Hezbollah: Lebanon's paper tiger

Despite recent attacks, the militant group that drove Israel out of Lebanon is not likely to launch a full-scale attack from the north.

By Paul Wachter
Published April 10, 2002 7:18PM (EDT)

Three months after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivered a telephone address to the Palestinians to mark the anniversary of the founding of Hamas. "We have full trust and certainty that this Holy Land will be liberated," Nasrallah said. "We'll enter the holy [Al-Aqsa] mosque and fight the final and conclusive battle which will not just lead to liberating the lands occupied in 1967, but to the extraction of this raping body and cancerous gland," which is how the sheikh typically describes Israel.

Nasrallah's words echoed ominously this week, as Hezbollah guerrillas launched increasing numbers of rockets across Israel's northern frontier from its outposts in Lebanon. If Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian-backed resistance group in Lebanon, succeeds in provoking Israel into a massive military retaliation against Syria, which controls Lebanon, a war between Israel and Syria could break out. But despite Nasrallah's fiery rhetoric, that is highly unlikely to happen. In the end, Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria are all too pragmatic to risk a catastrophic confrontation with one of the world's most powerful armed forces.

Over the protestations of President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pushing ahead with his offensive into the West Bank, reasserting control over territory that Israeli forfeited in the Oslo accords (which Sharon regards as a mistake) and smashing the Palestinian Authority. Arab leaders, who recently endorsed Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan at the Arab summit in Beirut, are not preparing for a "final and conclusive" battle for the Temple Mount, the tiny piece of Jerusalem real estate that is the symbolic heart of the 100-year-old conflict, but are worried that Sharon is planning to expel the Palestinians from the occupied territories altogether. Egypt has downgraded its relations with Israel; Iraq has begun a 30-day oil embargo. And, under pressure to do its part on behalf of the beleaguered Palestinians, Hezbollah has attacked positions in northern Israel almost every day since March 30.

The latest Hezbollah attacks began when the group targeted heavily fortified Israeli outposts in the Shebaa Farms -- 10 square miles of land, mostly orchards, claimed by Lebanon but generally considered (by the United Nations, the United States and Israel) to be part of Syrian territory occupied by Israel along with the Golan Heights in 1967.

Since the March 30 attack, the fighting has escalated rapidly. Five Israeli civilians and six Israeli soldiers were wounded over the weekend -- the first Israeli casualties of the recent clashes -- after cross-border Katyusha rockets struck the Manara and Avivim border settlements. In response, Israeli warplanes bombed suspected Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon, while artillery pounded the outskirts of various small villages.

On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer phoned U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was in Morocco on the first leg of a peace mission, and asked him "to appeal to the highest echelons of the Syrian leadership and point out the dangers involved in the continuation of Hezbollah's terror policy." Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's representative in Lebanon called for restraint from both parties. "It has been 10 days of continuous serious violations of the Blue Line (the Israel-Lebanon border) ... and there is a potential for escalation," said Staffan de Mistura on Sunday. The Lebanese government, while arresting tens of Palestinian refugees it said was conducting some of the cross-border attacks, has defended Hezbollah's right to "liberate" the Shebaa Farms, while promising that Lebanon was not seeking an escalation with Israel. For its part, Syria -- the real power in Lebanon -- denied responsibility. The American ambassador in Damascus was allowed to see only a low-level bureaucrat, who told him that Syria did not have the capacity to control Hezbollah.

Yahya Sadowski, a former Brookings Institute senior fellow and professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, agrees with Syria's claim, to a point. "Even if Syria and Iran tried to clamp down on the group, by withholding arms or even, though this is very unlikely, by [Syria] storming bases in the south, Hezbollah could still operate at a lesser level." Sadowski, who now teaches at the American University of Beirut, added that Iran and Syria's "control over the group is sort of like Arafat's control over militant groups like Hamas. They don't have any day-to-day control over operations and there is a limit to what they can do."

While the Israeli army has called up reserve officers to the border, it has yet to strike Lebanon's infrastructure or Syrian targets in Lebanon -- Israel's typical response to Hezbollah cross-border attacks. With the army focused on its offensive in the West Bank, Israel's National Security Council recommended Monday pursuing diplomatic initiatives to reach a solution before resorting to force. On the same day, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof said, "The government's intention until now, as I understand it, is not to expand the [West Bank] operation unless terrorism is activated against us from the Gaza Strip, or the northern border reaches such a point that we will have no choice but to act." Ben-Eliezer promised that Israel "will not sit with its arms folded" if the attacks continue.

Whether because of back-channel Syrian pressure or its own survival instincts, Hezbollah seems to have gotten the message. While Ben-Eliezer was delivering his threats, Nasrallah told a crowd of 500 Hezbollah supporters that an escalation against Israel was not imminent. He said Hezbollah would only open the Lebanese front if Sharon expelled the Palestinians from the occupied territories. "If we used this option [now] and Sharon expelled the Palestinians later, we would have no means left to use against the Israelis and therefore we should preserve this weapon," he said. The Hezbollah leader, a shrewd tactician despite his outlandish rhetoric, even admitted that "no military action carried out on the Lebanese front could stop [Sharon] from what he's doing in the West Bank."

So, what to make of these latest provocations from Hezbollah? Is the fighting down south a sign of renewed "resistance" against Israel, or simply a carefully calibrated nod to Palestinian suffering? Given the group's limited action against Israel ever since its May 2000 withdrawal from south Lebanon, it's hard not to draw the latter conclusion. As Nizar Hamzeh, a political scientist specializing in political Islam at the American University of Beirut, explained: "The reason for these latest attacks is that Hezbollah felt pressure to do something because of the current situation in Israel. There's pressure from their Islamic allies in Palestine like Islamic Jihad and Hamas. And there's also pressure within the party itself, which is ideologically committed to the liberation of Jerusalem."

Hamzeh believes that Hezbollah is still committed "to the rules of the game," by which the group and Israel engage in a tit-for-tat exchange in the disputed Shebaa Farms but refrain from escalating the conflict beyond that area. The problem with this analysis, according to Hamzeh's colleague, Farid El-Khazen, is that the rules of the game have changed.

"What Hezbollah is doing now is very risky. Israel's situation is much different today -- they're in an all-out war," said El-Khazen. "You can't count on what they'll do just from past actions."

Prior to the formation of Hezbollah in June 1982, the Lebanese Shiites, now the largest of the country's sects, were a poor and disorganized community, and politically irrelevant. Hezbollah was a radical outgrowth of the main Shiite party, Amal, with close ties to Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian revolution. (Many future Hezbollah leaders studied theology with Iranian clerics, including Khomeini himself, at the Najaf seminary in southern Iraq.) Responsible for some of the most horrible terrorist acts during the Lebanese civil war (the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks, the kidnapping of Western journalists and academics and the hijacking of civilian airplanes), the group reinvented itself after the war ended in 1990. It entered into national politics (there are nine Hezbollah members in Lebanon's 128-member parliament) and built schools and mosques, all while mounting an armed struggle to end Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah targeted Israeli soldiers and those of its proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army, in a textbook guerrilla war of ambushes and road mines. After the hasty Israeli retreat in May 2000 -- an Israeli defeat that gave Hezbollah enormous prestige in the Muslim world -- the group vowed to continue fighting until Israel abandoned the Shebaa Farms.

But aside from one Hezbollah operation over a year ago in which the guerrillas captured three Israeli soldiers, the group had not inflicted a single Israeli casualty until this weekend. Indeed, several months ago, El-Khazen described Hezbollah's campaign in the Shebaa Farms as a "total joke." At the time, events bore out his assessment. The only notable cross-border "attack" came on Jan. 2, when the guerrillas sent over 40 helium balloons bearing pictures of Yasser Arafat and various pro-Hezbollah slogans. (It remains uncertain if Hezbollah was behind a March 12 attack near Kibbutz Metsuba, in which six Israelis were killed; Hezbollah, which usually takes credit for its attacks, has denied any involvement.)

Perhaps the group's recent timidity was a response to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. After all, in the immediate days following the attacks, some Washington hawks advocated storming the Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold. But thus far the Bush administration has contented itself with adding Hezbollah to its list of terrorist groups subject to an assets freeze, a freeze the Lebanese government has ignored. (The European Union, taking a different view of the group's current activities, omitted Hezbollah from the terrorist list it issued in the final week of December.) U.S. attention was renewed briefly when it was revealed that Hezbollah had brokered the Iranian-Palestinian Karine A arms shipment, but quickly refocused on more pressing matters such as the war in Afghanistan, shoring up support for an attack on Iraq and trying to prevent the deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

But Hezbollah's military restraint cannot simply be explained by post-Sept. 11 concerns. Another explanation -- which, of course, only makes sense if you believe that Lebanon has at least some control of Hezbollah -- is simply that Lebanon is not willing to make the same sacrifices it did to liberate south Lebanon for a sliver of land many Lebanese don't feel is theirs to begin with. In the past, Lebanon's power plants, bridges and roads have been targeted by Israeli jets whenever Hezbollah launched rockets into Israel. Moreover, the presence of an armed, largely unaccountable guerrilla group in the south has not helped attract foreign aid or investment to a country that badly needs it.

Perhaps even more importantly, it's no longer clear that Hezbollah's activities benefit the real ruler of Lebanon -- Syria. While Iran is Hezbollah's principal backer in terms of arms, money and ideology, it is Syria, the conduit for the weapons and the power broker in Lebanon, that is more responsible for the guerrilla war in the south. When Damascus cemented its rule over Lebanon in 1991 -- with the quiet acquiescence of Washington, which wanted Syria as part of its anti-Saddam coalition -- it disarmed all the other militias while allowing Hezbollah to continue to fight Israel in the south, refusing to allow Lebanon to deploy its army to the southern border.

The prevailing logic in Damascus was that Syria could use Hezbollah's resistance activities as a card in any future peace negotiations with Israel. There was an implicit understanding on both sides that the battleground would be limited to Lebanon. But that changed when Sharon became prime minister. Critical of the handling of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, a defeat that emboldened Islamic militants everywhere, Sharon signaled there would be no similar retreat in the Farms. Israel expanded its retaliations against Hezbollah attacks to include Syrian military targets in Lebanon and soon discovered that Damascus was not interested in taking on Israel directly. (Syria keeps around 20,000 troops in Lebanon, though last week it announced it would redeploy many of the troops, in accord with the 1989 Lebanese peace agreement, to rural parts of the country and also back to Syria.)

Despite the seeming futility of Hezbollah's Shebaa campaign -- and the very real possibility of a dramatic Israeli response -- Lebanon and Syria are not likely to move against the group anytime soon. Both governments continue to support the group's right to fight for the Shebaa Farms, and Lebanon is no closer to deploying its army in the south. The problem is that "Syria and Hezbollah," publicly invested in their "struggle" against Israel, "are hostage to this futile policy," said El-Khazen. "Hezbollah's activities -- both its past once-a-month or so shellings of the Israeli positions in the Shebaa Farms and even this recent escalation -- won't help liberate Palestine. Nor will it help liberate the Shebaa Farms. All it does is remind people that 'we are still here,' doing something. But what are they doing?"

The real question surrounding the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah is what will happen if Sharon decides to up the ante and conducts a massive attack on Lebanese and Syrian targets. In the past, massive Israeli strikes (like, say, the 1996 Grapes of Wrath operation) have not swayed support for Hezbollah. But then Lebanon wasn't fighting merely for 10 square miles of farmland, and Israelis didn't see themselves as fighting for their survival. Perhaps Nasrallah can continue to balance his fiery rhetoric -- "It is the day for jihad, martyrdom and pure blood; the day for mothers who have a firm belief that encourages them to push their children toward martyrdom," he said a few days ago -- with Hezbollah's largely symbolic military endeavors in the Shebaa Farms.

But Nasrallah might well do well to heed the words of the main character in V.S. Naipaul's novel "The Mimic Men": "We mistake words and the acclamation of words for power; as soon as our bluff is called we are lost."

Paul Wachter

Paul Wachter is pursuing a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Beirut.

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