The shock waves from the explosion of the chemical depot at the Beirut port will continue to reverberate in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s ears for a long time. They embarrass and will weaken the Shiite organization, which was already weakening due to the coronavirus and health care crisis, and Lebanon’s dire economic condition. Even if it’s unclear whether the warehouse and its contents belonged to Hezbollah, pressure from its opponents in Lebanon will mount. Calls for the organization to be disarmed are already being heard.
This mounting public sentiment and the shell-shocked feeling pervading the country may temporarily dampen the group’s appetite for provoking Israel, but the deadly blast is not likely to fundamentally alter the organization. Hezbollah’s entire raison d'être is “resistance” to Israel.
Besides, numerous rumors are already being bruited about Lebanon, including a conspiracy theory that pins the blame for the blast on Israel.
The two recent attempts to infiltrate Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria were clearly not based on some random whim, or any desire by Hezbollah or some other Shiite proxy of Iran to avenge this or that Israeli strike in Syria. There are signs indicating a change in strategy by Hezbollah, which feels that it is casting off the burden of its involvement in Syria and aspires to renew the friction with Israel.
However, the Israeli military and intelligence community still assess that what was is, is what will be – i.e., Israel will continue to strike Iranian targets in Syria at will, will take action to disrupt and thwart the transfer of parts to improve the precision of Hezbollah’s rockets that are hidden in houses and underground bunkers (Israel has intelligence on many of them), without having to pay a price for any of this.
Fourteen years ago this month, on August 12, 2006, an accord was reached on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to end the Second Lebanon War. The agreement stipulated that all the armed militias would be disarmed, that Israel and Lebanon would respect each other’s sovereignty, and that a large UN buffer force would be stationed on the Lebanese side of the border.
Israelis generally came to view this as a failed war, in large part due to the reporting by overzealous and shortsighted military analysts. The media, with the backing of then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, called for the heads of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.
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True, the war exposed the weakness of the Israeli home front and tactical errors in the military management of the campaign, but from a strategic perspective, the results were clearly among the best Israel has ever achieved.
Aside from a few sporadic incidents of rocket fire and exchanges of gunfire, the biggest achievement of the 2006 war, for which Olmert and Halutz deserve the credit, is that quiet has been maintained ever since. Hezbollah was so effectively deterred that Hassan Nasrallah even admitted that he erred in ordering the abduction of the soldiers that ended up dragging the parties to war.
But right after the war, both sides also quickly violated part of the agreement. Hezbollah did not disarm, and with Iran’s help, in fact began arming itself with new and improved longer-range rockets. Israel's warplanes continued to fly in Lebanese airspace.
Until 2013, two years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Israel tolerated the Iran-Hezbollah arms buildup, but then it began exploiting the chaos as the Israeli air force, relying on precise intelligence, started bombing weapons convoys from Iran to Hezbollah, and later also struck back against Al Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani’s efforts to build intelligence and missile bases and deploy forces near the Israeli border on the Golan Heights. As Israel upped its efforts to thwart the “Soleimani vision” (named for Qasem Soleimani, a general with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp who was assassinated in January 2020), it was helped by understandings with Russia and its readiness to turn a blind eye.
Israel can be proud that it succeeded to some degree. The terror and guerilla networks that Soleimani and Hezbollah established along the border, along with those of Samir Quntar and Jihad Mughniyeh (son of Imad Mughniyeh whose 2008 assassination has been attributed to Israel and the U.S.), were destroyed. In wake of pressure from Israel, the defeat of ISIS, the coronavirus, the economic crisis and Soleimani’s assassination in an American operation, Iran scaled back its presence in Syria.
Lebanon also descended into the worst economic crisis in its history, and Nasrallah’s standing seemingly suffered.
Yet even with matters at such a low point, he appears to feel emboldened. Nasrallah has effectively ruled Lebanon for 28 years, and after the deaths of Soleimani and Imad Mughniyeh, he became the sole dominant figure shaping policy regarding Iran-Syria-Israel and Hezbollah.
The return of Hezbollah fighters from Syria to Lebanon relieves the organization of the burden of the war in which 2,000 of its men were killed and thousands more were wounded. Lebanon may be in a state of profound crisis, but Nasrallah knows that Israel also has its economic travails and he smells the political weakness of Netanyahu’s government. Once the effects of the devastating blast at the Beirut port start to wane, Hezbollah will likely seek to resume the friction with Israel on the Lebanese and Syrian borders alike.
Israel’s conciliatory response is only whetting his appetite. Atypically, Israel hastened to deny any involvement in the disaster. That shows Israel does not want escalation and worries that Hezbollah will accuse it of responsibility and try to exploit the circumstances for a reprisal attack, such as firing a rocket at a chemical depot in Haifa Bay.
The Israeli military’s recent signals and moves – evacuating outposts and staging the evacuation of wounded soldiers, while refraining from striking Hezbollah militants – are interesting psychological warfare moves but they also project weakness and paint the Israel Defense Forces as the strongest army in the Middle East, that shies away from engagement.
Right now there is a balance of mutual deterrence. Neither side wants war. But the odds are growing that, once the shock of the blast in Beirut fades, Hezbollah will intensify its provocations and try to wear Israel down.