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Hezbollah Is in Crisis, but Peripheral Pressure May Push It to Act Against Israel

Nasrallah hasn't commented on Damascus incident attributed to Israel ■ IDF's preparations in recent days indicate a readiness for a possible response on northern border

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Syrian Air defences respond to Israeli missiles over Damascus, on July 20, 2020. One Hezbollah fighter was killed
Syrian Air defences respond to Israeli missiles over Damascus, on July 20, 2020. One Hezbollah fighter was killedCredit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

If anyone thought that the combination of a severe economic crisis, burgeoning social justice protests and the daily toll of new coronavirus patients and deaths were not dramatic enough, along comes the tension in the north to add a security component to this summer’s rather extreme blend. The current excuse for the tension is apparently an aerial attack in the Damascus area last week that has been attributed to Israel. A fighter from the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia movement was killed in the bombing.

Based on the “balance of deterrence” that the Shi’ite movement has publicly declared in recent years, a military response by Hezbollah could be expected, even if the fighter was killed in Syria in an action related mainly to the battle between Israel and Iran. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has not spoken publicly himself since the incident, but Lebanese media outlets, including those close to Hezbollah, have had a lot of speculation on the possibility of a reaction.

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The expectations that have been created increase the pressure on Hezbollah to act, even if the assessment in Israel is that it will attempt to respond in a limited fashion, so as not to drag the region into a military confrontation at a dangerous time. Hezbollah is mired in a severe political and military crisis, in light of Lebanon’s economic collapse, the increasing hostility towards the Shi’ite movement among other communities in the country and cuts in Iranian financial aid.

In two prominent cases in recent years – in January 2015 and September 2019 – Hezbollah chose to fire anti-tank missiles at military vehicles along the Lebanese border, in response to operations in which its people were killed in Syria. (The first incident resulted in two Israeli army deaths. The second did not cause casualties). Israel refrained from responding, in the process putting an end to the two rounds.

According to Israeli army assessments in recent days, the expectation in Israel is for a similar response. At first, the Northern Command was reinforced with another infantry battalion from the Golani Brigade. Later the troop presence in the positions next to the Lebanese border was reduced and several roads were closed to civilian traffic.

Israeli soldiers by their vehicles near the northern town of Rihaniya, near the border with Lebanon, July 24, 2020
Israeli soldiers by their vehicles near the northern town of Rihaniya, near the border with Lebanon, July 24, 2020Credit: AFP

That looks like preparations for possible anti-tank or sniper fire from the vicinity of the border. From past experience, the response could even be delayed by about 10 days until the right operational opportunity presents itself. On Saturday, it was reported in Lebanon that Israel sent a message to Hezbollah via the United Nations – that it hadn’t intended to kill a Hezbollah member in the attack, but also threatening a harsh response of its own if it is attacked.

In the meantime, there were two incidents on Friday on the Israeli-Syrian border that don’t appear to be a Hezbollah attempt at revenge, even if they are indirectly linked to the tension in the north. First anti-aircraft fire came from the village of Hader in Syria, hitting homes and a car in the town of Majdal Shams on the Israeli side of the border. The fire, which may have been directed at an Israeli army observation balloon, did not cause any injuries. Several hours later, air force helicopters attacked Syrian army positions near where the anti-aircraft fire came from.

An image grab taken from a video posted on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV website showing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, July 25, 2020
An image grab taken from a video posted on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV website showing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, July 25, 2020Credit: AFP

There is a larger regional confrontation simmering in the background. From its standpoint, Iran has not yet settled scores over two operations against it – the American assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January in Iraq and the mysterious explosion at the centrifuge plant in Iran at Natanz early this month. Last week Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, threatened the United States with revenge over Soleimani’s death, while unofficial Iranian sources have accused Israel of the Natanz explosion.

On Friday, in an unusual move during the coronavirus pandemic, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, visited Israel. He met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz as well as Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. It can be assumed that a considerable portion of the meetings dealt with policy towards Iran and Hezbollah.

The United States has stepped up the economic pressure on Iran and its allies over the past year. This is Milley’s second visit to Israel since he assumed his current position. The first visit occurred a few days prior to the assassination of Soleimani.

The prime minister’s situation

Most of the decisions being made regarding Iran and Hezbollah will ultimately be navigated not by Gantz or Kochavi but by Prime Minister Netanyahu. And Netanyahu, for whom Iran has been and remains the top strategic issue, is currently subject to a pressure campaign that is more intense than anything he has encountered in the past. Amid the controversy over Netanyahu’s remaining in office with serious criminal charges pending against him, insufficient attention appears to be paid to the fact that he continues to handle such sensitive issues while managing a rearguard battle against the judiciary and while, on a nightly basis, hearing demonstrators just outside his residence.

One case that has been somewhat forgotten, in light of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s refusal to investigate the prime minister in connection with it, involves the Israel Navy’s purchase of submarines and other naval vessels. A study published in June by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel disclosed important information on one of the most disturbing aspects of the case – the involvement of an intermediary, Michael Ganor, in pressuring the defense establishment not to interfere with a sale of submarines to Egypt.

Netanyahu got seriously tripped up with conflicting testimony over his role in the decision-making and over the question of whom he briefed in the course of things. This raises major questions on its own, mainly against the backdrop of the involvement in the transactions of his close adviser, lawyer and cousin, David Shimron, on behalf of Ganor.

Over the weekend, an ad appeared in Israeli newspapers calling for an official commission of inquiry regarding the submarines. The organizers of the advertisement say that 5,750 reserve army officers and commanders have signed onto the ad, including 10 reserve major generals.

A submarine model at a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in reference to the 'submarine affair'involving Netanyahu, July 20, 2020
מיצג של מחאת "הדגלים השחורים" על פרשת הצוללות מול מעון רה"מ בירושלים, בשבוע שעברCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There is one signatory who is particularly interesting: Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Adam, who until three months ago was the director general of the Defense Ministry. Although the case relates primarily to the period in which his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, was in the position, Adam’s decision to sign his name onto the appeal, is an indication that even on the top floors of the Defense Ministry, there is a strong stench.

On the sidelines of the protests, there was a lively debate on Friday over a Facebook post by Nir Adan, one of the demonstrators in front of the prime minister’s residence. Adan, who was formerly with the personal protection unit of the Shin Bet security service, recounted his personal acquaintance with Netanyahu from his service in the 1990s as his bodyguard. Adan took the prime minister to task for his current conduct, but he hinted that his opposition to Netanyahu was also based on his experiences with him in the past.

Adan has received backing from some fellow bodyguards, but others said it was a violation of duty of confidentiality of the bodyguards, who are exposed to the most intimate aspects of the lives of the people whom they guard. In the course of the cases in which Netanyahu has been implicated, there have been a number of demands to summon the testimony of his Shin Bet guards – who have certainly been exposed to some of the events that have been called into question. Attorney General Mendelblit has declined to do so, but paradoxically, Adan’s Facebook post plays to Netanyahu’s advantage because he can use it as part of his long campaign to undermine the official standing of the branches of government.

Just weeks ago, it should be recalled, Netanyahu waged a covert personal campaign against Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet, in an effort to shift the responsibility to him for the failures of the fight against the coronavirus due to Argaman’s opposition to renewed Shin Bet tracking of Israel’s cellphones. The tracking was designed to trace the whereabouts of infected individuals.

One might wager a guess that Argaman is not pleased about this latest turn on Facebook, which purportedly casts a lack of confidence of sorts in the presence of those guarding the prime minister.

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