Hezbollah’s launching of a pilotless spy plane, which was shot down by Israel’s air force in the southern part of the country in early October, has been seen as more evidence that the Lebanese militia is preparing for war.
Israelis assume that the drone was gathering visual intelligence to help Hezbollah in its goal of bombarding distant targets with long-range surface-to-surface missiles.
No doubt it was collecting information in case of another confrontation with Israel, but whether the terrorist group is seeking a full-blown war is a more complicated question that may depend less on what Hezbollah wants than on the heat it is getting from its patrons.
The group’s possession of so sophisticated a craft (which was assembled from Iranian-made parts) is further evidence that Hezbollah is the most advanced and best-equipped militia of its kind the world has ever seen.
Ever since it forced the Israelis’ panicky retreat from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has been building up an immense military force, with firepower that 90 percent of the world’s countries don’t possess, according to Meir Dagan, the former director of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.
The militia’s war doctrine is based on the assumption that Israel is hypersensitive to civilian casualties, that it cannot wage a protracted war and that it will always aim for the quickest possible clear-cut victory. With this in mind, Hezbollah has constructed a complex network of underground bunkers with the goal of assuring survivability, redundancy and an ability to maintain a prolonged missile barrage against Israeli cities.
The doctrine proved itself in the war between the two sides in 2006, when Israel failed in its attempt to liquidate Hezbollah and was once again forced to withdraw from Lebanon, bruised and bleeding.
Hezbollah’s approach to combat came from Iran. The organization was founded in 1983 by Iran’s revolutionary guards as part of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s plan to export his revolution. Over the years, with Iranian funding and encouragement, the group has become the most important political and military player in Lebanon.
In recent years, Hezbollah has taken on an additional role, serving as an effective bargaining chip in the balance of fear between Iran and Israel, deterring the latter from going ahead with any mission to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. One reason that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held back is Hezbollah’s ability to wreak havoc in Israel with its huge stockpile of some 70,000 missiles and rockets, the most powerful of which is the Scud D, with a range of 700 kilometers (about 435 miles). Were it not for Hezbollah’s missiles, a top Israeli defense official told me, Israel would have struck Iran’s sites long ago.
That said, one shouldn’t draw conclusions based only on Hezbollah’s past and potential successes. The organization is at a crossroads. Syria, its second-most-important ally, is going through upheaval and faces fundamental changes. The munitions from Iran to Hezbollah are transported through Syria. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has also supplied large weapons to Hezbollah, as well as provided access to launching sites -- “the strategic bases,” as Mossad calls them -- for its missile barrages against Israel.
Any regime that takes over from Assad will remember who supported him as he slaughtered thousands of civilians. Being cut off from Syria is a nightmare for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
No less menacing is the possibility, which is by no means far-fetched, that the Arab Spring will reach Lebanon, a prospect that might include a rebellion against Hezbollah’s state within a state. Even the regime in Iran is far from rock solid, and changes there could significantly worsen Hezbollah’s relations with its patron.
With the perspective of time, what appeared to be a victory over Israel in 2006 takes on a more complex cast. The war began when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Israel’s massive response came as a surprise to Nasrallah, and he admitted publicly that he hadn’t expected it. Although Hezbollah survived and was seen to have won that round, Lebanon as a whole sustained heavy damage and many Lebanese blamed Nasrallah for precipitating it.
Nasrallah is aware that the next confrontation with Israel will look different. The Israelis have invested in vast intelligence operations since 2006. Hezbollah believes that these efforts were evident in the February 2008 killing in Damascus of Imad Moughniyeh, the group’s military commander, with a booby-trapped headrest in his car, as well in mysterious explosions at some of its illicit missile depots in Lebanon.
More important, Israel has already declared several times that if and when war breaks out again, it will hold the Lebanese government responsible and will destroy government targets.
The 2006 war created a mutual deterrence: the Israelis refrain from an open pre-emptive assault against Hezbollah’s missile stockpiles, while the militia is compelled to moderate its responses. Instead, it has tried to avenge Mughniyeh’s assassination and other suspected Israeli actions by attacking Israeli tourists and diplomats in far-flung locations, outside of the Middle East, from New Delhi, and Baku, Azerbaijan, to Bangkok.
Nasrallah’s predicament springs chiefly from his dual role as Iran’s proxy and an authentic Lebanese leader who would like to be seen as leader of all the Arabs, not only of the Shiites. It was on behalf of the Iranians, senior Israeli intelligence officials told me, that Hezbollah operatives attacked Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian resort of Burgas on July 18, killing six people.
This was seen as revenge for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists for which Iran blames Israel. And it is for Iran’s benefit that Hezbollah has made such intense preparations for war, including the recent drone reconnaissance mission. Iran, in the event of an Israeli assault on its territory, will demand that Hezbollah wreak vengeance on its behalf, and Nasrallah, the Lebanese politician, is aware that this could lead to devastation in his country, for which he will be blamed.
Yet it is doubtful that Nasrallah, who owes everything he possesses to Iran, could say no to such an order from his patrons. Israeli intelligence sources reckon that he may well select a middle path -- a barrage that is limited in both the number of missiles launched and in time, so that Israel won’t feel obligated to launch a full-scale military attack in response. This would be a dangerous gamble.
As Nasrallah has learned, it is not always possible to know what to expect from the other side, especially when it comes to the Israelis. Even a limited engagement could deteriorate into a war.
(Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily, and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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