Hezbollah's Nasrallah: Next Confrontation With Israel Could Be Inside Israeli Territory

Hezbollah leader also says group is pulling back from Lebanon's eastern border with Syria, handing authority to Lebanese army

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in Teir Debba village, south Lebanon, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in Teir Debba village, south Lebanon, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. Credit: Mohammad Zaatari/AP
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah warned on Thursday that his group's next confrontation with Israel could take place within Israeli territory.

"Israel has been threatening for 10 years to open a front against Hezbollah, but it hasn't done anything. Israel is afraid of any confrontation because it could take place within its territory," Nasrallah said, speaking at an event marking the death of top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine.

Nasrallah added that Hezbollah was dismantling its military positions along the eastern Lebanese border with Syria. That area is calm, Nasrallah said, and responsibility for it will be handed over to the Lebanese army.

This was not the first time Nasrallah has threatened to invade Israel in a future war. The Israeli military, recognizing the improvements to Hezbollah in recent years, has gradually changed its approach to the militant Lebanese organization. When Nasrallah said he’d invade Israel's Galilee in the next war, the Israel Defense Forces top brass realized these weren't idle threats.

In the event of another confrontation, Hezbollah seems set on a swift incursion into northern Israel, in the hope of briefly seizing a town or a military base. With the experience Hezbollah has gained in the Syrian civil war, it’s now regarded by the IDF as an army in every respect, no longer a guerrilla organization.

Along with massive rocket fire into Israeli territory — all of which is now within range of Hezbollah’s rockets — the group might launch an attack, or a counter-attack along the border. Though the organization lacks the capacity to occupy the entire Galilee, it envisions simultaneous attacks on a number of bases and communities.

To that end it can deploy its Radwan special forces and focus its firepower on Israeli communities near the border. Alongside its short-range Katyusha rockets and mortar shells, Hezbollah has acquired hundreds of Burkan rockets with heavy warheads (up to half a ton) that can travel several kilometers.

To Hezbollah, a successful offensive would represent a psychological coup, one the IDF would have a hard time reversing even if it hit back hard. A sudden attack would also interfere with IDF troop movements along the border and could delay the call-up of reserve units and their progress toward the front.

This week, Haaretz reported that the Defense Ministry is set to begin installing a new fence along two stretches, several kilometers long, of Israel's border with Lebanon, similar to what Israel has on its Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian frontiers.

One officer who served near the Lebanese border called the existing border fencing “junk,” adding that the plans for the new fence were a key response to developments such as the establishment of the Radwan commandos by Hezbollah, which aims to be able to fight in Israel, not just in Lebanon.

The army has long been preparing for possible attempts to infiltrate Israeli communities near the border and has set up barriers in the area, including concrete slabs along the frontier. It has also changed the terrain to make it easier to spot anyone entering on foot. Barriers have been dug and additional border observation posts installed.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and stressed that "safe zones" in Syria must not allow Hezbollah or Iran to set up near the border with Israel.

A week ago, Russia, Turkey and Syria announced that four "safe zones" – or deescalation zones – would be set up in Syria where Russian and Syrian aircraft would not attack. These are areas that are under the control of rebels that are not identified with Islamic State militants or the Al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, and freedom of movement will be permitted in them as well as access to humanitarian aid.

The final location of the safe zones has yet to be finalized, but according to assessments one of the four will be on the border between Syria and Jordan, and it is also possible that the Golan Heights will be designated as such.

In principle, Netanyahu supports the idea of setting up "safe zones" in Syria. In early April, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu wants any future deal to end the war in Syria to include "buffer zones" on the border between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights, as well as the border between Syria and Jordan, to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from setting up bases there.

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