In the psychological war between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel launched a preemptive strike Thursday. Through a series of statements it revealed a significant change along the Lebanese border: Hezbollah is now openly violating UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which set the rules between the sides following the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Israel accuses the UN Interim Force in Lebanon of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s actions.
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Resolution 1701 forbade Hezbollah to maintain any military presence south of the Litani River. The Shi’ite organization has ignored it almost from day one, deploying its forces in villages throughout southern Lebanon, albeit usually in civilian clothes and with weapons concealed. It has also built a vast network of command posts, operations rooms and arms caches in these villages.
In 2007, when UNIFIL tried to monitor what was happening, a roadside bomb exploded next to a Spanish battalion’s patrol vehicle, killing six soldiers. The message came through loud and clear. After that, UNIFIL’s curiosity declined precipitously.
But over the past year, Hezbollah has done something new. Under cover of the environmental group Green Without Borders, it set up 15 new lookout posts near the Israeli border.
On Thursday, Israel protested this in a letter to the United Nations. It also disseminated pictures of Hezbollah members near the border. Finally, Military Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi said in speech at the Herzliya Conference that “Hezbollah is within a stone’s throw of the border” and urged UNIFIL to stop hiding its head in the sand.
A senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces’ Northern Command told Haaretz that UNIFIL has gone from being “an organization whose job was to enforce Resolution 1701 to a fig leaf for it.” He added that Hezbollah’s advance toward the border took place in close cooperation with the Lebanese army, especially its intelligence units.
Hezbollah’s move appears to be an attempt to restore the situation along the border to what it was before the 2006 war. At that time, a network of lookout posts let the organization keep close track of activity by IDF forces and helped it plan the abduction of two IDF reservists near Zarit, the incident that started the war.
Today as well, setting up a network of lookout posts could help Hezbollah gather both defensive intelligence and intelligence for use in preparing future attacks. But the posts seem to be intended as a challenge to Israel and proof that the organization no longer pays any heed to UNIFIL.
Halevi also confirmed another development on Thursday, one previously reported by the Arab media: In Lebanon, Iran is setting up workshops to produce precision weapons. It did the same for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran’s goal is presumably to save itself the hassle of the complex smuggling operations through which it has been sending arms to Lebanon via Syria.
According to foreign media reports, Israel has frequently attacked such arms convoys while they are still in Syrian territory. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said this week the army would continue to work to thwart the transfer of precision weapons to Hezbollah.
The information Israel released and its warnings do not, at least as far as anyone knows, reflect any change in intelligence assessments about the likelihood of another war with Hezbollah. The chances that Hezbollah will choose to start a war in the near future seem slim, since almost a third of its regular forces are still fighting in Syria’s civil war, and protecting the Assad regime in Syria remains a supreme interest of the organization’s Iranian patron.
Still, Israel recognizes that a very short chain of incidents and misunderstandings would suffice to ignite a war, as almost happened in January 2015, when Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers on Har Dov with an antitank missile after accusing Israel of attacking one of its convoys in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. Escalation due to miscalculation remains a realistic possibility – and that’s another reason Israel is concerned by Hezbollah’s deployment along the Lebanese-Israeli border.