Is­rael, Hezbol­lah share un­easy peace, but both pre­pared for dev­as­tat­ing war

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - GPS - WIL­LIAM BOOTH

MIS G AV AM, Is­rael — When Is­raeli army com­man­ders de­scribe how the next war against Hezbol­lah could un­fold, they of ten use words such as “fe­ro­cious” and “ter­ri­ble.”

For both sides, the Is­raelis fear. Yet far worse for Hezbol­lah and the civil­ians of Le­banon, they prom­ise.

Ten years af­ter Is­rael and Hezbol­lah fought a bloody but in­con­clu­sive 34-day war that left more than 1,000 sol­diers and civil­ians dead in July and Au­gust of 2006, the Le­banese Shi­ite mil­i­tant group has been trans­formed.

Hezbol­lah is now a re­gional mil­i­tary power, a cross­bor­der strike force, with thou­sands of sol­diers hardened by four years of fight­ing on Syr­ian bat­tle­fields on be­half of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. There are 7,000 Hezbol­lah fighters in Syria, Is­raeli com­man­ders say.

Hezbol­lah troops have been schooled by Ira­nian com­man­ders, funded by Tehran and have learned to use some of the most so­phis­ti­cated ar­ma­ments avail­able, such as fourth-gen­er­a­tion Kor­net guided anti-tank mis­siles. They pi­lot un­manned air­craft and fight with ar­tillery and tanks to con­cen­trate forces, co-or­di­nate at­tacks. They have taken rebel vil­lages with Rus­sian air sup­port.

More than 1,000 Hezbol­lah fighters have died, the Is­raelis say; they do not de­scribe Hezbol­lah as “de­mor­al­ized” but “tested.”

“In 2006, Hezbol­lah fought a guer­rilla war. Today, Hezbol­lah is like a con­ven­tional army,” said Elias Hanna, a re­tired Le­banese army gen­eral who teaches at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Beirut.

Is­rael fought the first Le­banon war in 1982 against the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion, a con­flict that saw Is­rael oc­cupy south­ern Le­banon and lay siege to Beirut. Hezbol­lah arose dur­ing that war. The sec­ond Le­banon war broke out in July 2006 af­ter Hezbol­lah kid­napped a pair of Is­raeli sol­diers on the bor­der.

Ten years ago, Hezbol­lah fired 4,000 short-range, rel­a­tively crude rock­ets at Is­rael, about 100 a day, killing some 50 Is­raeli civil­ians. Today, the group has 100,000 rock­ets, in­clud­ing thou­sands of more ac­cu­rate mid-range weapons with larger war­heads ca­pa­ble of strik­ing any­where in Is­rael, in­clud­ing Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, ac­cord­ing to Is­raeli army com­man­ders and mil­i­tary an­a­lysts in Is­rael and Le­banon.

Hezbol­lah poses a far greater threat to Is­rael than it did 10 years ago. The chal­lenges posed by Is­lamist mil­i­tant move­ment Ha­mas in the Gaza Strip are al­most triv­ial by com­par­i­son, Is­raeli se­nior com­man­ders say.

Ear­lier this year, Is­rael De­fense Forces Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot called Hezbol­lah Is­rael’s “main en­emy” now that Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions may have been de­layed by a decade or more.

In Is­rael’s far north, Mis­gav Am kib­butz sits on a hill­top above the Le­banon bor­der. There is a pop­u­lar over­look. There is a gift shop for the tour buses.

On a sunny morn­ing, an Is­raeli army colonel stood on the hill and pointed to­ward Le­banese vil­lages at his feet.

“You see vil­las, red tile roofs, sum­mer homes. You don’t see sol­diers in uni­forms. They don’t wear uni­forms. It looks nice and peace­ful, right?” said the com­man­der of a para­trooper re­serve bri­gade, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

“I see rocket rooms, weapons caches, un­der­ground com­pounds,” he said.

Is­raeli mil­i­tary lead­ers say Hezbol­lah has spent the past decade trans­form­ing hun­dreds of vil­lages in south­ern Le­banon into covert fire bases with hid­den launch pads, many rigged to op­er­ate by remote.

In brief­ings with re­porters in Tel Aviv, Is­raeli mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers in the past year have be­gun to show aerial pho­to­graphs of vil­lages in Hezbol­lah’s south­ern strong­hold. A pho­to­graph of Muhay­bib, a town south of here, is cov­ered with red squares mark­ing the place­ment of what the Is­raelis say are com­mand posts, anti-tank po­si­tions, tun­nels and launch pads. Is­rael says there are 90 build­ings in the vil­lage of 1,100 peo­ple and that 35 build­ings are be­ing used by Hezbol­lah. The mes­sage is im­plicit: This is a tar­get list. “Hezbol­lah is not a group or a or­ga­ni­za­tion or a move­ment. It’s an army. A big ter­ror­ist army,” said the para­trooper com­man­der, who is a vet­eran of the 2006 Le­banon war. “We un­der­stand that peo­ple here find them­selves in the mid­dle. The next war will be a ter­ri­ble war. I think they un­der­stand too that the next war will be dif­fer­ent.”

Speak­ing pub­licly, the Is­raeli gen­er­als prom­ise that if Hezbol­lah launches mass strikes against Is­raeli cities, Is­rael will be com­pelled to re­spond, with 10 times as much force. The com­man­ders say they can­not al­low Is­raeli cities to face 1,000 Hezbol­lah rock­ets a day.

His­to­ri­ans say the 2006 war came as a sur­prise for both sides. Hezbol­lah kid­napped two Is­raeli sol­diers at the bor­der, which sparked a sus­tained aerial and ground war by Is­raeli forces, and tough re­sis­tance by Hezbol­lah. Both claimed vic­tory, but nei­ther won. In Is­rael, the 2006 Le­banon war is widely viewed by Is­raelis as a mil­i­tary fail­ure. Hezbol­lah boasted that it had stood toe-to-toe with the most pow­er­ful army in the Mid­dle East, but the wide­spread de­struc­tion and civil­ian deaths were un­pop­u­lar.

As the 10-year an­niver­sary ap­proached, both Hezbol­lah and Is­rael stressed that they do not want an­other war, even as both de­clared them­selves ready for one.

“Is­rael knows Hezbol­lah has mis­siles and rock­ets that can strike any­where in its ter­ri­tory,” said the group’s leader, Hasan Nas­ral­lah.

Nas­ral­lah warned that Hezbol­lah rock­ets could strike am­mo­nia plants at the port in Haifa in any fu­ture fight, say­ing that the dam­age would be equiv­a­lent to an atomic bomb and could lead to the death of 800,000 peo­ple.

“Haifa is just one of many ex­am­ples,” he said. “The lead­ers of Is­rael un­der­stand that the re­sis­tance has the abil­ity to cover the en­tirety of oc­cu­pied Pales­tine with mis­siles. We must keep this ca­pa­bil­ity be­cause it acts as a de­ter­rent for the third Le­banon war.”

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu re­cently said, “If the quiet is kept, those fac­ing us will en­joy quiet.” Then he warned that Hezbol­lah ag­gres­sion would be met by “an iron fist.”

Today, Hezbol­lah has lost some of its previous lus­tre be­cause of its de­ci­sion to fight for As­sad in a war that be­came deeply sec­tar­ian, Shi­ite against Sunni.

Go­ing to Syria might have turned Nas­ral­lah from “a hero to a zero” for many in the Arab world, said Sami Nader, direc­tor of the Le­vant In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Af­fairs.

“But the Syria war also em­bold­ened them and sharp­ened his mil­i­tary skills,” he said. “Hezbol­lah may be tempted to en­gage Is­rael in what it hopes is a lim­ited war to re­cover their prestige.”

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