Reported Blast of Israeli Listening Device a Reminder of Hezbollah Power Struggle

The danger is that despite Hezbollah's regional entanglements, and the fact that Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for the Marjayoun incident, Hezbollah will seek retaliation.

An surveillance device that exploded in southern Lebanon on December 1, 2015.
Screenshot

The isolated incident the occurred in south Lebanon on Tuesday – the explosion of a device attributed to Israel by the local media – offered a reminder of the fluidity and sensitivity of the situation there.

According to reports from Lebanon, a bulldozer doing routine construction work accidentally hit an Israeli listening post near the town of Marjayoun, which served as headquarters for the Israeli troops stationed in south Lebanon until Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. The resultant explosion injured two people.

This wasn’t the first incident of its kind. The Lebanese have reported uncovering what they described as Israeli listening posts several times in the past. In one case, in September 2014, a Hezbollah sapper was killed trying to dismantle such a facility, apparently because it was booby-trapped with explosives.

The basic situation in Lebanon hasn’t changed in three years. Hezbollah is up to its neck in the Syrian civil war, where it continues to expend fighters and other resources in an effort to preserve the Assad regime, on orders from its Iranian patron. Thus it’s currently hard to see any reason why Hezbollah would seek a military confrontation with Israel; the life-and-death battle for Assad’s future has top priority. Nor does Israel have any interest in a military conflict with Hezbollah right now. 

Nevertheless, a delicate and complex power game is being played there, as Hezbollah tries to maintain a balance of deterrence against what it views as Israeli attempts to intervene in its own backyard. The organization accuses Israel of three operations in Lebanon since December 2013 – the assassination of senior Hezbollah military commander Hassan Lakkis in Beirut, the bombing of an arms convoy near the Syrian border and the listening post incident in September 2014 – as well as one significant strike against it in Syria: the assassination of Jihad Mughniyeh and an Iranian general in the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights in January. 

In all these cases, Hezbollah opted for retaliation, albeit a measured one. For instance, it responded to the listening post incident with a bombing in Har Dov that wounded several soldiers. 

This, therefore, is the danger now as well: that despite its regional entanglements, and the fact that Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for the Marjayoun incident, Hezbollah will try to retaliate. Its media organs are already blaming Israel for the explosion.

Meanwhile, with no connection to this incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unusually explicit acknowledgement on Tuesday of the fact that Israel conducts airstrikes in Syria on arms convoys destined for Hezbollah and is also aggressively countering efforts by Hezbollah and Iran to perpetrate attacks against Israel in the Golan. Hitherto, Israel has generally followed a policy of ambiguity, refusing either to confirm or deny responsibility for such strikes, on the grounds that this policy has largely proven effective in preventing unwanted escalation. But in his speech at the Galilee Develop Authority’s annual conference, Netanyahu deviated from his generally cautious and responsible conduct of events on the northern front.

Perhaps he just can’t help himself. As far back as when he was leader of the opposition 20 years ago, Netanyahu was accused of letting military secrets slip when he revealed the army’s positions on security arrangements under a possible peace deal with Syria (the so-called Stauber document). Then, in September 2007, he declared in a television interview that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had consulted him before bombing the Syrian nuclear reactor – a strike for which Israel hadn’t officially acknowledged responsibility. And just this week, a petition was filed to the High Court of Justice demanding an investigation into who leaked information about a military briefing to the diplomatic-security cabinet in August 2014, at the height of the Gaza war; Netanyahu was opposed to reconquering the Gaza Strip, and the army estimated that doing so would entail mass Israeli casualties.

But there could also be another reason for his comments on Tuesday. For two months now, Israel has faced a wave of murderous Palestinian terror for which it has yet to find an effective response. Thus Netanyahu’s unnecessary remarks on the Syrian issue may have stemmed from a desire to bolster Israelis’ sense of security a bit.