By Sarit Zehavi
I have been scouting the Lebanese border for many years, acutely aware of every new fortification, Hezbollah flag or new house on the Lebanese or Israeli side. For many years I have been assuming that somebody on the other side of the border has already recognized me, and has since been following me, watching my every move – or that of the IDF.
Last week, I had the opportunity to look at him, at my “counterpart”. I pondered about what Lebanon – my grandmother’s country of birth, “the pearl of the Middle East” as she used to call it – and Israel had in common, and how they differed. These are two countries in the Middle East that have been contending with heterogeneous societies, two countries that have tried to sustain democracy.
I asked myself in what way am I similar, and how I differ from the Hezbollah operative, who was standing there by the fence, opposite Kibbutz Hanita – which he referred to as a settlement even though it predated the State of Israel – and who quoted his leader by saying “Hezbollah yearn for war and will be prepared to fight it even if it is forced upon it”.
I thought about the “dialog” that he and I have been engaging in for many years by now. He talks to me through his audience – tries to intimidate and deter me as much as possible, and as for me – I, too, want to deter him, but at the same time I want to make my audience understand that he is the real “bully” of the neighborhood. So what is the difference?
To answer that question, I should first explain what exactly happened there last week at the western part of the border between Israel and Lebanon. It was a well orchestrated and timed theatrical production that is Hezbollah’s hallmark: more than 50 foreign and local media outlets were invited to a kind of frontier tour guided by Hezbollah troops and according to Lebanese sources – with the permission of the Lebanese army and UNIFIL. Hezbollah uniformed guide explained in great details the IDF’s deployments for defense and the types of fortifications the IDF had built along the Blue Line (the international border line between Israel and Lebanon). During the tour, the journalists “happened into” “camouflaged” Hezbollah activists who “secured” the event and who were armed with various types of weapons. .
Since the last war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 until recently, Hezbollah has been trying to pretend that it has been observing UN Resolution 1701, which ended the war, led to a cease fire and banned the presence of illegal weapon in Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah troops walked around in civilian garb, concealing their weapons in villages or under residents’ homes. It became increasingly difficult for Israel to prove that Hezbollah had military presence in Southern Lebanon without disclosing intelligence information. According to intelligence materials that were nonetheless revealed, tens of thousands of rockets and mortar bombs have remained in Southern Lebanon, even during Hezbollah’s engagement in the war in Syria, ready for use in the next war against Israel.
Why did Hezbollah hold this tour at this particular time? Firstly, this demonstration of force reflects the organization’s increasing confidence in the last year and a half. This has been owed firstly, to its operational and professional competency, as well as the combat experience accumulated by its operators from fighting in Syria. Such experience will also serve Hezbollah in any future combat against Israel, alongside the rocket capabilities that the organization has developed. Secondly, its victories on the battlefield in Syria, with the assistance of Iran and Russia; And thirdly, its success in becoming part of the Lebanese Government, and in appointing a president who has clearly declared that “the disarmament of Hezbollah is not to be discussed as long as the Lebanese army is not strong enough to contend with Israel”.
Conversely, many researchers may argue that Hezbollah is now facing a complex situation. Also, head of the IDF’s Strategic Division, Brigadier General Ram Yavne, has said that “Hezbollah is not in a very comfortable situation these days.”
Indeed, when the question of whether Hezbollah is gaining or losing strength is discussed, reality is complex and not unidimensional. Alongside its recent successes, Hezbollah is now being required to form a new target for its troops after Syria. This naturally returns the focus to Israel.
Moreover, the new policy of the administration in Washington, which is bringing the Iranian issue back to the international agenda, with emphasis on Iran’s support for terrorism in general and Hezbollah in particular, will also probably affect the pressure that the organization is facing. One of the ways of escaping this pressure is to unite the Lebanese against Israel and convey a message of strength contrasting with Israel’s “weakness.” But that message of Hezbollah is problematic in and of itself: if Israel is weak, why is Hezbollah needed to defend Lebanon against it? Is Lebanon’s legitimate army not enough?
Thus, by conducting this tour along the border, Hezbollah tried to appeal to three different target audiences: First and foremost Israel – against which Hezbollah wishes to show a message of deterrence and a foothold in the territory by the border. This message does not occur in a vacuum. Previous provocations characterized the organization’s policy in the last year and a half – from Nasrallah’s own threats that Hezbollah has a “nuclear bomb” in the form of thousands of accurate rockets that could strike at Israel’s infrastructures and kill thousands of individuals, accompanied by “horror videos” describing Hezbollah’s targets in Israel, and Hezbollah’s troops training to conquer the Galilee using special units called the Radwan Force – after Hezbollah’s mythical chief of staff, Imad Mughniyah, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008.
At the same time, on the frontier, Hezbollah is also increasing its provocations, against both UNIFIL and the IDF. Thus, in 2016, Israel reported that there were twice the number of cases of uniformed or ununiformed gunmen walking along the fence than in any previous year since 2006.
Has the deterrent message been heeded? There is no doubt that the meeting that Hezbollah arranged for me with my “counterpart” made me think a lot. As a mother of three, living six miles from the border, am I more worried? Does it unhinge me? To be honest, the answer is no. Like any other day, today my son went out to play with his friends at the nearby basketball court. Earlier that day, my children had come back from school on their own, without adults accompanying them. On Saturday, we went on a tour in the Galilee, which is blossoming at this time of year, and saw the beautiful Mount Adir with a gorgeous lookout to Lebanon. The road leading to the mount is a few meters away from the border fence and is open to civilians. As Israelis, this is the reality that we live in. A normal life in an abnormal reality.
The second target audience that Hezbollah was trying to reach was Lebanon’s domestic scene. Hezbollah’s mouthpieces were doing everything to continue to form the equation of “the people, the resistance (i.e. Hezbollah) and the military”. As it were normal and legitimate for one country to have two armies, one of which is not even subordinate to its government.
Why now? Well, in the next two weeks, Lebanon will have to decide on its Elections Law. If the law is passed based on Hezbollah’s version, it will allow the Shiites to be represented according to their proportion in the population – i.e. a Shiite majority in the Lebanese Parliament. Hezbollah seems determined to get the law passed in a manner that will let it achieve this goal. This would result in a significant change in Lebanon’s political formation and will put an end to the last foothold that the Christians have in the Lebanese administration. Hezbollah’s opponents argue that one cannot ignore several tense incidents that Hezbollah has been causing within Lebanon in a bid to underline, forcefully, its red lines.
The demonstration of power that Hezbollah has been trying to make at the border with Israel has become a two-edged sword, gaining much criticism from the Lebanese themselves, who considered this to be a gross violation of the UN resolutions by Hezbollah. Not just UN Resolution 1701, but also UN Resolution 1559, which was passed in September 2004, calling among other things for disarmament of all the militias in Lebanon, including, by implication, Hezbollah. Prime Minister Hariri hastily arrived in Southern Lebanon and met the UNIFIL commander at the UN headquarters in Naqoura, to explain that Lebanon was still committed to the UN resolutions.
A month ago, Hezbollah was also criticized by five former presidents and prime ministers, who sent a letter to the Arab League, in which they supported Hezbollah’s disarmament. But all these words, the letter and the current criticism, have not been substantiated by any actions. Hezbollah is still a member of the government, and Prime Minister Hariri is making do with the statement “Hezbollah doesn’t convince me on some matters and I don’t convince it”.
The third target audience is the international community: One of the writers identified with Hezbollah (Maarabouni, al Jadeed newspaper) wrote that the tour was a “manifestation on the ground” of the agreement signed between Syria, Russia and Iran in the last meeting of the foreign ministers, in which a decision was made to “take joint steps against aggression”. This is despite Hezbollah not even being part of that agreement. This of course follows the last events in the UN, in which Iran and Hezbollah were criticized by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley.
Moreover, on the day of the tour a trilateral meeting took place, in which the commander of UNIFIL called the parties to focus on building trust in order to maintain the cessation of hostilities and stability along the Blue Line. But it is difficult to talk about trust, when the pictures of the reporters’ tour showed Hezbollah troops climbing a Lebanese Army watchtower. This raises questions about the cooperation between the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah and who is really the sovereign in the border region. Alongside the reports that the tour was coordinated with UNIFIL, UNIFIL troops who tried to stop the tour failed and were mocked by the Lebanese reporters.
This means that despite the criticism within and without Lebanon, “the dogs bark but the caravan moves on”, and Hezbollah is continuing to defy the UN resolutions. However, what is astonishing here is that the grossest violation by Hezbollah goes beyond those two UN resolutions. Its use of the civilian population as a human shield is a war crime. Although 30%-40% of the buildings in Southern Lebanon host military activity of Hezbollah, and despite all the criticism described above, I did not see a single Lebanese mother taking the rockets out of her home. I did not see a single father who expelled the organization’s troops from his village. Certainly not a Shiite father. At the bottom line, it would appear that the fear of civil war has been perturbing the Lebanese from taking any significant action in the direction of disarming Hezbollah.
So why did I start this article with a very personal question – what is the difference? I can assume that the average reader can now understand. But I have chosen to cite an answer given by a reporter for Al-Janoubia, Mr. Ali al-Amin, a Shiite resident of Chaqra, a Shiite village in Southern Lebanon located about 5 miles from the border with Israel, which caught my eye in particular. Al-Amin describes what the reporters’ cameras did not capture in the tour that Hezbollah organized:
“What the cameras did not see and what the responsible Haj did not explain to us was that those settlements [on the Israeli side] are part of a country that had been ranked 16 out of 178 countries in the Human Development Index; A country that faced with a political crisis it immediately heads for early elections; A country that is able to form relations with the international community from east to west; … If only one of the photographers who joined the tour had taken a panoramic picture of the scene on the other side, and then focused the lens on one of the settlements that the Haj, the resistance member, talked about, the photographer would have found out something miraculous! There is no trash in its tidy streets, there are no generators for electricity consumers, there are road signs, there is a traffic police force and police stations that maintain public order, there are parks and gardens, there are parking lots, there are houses that are far from the main street, reinforced shelters, agricultural plantations that catch one’s eye before one’s mouth, and more, details that show that there, on the other side, there is a country, law, a constitution and a citizen in the full sense of the word. These are, in effect, the terrible enemy’s means of defense and power. When will we learn to wield such instruments of power?? I don’t know”.
On a personal note – I want to wish Ali al-Amin, that the Lebanese cameras will show all of that next time round, and will not consider it a deterrence but a lesson – that Lebanon can also reach that position, if it will eject the terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah from it and extend its hand to peace. I wish that this time the international community will take actions to stop Hezbollah from endangering my kids or Al-Amin’s.