After the damaging 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of the Lebanese Shiite group, surprised many by admitting: “Had we known that the kidnapping of the soldiers would have led to this, we definitely would not have done it.”
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Hezbollah’s 2006 miscalculation was costly. Yet, reports of the recent Israeli assassination of a senior Hezbollah official compounded by previous strikes may be leading the region into another misunderstanding--- this time with even deadlier results.
Senior military officials in the Israeli army note Hezbollah’s powerful presence. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, head of the Foreign Media department explained, “When we talk about training our forces for what will be the toughest military adversary at the time, Hezbollah is this reference.”
Since the 2006 war, the border between Israel and Lebanon has remained relatively quiet, yet this lull has been deceptive. In 2008, Israel killed Imad Mughniyeh in Syria, considered Hezbollah’s Chief of Staff. Nasrallah has vowed repeatedly that he will avenge Mughniyeh’s death with a strike on a highly valued Israeli target. American security officials blamed Hezbollah for the 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists.
According to reputable reports, during the midst of the bloody Syrian Civil War, Israeli planes have launched multiple air strikes at Hezbollah weapons convoys heading to Lebanon. Until now, Hezbollah has not responded. A former senior Israeli military figure who insisted on anonymity in order to speak candidly explained Hezbollah’s decision. “Hezbollah never admitted that the military convoys went from Syria to Lebanon. So how can they react to something they have never admitted?” The source also noted the strong deterrence Israel gained during the 2006 war: “If they react, Hezbollah knows that they will lose everything."
Hezbollah’s heavy involvement in Syria’s civil war, assisting their long time ally, President Bashar Assad adds a further wrinkle. Although some argue that Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria has been preventing the organization from targeting Israel, Hezbollah has still kept its focus on the Jewish state. The majority of its fighters remain in Lebanon. Hezbollah has not diverted important weapons systems or rockets from Lebanon, arguably the organization’s most critical asset according to Nicholas Blanford, author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty Year Struggle against Israel. Furthermore, Hezbollah is gaining valuable combat experience from its fighting in Syria that could be used in a future conflict with Israel.
Last week’s assassination of its key leader Hassan al-Laqis added more pressure on Hezbollah. Laqis was responsible for integrating more advanced weaponry in Hezbollah’s arsenal. While a small extremist Sunni Jihadist group claimed responsibility, this scenario seems unlikely. Pro-Hezbollah media has paid close attention to a prominent article in Foreign Policy this week detailing “Israel’s Kill List” that quotes senior Israeli intelligence leaders taking credit for Laqis’ death. Blanford clarifies that the assassination tactic of using silent pistols is more consistent with Israeli commando operations than with a typical Sunni Jihadist group, which would more likely utilize a car bombing like that seen in November's Iranian Embassy blast in Beirut.
Although Israel sees these actions against Hezbollah as acceptable to prevent the group from gaining advanced weaponry, the Lebanese Shiite community takes a different view. “I wonder whether Israel is trying to push the envelope because they want to engage Hezbollah in a military escalation at a time when they are busy fighting on so many fronts,” suggests Ronda Slim, a Lebanese research fellow on Hezbollah at the New America Foundation.
Analysts agree that a confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel would be more lethal than ever. The IDF's Lerner highlighted the differences between the Palestinian group Hamas’ rocket power with Hezbollah: “In 2012, we had Hamas shoot 1,500 rockets in eight days. Hezbollah could shoot double that in a day and keep us under fire for a month.” Israel has also prepared furiously for war. “We did learn the lessons. We have better intelligence and a better understanding of Hezbollah’s weak points,” explained the former senior Israeli military source.
The tension between Israel and Hezbollah has heightened given the changing regional dynamics. The potential downfall of Hezbollah’s important ally President Assad and the rise of the Sunni Jihadist groups in Syria are sending a threatening message to Shiites in Lebanon. “There is a prevailing siege mentality inside the Shia community,” says Slim.
In the shadowy and often clandestine conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, experts on both sides emphasized the importance of preserving “red lines” or mutual acts of deterrence that each party understands the other will not cross. However, by assassinating Mughniyeh in 2008, attacking convoys, and now the killing of Laqis this time in Lebanon, “Israel is upsetting the rules of the game,” Slim contends.
Despite Israel’s enhanced preparations for another conflict, former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror has admitted that Israel has weak spots in its military deployments. With Israel pushing the boundaries by acting more boldly through its assassinations and weapons attacks, it appears only a matter of time when Hezbollah will feel the need to respond and exploit one of Israel’s weak points, as it did in 2006.
Nonetheless, with Hezbollah’s increased military capabilities and Israel’s promise of a brutal response to a Hezbollah provocation in Israel, the consequences of another miscalculation will be fierce. The Middle East of 2013 is a dangerous place to be playing a massive game of chicken.
Aaron Magid is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern Studies. He has written articles on Middle Eastern politics for The New Republic, Al-Monitor, and Lebanon’s Daily Star. He tweets at @AaronMagid.