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Because of the latest happenings in Iraq and Syria, the birth of the ISIS, the chaos in Libya and the internal ordeals of the Palestinians, the secret war that is being fought between Israel and the Hezbollah has been neglected by the media. Nevertheless, it is a war that is ongoing and that is being fought with the same ruthlessness as in the past, on both the military and the espionage front.

The events since 2006

Since the war in 2006, which left 1500 dead on the ground, there have been recurrent attempts to eliminate, in any way possible, the Secretary General of the Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah: in 2008 with poison, in 2013 by circulating rumours of an illness (which was apparently 'procured') and last November with an attempt (which was later blocked because the target was amid a large crowd) to eliminate him with a missile during the Ashura celebrations.

In addition, Israeli bombings hit several military targets belonging to the Hezbollah both in Lebanon and in Syria, as is the case with a load of missiles, destroyed on December 7, 2014, destined for the Shiite organization.

On the part of the Hezbollah, there was the killing of 5 Israeli citizens in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July 2012, and the attack, in October 2014, against an Israeli patrol along the border with Lebanon which caused the wounding of two soldiers.

Mohammed Shawraba

The arrest of Mohammed Shawraba

But the latest, and perhaps the most resounding blow in the war was the arrest, last December, of an exponent of the military wing of the Hezbollah who was accused of spying on the organization on behalf of Israel.

The man, named Mohammed Shawraba, was vice-chief of “external operations” and had been the head of security of Hassan Nasrallah himself. Shawraba was a man who knew all of the internal and external structures of the Shiite group.

It seems that Shawraba is now being accused by his captors of the killing of Hassan Laqees, who was murdered in Beirut on December 4, 2013, by two killers as he returned home from work in his car.

Laqees was involved in the procurement of arms and in cyber activity against Israel. He was the middle-man between the Hezbollah and Iran. His killing, due to the secrecy that surrounded his activities, had immediately given way to suspicions that there might be a rat inside the organization. Around that same time, there were other attacks against the Iranian embassy and against Hezbollah structures and officials involved in the Syrian conflict. In addition to these, various weapon transports that Iran and Russia were sending to Sirya and to the Hezbollah were targeted by Israeli air strikes.

Shawraba operated abroad, especially in Europe (particularly in Italy and Spain). He was in charge – through a cover company – of the procurement of weapons, the laundering of funds and the acquisition of the equipment needed for the operative activity of the organization.

The style of life that Shawraba led from 2005 until his arrest had allowed him to savour the more pleasurable and mundane aspects of espionage abroad; a much different existence from that of his colleagues in Lebanon and Syria.

As often happens in spy films, Shawraba had fallen in love with a woman, had married her and shared both love and secrets with her. Shawraba had failed to inform the organizations about his wife. The woman, whose name and nationality is not known, managed to disappear after Shawraba's arrest, despite the attempts by the Hezbollah to capture her. Women, money; a story as old as the world itself within the milieu of espionage.

The damage procured by Shawraba's betrayal is yet to be quantified, but for a secret organization such as the Hezbollah, where the risk of the elimination of its members or of the destruction of its military capacity by Israel is always looming, a leak of information is a serious circumstance indeed.

The Hezbollah and Syria

All of this occurs at a time of weakness for the Shiite movement, which dedicates much of its efforts to the military support of the regime of Bashar Assad and which, at the same time, due to its involvement in Syria, is having difficulties in coping with internal dissent in Lebanon. In fact, the support of the Shiite militias to Assad's Syria, a country that has a long history of interfering with Lebanon's sovereignty, is perceived by the Muslim, Christian and in part by the Druse population as an intervention which is in contrast with the interests of the Lebanese nation itself. The image of the 'party of god' as the only military stronghold against Israel is now being damaged by their involvement in the neighbouring country. Yet in the eyes of Nasrallah's organization, the downfall of the Syrian regime would imply a risk for the survival of the organization itself, which would lose the contiguity that, through Syria, they have with Iran, their main source of military support.

It is a fact that the Hezbollah are, in the Lebanese context, a State within a State. They have their own military structures, they control the territory with their own police, they have their own television and even their own fibre-optics telecommunication system. Yet the Hezbollah's independence is directly proportional to their military strength and they will be able to maintain it only so long as they are able to exercise their military power against Israel, the Syrian rebels and other local communities. As a matter of fact, the Hezbollah's military involvement in Syria is not an option, but a necessity.

imad mughniyeh
Imad Mughniyeh

The killing of Imad Mughniyeh and the Hezbollah's counter-offensive

Another crucial event in the war between Israel and the Hezbollah was the killing, in January, in the Golan heights with two rockets fired from a helicopter, of 6 combatants; among them was the son of Imad Mughniyeh (who was also killed by Israel on February 12, 2008, in Damascus by means of a bomb installed in his car). Some of the other victims were a Hezbollah commander called Mohammed Issa (also known as Abu Issa) and a General of the Iranian Pasdaran, Abu Ali al Tabtabai (aka Abu Ali Reza), who was Iran's military head in the region. It was a massive blow for the Hezbollah, not only because of the importance of the people killed (including the symbolic significance of killing Jihad Mughniyeh) but also because it was a step ahead in contrasting the pro-Assad military activity along the border with Israel.

Israel's espionage, with or without the help of Shawraba, has had a hand in these killings as well. The military humiliation of the Hezbollah could not, of course, go unpunished: on January 28 an Israeli military patrol that was travelling along the border between Israel and Lebanon was attacked with anti-tank rockets and bombs, causing two dead and seven wounded. It was a predetermined attack that was carried out with care and that showed the weaknesses of Israel's security measures in the region. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth, showing that the war between Israel and the Hezbollah is destined to last because, as of today, there exists no other military groups other than the Hezbollah that can constitute a real threat for Israel in that region.

Israel and the Hezbollah

The death of high ranking officers of the Hezbollah and of Iran lifts the veil on the importance that the Golan heights could play in the future fight against Israel. Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian civil war, the future does not look bright for Israel on this front. If Assad will manage to remain at the helm, it will be thanks to the Hezbollah and Iran; the result will be that the two factions will be granted more freedom to move and attack Israel in the future (not only from southern Lebanon, but from the Syrian-Israeli border as well). On the other hand, if Assad's regime will collapse, the presence of ISIS and Al Nusra fighters along the border will produce an even greater threat. This explains the reluctance by Israel to interfere with the Syrian war and the reason why they limit their attacks to the Hezbollah only when the latter try to transfer weapons and equipment to Lebanon.

A devious tactic

The present Israeli tactic is devious: they try to weaken the Hezbollah, especially through their fight against the Sunni Jihadists, but know full well that the Shiite militia could be helpful in the future against other foes. This is why there are rumours of contacts and/or unspoken understandings between Israel and Al Nusra. But the Golan is riddled with militias, a circumstance which makes it difficult – for Israel and the Hezbollah alike – to decide which of these militias poses a threat and which doesn't. There are Shiite volunteers from Pakistan and Afghanistan, many of them of Hazar ethnic background, that support the Syrian regime; and there are other groups that fight Assad (the “Shuhada al Yarmuk”, the katiba “Abu Mohammed al Tilawi”, the “Beit al Maqdess”, which is also present in the Sinai).

Syria as a war academy

The war in Syria may be draining for the Hezbollah's military structure – humanitarian organization have counted an esteemed 250 victims among the ranks of the organization – but, considering their military strength, these are not important losses (the war in Syria has caused over 50 thousand dead so far) for an organization that counts roughly 15 to 20 thousand combatants and over 30 thousand reservists. On the other hand, the Syrian theatre offers a chance for the militias to test their skills in urban and rural combat and to test the use of new instruments of war (such as thermal cameras that can spot an enemy at a distance and that seem to have produced significant results against the Islamic militias).

The UN is just sitting there

One could be tempted to think that the presence of the United Nations both in the south of Lebanon (UNIFIL) and in the Golan heights (UNDOF) would defuse these threats but, as everyone knows by now, the international forces have neither the possibility to ensure peace (peace keeping) nor to impose it (peace enforcing). They are nothing more than a symbolic presence.

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