for an escalation than he is.

More than Hezbollah’s honor is at stake here. For years, Israel has been waging a war between the wars in the north, one of whose goals is to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Nasrallah establishes a new balance of threats, amid a willingness to take higher risks, he can also influence moves attributed to Israel in Syria.

Under Nasrallah’s formula of deterrence, for every Lebanese death  in an Israeli attack, even if it occurs in Syria, Hezbollah will mount a response. Nasrallah’s temptation lies in stretching the equation to force Israel to think three times before every attack in Syria. He already believes he’s scoring points by keeping Israeli forces pinned down in the north.

Netanyahu likes to boast about the close strategic and military cooperation with the Trump administration. Several times he has praised the president for his decision in January to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.

The United States is indeed pursuing an aggressive line against Tehran while gradually stepping up the sanctions pressure. But, like Israel, the Americans have to protect themselves against a possible response to the offensive moves they’ve made.

The commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, told The Wall Street Journal this week that since the Soleimani assassination he has had to divert resources from the battle against the Islamic State in order to protect his troops from Iranian revenge in Iraq.

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