Analysis |

As Hezbollah Takes Heat for Beirut Blast, Israel Takes Calculated Risk

Port disaster changed Lebanon's internal agenda, making it difficult for Hezbollah to justify acting against Israel ■ Defense officials view renewed launch of incendiary balloons from Gaza as a message from Hamas to Israel and Qatar

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Lebanese protester amid clashes with security forces near the parliament building in Beirut, August 11, 2020.
A Lebanese protester amid clashes with security forces near the parliament building in Beirut, August 11, 2020.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The shock waves of the Beirut port explosion are continuing to produce casualties, in the political arena as well. On Monday, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the resignation of his entire cabinet. But it is doubtful whether the consequences of the multidimensional disaster will end there.

The growing popular protests seem to signal an expectation for changing the rules of the game that run the country. This is based on the realization that the disaster is in part the indirect result of the political paralysis and the severe economic crisis afflicting the country of late.

The convulsions in Lebanon have gradually had an effect on Israel’s approach to its neighbor, leading to a slow and cautious lowering of its state of alert along the northern border. Since the death of a Hezbollah operative in an attack attributed to the Israeli Air Force at the Damascus airport on July 21, the Israel Defense Forces has instituted an increased level of alert along the border, in light of the intelligence assessments concerning a possible Hezbollah response.

But the disaster in the port on August 4 totally changed the internal agenda in Lebanon. It seems that it will now make it harder for Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah to justify an operation against Israel that could further complicate things.

Hassan Nasrallah in an interview aired by al-Manar TV on July 12, 2019.Credit: AFP

This lies behind the decision of the IDF General Staff on Monday to thin some of its forces along the Lebanese border, allow soldiers to go on leave and reopen the roads near the border fence to IDF vehicles. The two attempted attacks that came before the port disaster – one by a Hezbollah unit on Har Dov and the other by a group that seems to have been directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the Syrian border on the Golan Heights – were thwarted. The army is taking a calculated risk, but is still not returning fully to the situation that existed along its borders before July 21.

In Nasrallah’s speech last weekend, he spoke little about Israel – except for the somewhat dubious claim that his organization knows better what is going in the Haifa port than what is happening in the port of Beirut. In fact, Hezbollah was active and involved in a great number of incidents in the Lebanese capital’s port – the same way it is involved behind the scenes at the Beirut airport.

Nonetheless, it is best to view with caution some of the claims reported in Israel regarding Hezbollah’s links to the explosion of the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate in the port. The disaster testifies to corruption, negligence and paralysis of the Lebanese government – all phenomena closely related to the ongoing crisis in Lebanon for which Hezbollah shares responsibility. This is enough of an indictment against the Shi’ite organization, which is facing harsh criticism from the public. So far there has been no proof linking Hezbollah directly to the explosion.

Despite the rift between Likud and Kahol Lavan, which could very well lead to a new election soon, it seems that the two main parts of the Israeli government are still coordinated as to the policy in the north. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the telephone on Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron. Netanyahu has leveraged the explosion to demand the removal of Hezbollah’s explosives and missiles from civilian population centers in Lebanon. He also warned Hezbollah, in a message he sent through Macron, about attempting a military escalation on the Israeli front in the hopes of drawing attention away from the internal Lebanese crisis.

IDF soldiers in the northern Golan Heights, July 27, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Fireworks are set off in front of police officers during anti-government protests, Beirut, August 10, 2020Credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who toured the Lebanese border on Tuesday with foreign ambassadors, called for more countries to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Ashkenazi added another message, in advance of the annual discussion in the United Nations over renewing the mandate of the UNIFIL force. These UN forces are unable to carry out their mandate in southern Lebanon, said Ashkenazi. He repeated the Israeli claim which the international community has been ignoring since 2006, that UNIFIL soldiers are afraid to conduct searches for weapons in the villages in southern Lebanon because of Hezbollah threats.

Dr. Shimon Shapira, who specializes in studying Hezbollah, told Haaretz that another issue that Israel needs to insist on concerns the international aid that will be sent to Lebanon in the wake of the disaster. “A large part of the money that Lebanon receives from overseas in the end reaches Hezbollah’s hands,” says Shapira, a brigadier general in the reserves who served in senior positions in Military Intelligence. “The Americans must be aware of this and ensure that Hezbollah is kept away from the handling of the rehabilitation. Otherwise, it will be a rerun of the rehabilitation of southern Lebanon after the Second Lebanon War, in which Iran took advantage of the situation to deepen its influence and strengthen Hezbollah,” he said.

Gaza, too

As often happens, the minute the tensions in the north calm down a bit, it begins to heat up in the south. After a long period of quiet, the Palestinians have restarted launching incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip into the fields of Israeli communities near Gaza. On Tuesday, dozens of such balloons were recorded and they caused fires all along the border. Defense officials attribute these renewed operations to the double message Hamas is sending – to two different targets.

A demonstrator holds a shield during a protest following Tuesday's blast, in Beirut, August 8, 2020.Credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS
Fire sparked by explosive-laden balloon flown from Gaza, The Israeli side of the border, August 7, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The first message is directed at Qatar, whose commitment to provide a monthly delivery of $30 million to Gaza ended last month. The second message was intended for Israel, which has slowed down the handling of infrastructure projects agreed upon in indirect contacts between the sides at the beginning of this year. This slowdown seems in part to be related to the deadlock over the question of the return of the two Israeli civilians and two bodies of IDF soldiers still being held in Gaza.

The IDF attacked an empty Hamas observation post on the border and closed the crossing for goods at Kerem Shalom on Tuesday to warn Hamas not to go too far. On Tuesday, Netanyahu warned Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad of the “harsh results and very heavy price” they would pay if the attacks continue. This warning was given with F-16 warplanes in the background at the Hatzor air force base, where Netanyahu was visiting. It once again demonstrated the balance of forces between the two sides: Fighter jets on one side and balloons on the other – giving Netanyahu’s word an unintended comic dimension.

Beaches and breaches

If any more proof is needed that the territories are being run according to a strange and illogical system of rules, then we got it with the IDF’s announcement Tuesday that it was sending a battalion to reinforce the breaches between the seam line and the West Bank. The announcement did not mention a reason for the exceptional reinforcement, but it was apparently triggered by reports early in the week that the IDF was purposely ignoring the entry of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank who snuck in in order to have a good time on Israeli beaches.

The IDF allowed this to happen to release some of the tension in the West Bank, but it seems the decision caused embarrassment for the army, especially in the eyes of the politicians, who are busy looking tough toward the Palestinians. The result: A demonstrative show of reinforcements that will not help much security-wise – to truly seal the seam line much larger numbers of troops are needed. The latest reinforcements will certainly be thinned out again soon, when no one is paying attention.

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