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israel lebanon border

Both parties know it. It’s only a matter of time. Sooner or later, war will break out again. Israel is strengthening its defensive lines along the border with Lebanon, while the Hezbollah continue to pile up weapons, intensify trainings and prepare for the next confrontation. Ever since Israel left Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation and following the disastrous invasion of 2006, there has been an ongoing direct or indirect military struggle with the Shia militant group. A direct clash has been postponed due to the Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria alongside Bashar al Assad. The Israelis have only struck military convoys carrying sophisticated Iranian supplies of weapons from Syria to Lebanon, or when the Shia militias got too close to the Golan heights. One of the latest incidents was on April 26, after an Iranian cargo ship unloaded a shipment of missiles for the Lebanese group.

The presence of the Russians has somewhat limited the extent of Israeli air strikes. Despite there being a red line between the two parties, the potential for a casus belli that could heighten tensions with Moscow acts as a deterrent. The Israelis have no intention of being drawn into a conflict with Russia, despite the Iranians being closer to home. Everyone knows that for Bashar al Assad to survive, he needs a direct link between Iran-Syria-Lebanon, with the Hezbollah acting as a buffer. At the same time, the Party of God needs the Iranians to survive, receive funding and supplies. On top of that, Hassan Nasrallah is in good terms with Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

However, the Hezbollah’s participation in Syria has had serious consequences on the group’s popularity, both in Lebanon and in the Middle East. By being drawn into a sectarian conflict alongside a government that has often meddled in Lebanese internal affairs, the Party of God has lot the luster it had gained after its conflict against Israel. Although they have preserved the support of around 1.6 million Lebanese Shias, the Sunni autocracies in the region, represented by both the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, have labeled the group as a “terrorist organization”. Furthermore, the military venture in Syria has had a price in terms of victims (over 1.400), wounded (around 5.000), and increasing difficulties in recruiting new militiamen and in sustaining the financial burden of supporting the families of the “martyrs”.

The Hezbollah

Currently, the Hezbollah can count on around 45 thousand fighters, 25 thousand of which are in active service, in possession of an arsenal of over 120 thousand rockets. They are not a militia anymore, but an army that branches out into a mechanized brigade, a light infantry brigade and various commando units, including the Radwan Unit (named after the late Imad Mughniyeh’s nom de guerre; he was killed by the Israelis in Damascus in 2008). The Hezbollah have also developed SIGINT (Signal Intelligence); cyber and electronic warfare; they now use sophisticated night vision tools; drones (around 200 of them, employed in Syria both for observation and attacks); anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile; on top of that they have built a network of bunkers and tunnels in Southern Lebanon. The Party of God has trained an army that is specialized in guerrilla warfare and that is well equipped and disciplined. They have done so thanks to Iranian funding and supplies. What is far worse (for Israel), is that the Syrian civil war has given the over 7 thousand Hezbollah on the ground the military experience alongside the Iranian and Russian regular armies that could prove useful in the future. Similarly, in Yemen with the military advisors that are supporting the Houthi rebellion.

In other words, the Hezbollah have learnt how to operate a traditional army, a unit part of a larger deployment of forces. They have refined their cooperation techniques on the battlefield thanks to their participation in the inter-forces command in Damascus where Russians and Iranians sit and coordinate, among others, air strikes. The Hezbollah have also piled up knowledge on logistics of complex units and mastered military action on new morphological environments other than the Lebanese scenario. So better planning and execution of military operations. They have also perfected their command and control system and the logistical support during combat. Furthermore, they have learnt how to use new weapons, have seen them in action and know how to handle them. They have also grasped how to use intelligence to identify targets and which weapons should be used depending on your operational needs. The Hezbollah have now been part of conventional warfare and, in the future, will know how to handle a traditional army during battle, but also identify its weak and strong points. They have also improved their anti-aircraft and anti-tank defense in Lebanon.

By having a continuous turnover of its cadres on the ground, all this knowledge has become widespread. And we’re talking about both full-time militants and reservists (the so-called “taabiah”). Most of them come from the Shia youth movements, while other units, such as the "Saraya al Muqawama al Lubnanyah" (The Lebanese Resistance Brigades), include non-Shia members. They were initially created in 1997 to face Israel; dissolved in 2000 when the Israelis left southern Lebanon, they have now been reinstated. The turnover system for the reservists includes a two-weeks mandatory tour in a conflict zone. Known as “murabata”, it used to be carried out along the border with Israel. Now instead it takes place in Syria. Every new recruit that is taken to the frontline undergoes 2-3 months of training. In the past, trainees were sent to Iran to learn the art of war. That is not necessary anymore. And with every battle, the Hezbollah become more experienced and stronger.

The recent clashes between Hamas and Israel in Gaza were useful to test the new Israeli anti-rocket system, the Iron Dome. The Hezbollah have understood that they will need to saturate the enemy’s defense system with a continuous launch of rockets and mortars. This is why missiles are so important to them and why the Iranians have apparently established a rocket factory in Lebanon. Tehran is supplying their Lebanese counterpart with the most sophisticated and precise models. And this is one of the reasons why, on February 16, 2017, the Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, listed among the Israeli targets: the Dimona nuclear power plant, weapons and ammonium factories. Tel Aviv’s anti-rocket system should intercept an estimated 80% of the rockets, missiles, drones or airplanes launched on its territory.

amir peretz
Isreali minister for Defense, Amir Peretz

The latest round of the conflict between the Hezbollah and Israel was fought in 2006 and was considered a “defeat” for Tel Aviv. The then Israeli minister for Defense, Amir Peretz, had to resign because his country had failed to prevail in a 5-weeks-long conflict. The Hezbollah had not won, but had not been defeated. A decade later, the Lebanese militia is not just a terrorist or paramilitary group, but has become an army. They are not the Lebanese army, but an army within Lebanon under the guidance of a political party, not the government in Beirut. They are also an army that is fighting in Syria alongside other armies. The Hezbollah know they are the only force the Israelis fear, and this gives them some form of psychological advantage. They are also an army part of a wider strategic game between Iran and Israel.

The point is that there is no way to prevent the third Lebanese war because all parties involved have to obtain a military target, not a political one. Israel needs to re-assert its regional supremacy. The Hezbollah have to stress that they are a force to be dealt with because they are supported by Iran. And the only way to attain these goals is through war. The Russian deployment is preventing an immediate escalation. But a spark, or a reaction to some form of provocation, would be enough to ignite the fire. It is only a matter of time.

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