Note to Nasrallah and to Netanyahu: Threats Are Cheap

Amid all the posturing in the wake of Samir Kuntar’s death is a risk that the tough talk will escalate into military action.

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A Lebanese Shi'ite woman weeps as she holds a portrait of Hezbollah high-profile militant Samir Kuntar, December 21, 2015.
A Lebanese Shi'ite woman weeps as she holds a portrait of Hezbollah high-profile militant Samir Kuntar, December 21, 2015.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel traded threats with its neighbors this week as though it were 1967, or 1956. But on the other side of the border these days isn’t a Syrian dictator, but rather two extremist organizations that play on both sides of the Sunni-Shi’ite rift which is at the heart of the bloodshed that has been destroying the Arab world for the past five years.

The leaders of the Shi’ite Hezbollah and the Sunni Islamic State organizations made time in their busy schedule of reciprocal slaughter in Syria, Iraq and occasionally Lebanon to launch explicit threats in the direction of Israel. In the case of Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah, there was a specific account to close with Israel, over the assassination of the Druze-Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a more general threat, to the effect that his forces will soon meet the “Jews in Palestine.”

Israel and Hezbollah have traded threats frequently since their last war, in summer 2006. But despite Nasrallah’s bellicose rhetoric and Israel’s consistent characterization of Hezbollah as an aggressor, the organization actually seems to be implementing a very cautious policy. Most of its military activities are geared toward the future, to a buildup for another major confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces rather than cross-border attacks in the near term. According to foreign media reports, Israel initiated most of the attacks on the northern front in the last decade, despite not generally claiming responsibility for them.

These reported attacks, include the 2007 bombing of a nuclear installation in northeast Syria, the 2008 assassinations of a Syrian general and of senior Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, a series of aerial attacks in the past three years on arms convoys to Hezbollah, in Syria (and in Lebanon on one occasion); the assassinations of Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis in Beirut in December 2013 and of Mughniyeh’s son Jihad and an Iranian general on the Golan Heights in January 2015 and Kuntar’s assassination near Damascus in December.

Hezbollah, sometimes with Iran, first tried to wage war against Israel abroad, in a long series of unsuccessful terror attacks against Israeli targets in Asia and Europe. In July 2012, five Israelis and one Bulgarian were killed and 32 Israelis were wounded in a suicide bombing carried out by Hezbollah in Bulgaria. Only in the past two years has the organization dared launch reciprocal attacks on Israel’s northern border. Most were conducted from the Syrian Golan Heights, in some cases through the network headed by Kuntar. It was only after the death of Jihad Mughniyeh last January that Hezbollah began operating out of Lebanon, firing anti-tank missiles later that month that killed two Israeli officers.

Measured responses

In most of the previous rounds of tension, Hezbollah threatened and later responded to actions it attributed to Israel, but was careful not to lose control of the situation entirely. Its relatively measured military responses apparently reflected the memory of being burned in 2006.

Although the Second Lebanon War ended in a kind of tie and although Nasrallah makes sure to describe it as a great victory — a narrative that will be repeated even more forcefully in July, on the war’s 10th anniversary — Hezbollah apparently has no illusions about the damage it is liable to suffer, along with all of Lebanon, especially its Shi’ite population, in another war.

The most recent war was a result of a dual mistake: Nasrallah’s hasty decision to kidnap Israeli reservists and the impulsive response of the government of Ehud Olmert, most of whose members did not fully recognize that they were voting to go to war. Hezbollah has generally been careful since then, while still taking some risks. In January’s ambush, five or six anti-tank missiles were fired, one of which hit its target. More Israeli casualties could have led to a war no one wanted. As it was, Israel made do with the inevitable barrage fired into Lebanese territory, and escalation was avoided.

Almost a lightweight

Compared to Imad and Jihad Mughniyeh and to his son, as well as to Laqis, Kuntar was almost a lightweight. He did not really belong to Hezbollah, but was adopted by Nasrallah as a symbol and to keep up the fight against Israel over the Lebanese prisoners being held here. After Kuntar was released in 2008, in exchange for the bodies of Israelis Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, he was initially hired to speak at Hezbollah conventions. He was later tapped to head a Druze terror network on the Golan Heights — which switched patrons a few years ago, apparently due to dissatisfaction in Hezbollah with its performance.

But assessments of Kuntar’s marginal importance to Hezbollah could turn out to be mistaken. Since his death, two weeks ago, Nasrallah has twice given speeches in memory of Kuntar, not to mention the Hezbollah leader’s threatened vengeance against Israel. The warnings might have been part of Hezbollah’s efforts to reestablish some balance of deterrence against Israel, after what the organization sees as Israel’s crossing of red lines. But in any case, it’s clear that two public threats are already obligating Hezbollah to respond, even if in a limited manner.

Israel is also taking these things seriously. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to respond forcefully if Israel is attacked. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, whose media presence is usually very limited, this week broke a personal record for public appearances. In two speeches at military ceremonies, on Sunday and Monday, the chief of staff declared that the Israel Defense Forces is prepared for any challenge and will attack “all those who wish us ill.” Two days later he was photographed during a visit with the commander of the 91st Division, Brig. Gen. Amir Baram, examining the preparedness of the forces in the Lebanese sector.

Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold said in an interview on a Saudi website that Israel prevented the smuggling of Russian SA-22 surface-to-air missiles from Syria to Hezbollah. Gold did not explain when that happened, but even the rare statement, at the height of the tension surrounding Kuntar, signaled Israel’s intention and capability in the northern sector. What does Nasrallah’s intelligence officer understand from all that? That Israel is determined and that if necessary will respond aggressively, but apparently also that Israel is feeling quite pressured by the developments.

Gilad Reich, an Israeli scholar at The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, last month published an article about the “cold war” between Israel and Hezbollah after the nuclear deal with Iran.

Cracks in the Hezbollah-Iran front

Reich argues that the agreement will have a huge influence on the balance of power between Israel and its rivals in Lebanon and Syria. The immediate result will actually be a reduced risk of an all-out war on the northern front, because the option of an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear sites (followed by Hezbollah’s activating Iran against Israel) is no longer on the agenda.

He says that now gaps are developing between the interests of Hezbollah and those of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. While the Iranians are interested in harassing and challenging Israel along the borders, Hezbollah wants first and foremost to maintain its status as the leading military and political entity in Lebanon, and to preserve what the organization describes as Lebanese stability.

Reich, whose short and fascinating article was apparently published before the assassination of Kuntar, writes that Israel and Hezbollah are engaged in long-running mind games, waged by means of public speeches and covert activities. What is not being done enough, in his opinion, is making use of diplomatic channels — which both sides will need in order to cool off periodical tensions and to quickly end a major war should it erupt in future.

He believes that today’s diplomatic tools are not effective enough and that even in the event of war, the international community will react slowly and too late, after a great deal of damage has been caused. He believes that there is a need for a covert mediation channel, which would be activated indirectly in time of need with the help of countries such as Russia and the United States. At the moment that looks like an idea that the sides will have time to examine only after completing the present round of attack and revenge.

Compared to Nasrallah’s threats, the audiotape by Islamic State leader Baghdadi that was released last week but was apparently recorded earlier, sounded less concrete. According to the accepted wisdom in Israel, Israeli targets are not a particularly high priority for the Islamic State at present, which is now mired in holding actions against its rivals in Syria and Iraq, while at the same time initiating and directing from a distance revenge attacks against the great powers that are fighting it, like those perpetrated in November in Sinai (the blowing up of the Russian tourist plane), in Paris and in California.

In the main sectors where Islamic State is trying to gain control, the organization is experiencing quite a number of failures. The most recent was the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi into the hands of government troops this week. The defeat in Ramadi joins the previous loss of territorial assets in Iraq and northern Syria, the killing of relatively high-placed activists in American attacks, and mainly a tremendous loss of oil installations and tankers (a major source of income) in Russian aerial bombings. All that does not mean that Islamic State is not continuing to fight and to rely on Sunni volunteers who continue to join its ranks, from Arab countries and from Europe.

On the borders, Israel is keeping track of Islamic State activity on two fronts — on the southern Golan Heights and along the Egyptian border in Sinai. In the triangle of the borders with Jordan and Syria there are about 600 fighters from Shuhada al-Yarmouk (the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade), a local faction that swore allegiance to Islamic State about a year ago and whose members have light weapons and anti-tank missiles, along with tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Another potential risk is the activity of the Nusra Front, the faction identified with Al-Qaida that controls a larger area of the Syrian Golan Heights by means of alliances with other Sunni organizations, and is fighting at the same time against both Shuhada al-Yarmouk and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. For the Nusra Front, Israel is not a high priority, but its ideological hatred of Israel is blatant and Israeli intelligence does not discount a future showcase attack by the organization from the direction of the border.

The southern front

The more worrisome scenario is from the southern border, where Wilayat Sinai, which is identified with Islamic State, controls relatively large areas. The organization has already demonstrated excellent combat capability in actions against the Egyptian army.

Added to these risks is the growing influence of the Islamic State inside Israel, on Arab youth in the Galilee and the Triangle and on Bedouin in the Negev.

The Islamic State’s territorial assets are less dangerous than its ideological influence. The numbers are still small. The Shin Bet security service and the police have arrested several dozen people suspected of Islamic State-related activity. But if the organization is able, mainly via the Internet, to recruit and activate young people with Israeli citizenship for the purpose of carrying out attacks, as in the case of the couple responsible for the massacre in the community center in San Bernardino, California — it would consider that its real achievement.

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