Hezbol­lah and Le­banon re­spond with re­straint, sus­pi­cion to North­ern Shield

The Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - ANAL­Y­SIS • By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Hezbol­lah and its al­lies in the re­gion have re­sponded to Op­er­a­tion North­ern Shield with be­mused in­credulity.

While some Le­banese me­dia have broad­casted im­ages of Is­rael’s work to dis­man­tle the tun­nels, over­all the re­sponse has been tepid.

Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri com­mented on the op­er­a­tion on Wed­nes­day, say­ing that Le­banon guards its sovereignty, an in­sin­u­a­tion that his coun­try had not al­lowed the tun­nels to be built and en­ter Is­rael. The state­ment was de­signed to make it seem the gov­ern­ment was un­aware of their ex­is­tence.

The cen­tral nar­ra­tive of me­dia sym­pa­thetic to Hezbol­lah is to por­tray Is­rael’s ac­tiv­ity as an “in­ter­nal” Is­raeli is­sue.

For in­stance, Al-Maay­deen ran an ar­ti­cle ask­ing what the rea­sons are for Is­rael’s op­er­a­tion: “Is­rael has a cri­sis in its in­abil­ity to launch an at­tack against Le­banon and Syria,” the web­site of the satel­lite tele­vi­sion sta­tion said.

The whole of­fen­sive was “fab­ri­cated,” the ar­ti­cle as­serts, and is a re­sult of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s bat­tle with his own gov­ern­ment after the “fail­ure” in Gaza – re­fer­ring to Novem­ber’s clashes with Ha­mas in which the ter­ror­ist group fired 460 rock­ets into Is­rael be­fore a cease­fire was called and de­fense min­is­ter Avig­dor Liber­man re­signed.

The ar­ti­cle then claims that Is­rael has been cur­tailed from en­ter­ing Syr­ian airspace after Rus­sia de­ployed the S-300 de­fense sys­tem with Syr­ian air de­fense, lead­ing it to have “launched mis­siles re­motely on Novem­ber 29,” re­fer­ring to air strikes that took place south of Da­m­as­cus, which it blamed on Is­rael.

Al-Akhbar, a Le­banese daily, also had an ar­ti­cle on Thurs­day that claimed the search for the tun­nels was an in­ter­nal Is­raeli is­sue and that it would not likely es­ca­late. The ar­ti­cle con­sisted pri­mar­ily of dis­cus­sions about what Is­raeli me­dia are say­ing about the op­er­a­tion.

Al-Manar tele­vi­sion sta­tion, which is af­fil­i­ated with Hezbol­lah, ran an ar­ti­cle de­tail­ing how the Le­banese army has sought to con­firm Is­rael’s claims of tun­nels. It also noted that Le­banon de­manded Is­rael re­turn the Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) area, a dis­puted bor­der re­gion con­trolled by Is­rael that Hezbol­lah has long used as an ex­cuse to main­tain its ar­se­nal of “re­sis­tance.”

At the same time, as me­dia have down­played the op­er­a­tion and por­trayed it as an Is­raeli is­sue un­likely to af­fect Le­banon, the mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal elites in Le­banon have sought to de­mand proof that the tun­nels came from Le­banon or en­tered Is­raeli ter­ri­tory.

The Le­banese army has said that so far Is­raeli ac­tiv­ity along the bor­der has not en­tered Le­banese ter­ri­tory.

The re­view of re­gional me­dia’s re­ac­tions to Op­er­a­tion North­ern Shield re­veals a very tepid re­sponse. This is par­tic­u­larly true among Ira­nian pro-regime me­dia, Syria’s state me­dia and those chan­nels that are sym­pa­thetic to Hezbol­lah. This group of me­dia usu­ally have sim­i­lar nar­ra­tives and Iran’s es­pe­cially has been in the habit of boast­ing re­cently about var­i­ous new mis­siles and pro­grams that threaten Is­rael.

Yet, in the last few days, Tehran has been more quiet in its ap­proach. Sim­i­larly Hezbol­lah’s boast­ing has been re­duced. Last Fri­day Hezbol­lah re­leased a video threat­en­ing sites through­out Is­rael with re­tal­i­a­tion in case of at­tack. What is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing is that Hezbol­lah’s nar­ra­tive is pri­mar­ily about re­tal­i­a­tion, not its pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sions of in­vad­ing the Galilee. This re­sponse ap­pears to seek to deesca­late the sit­u­a­tion along the north­ern bor­der, and also to in­di­cate that Hezbol­lah doesn’t care about its tun­nels be­ing dis­man­tled. This would be in line with its claims that the tun­nels are ac­tu­ally more mun­dane ac­tiv­i­ties, such as claim­ing one was ac­tu­ally part of a le­git­i­mate ce­ment fac­tory.

Over­all the Le­banese nar­ra­tive, whether associated with Hezbol­lah or the op­po­si­tion par­ties such as Hariri’s po­lit­i­cal coali­tion, is adamant about not want­ing an es­ca­la­tion.

For Hezbol­lah this is an em­bar­rass­ment – its tun­nels have been ex­posed and it is left un­able to re­spond.

But Hezbol­lah has also been keen on re­group­ing after its in­volve­ment in the war in Syria and the losses it suf­fered there. It en­joys the war of words with Jerusalem, where Is­rael ac­cuses Hezbol­lah of var­i­ous ne­far­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties – such as hous­ing weapons in Beirut – and Hezbol­lah says any ac­tion by Is­rael will be met with re­tal­i­a­tion.

But it may be more wary of es­ca­lat­ing an ac­tual con­flict. This is not a cal­cu­la­tion only for Hezbol­lah. Its al­lies in the Syr­ian regime and Tehran are also keenly aware of the risks in­volved in es­ca­la­tion. Syria ap­pears to think it is close to hav­ing an air-de­fense um­brella with Rus­sian sup­port and its S-300 sys­tem. It too wants to con­sol­i­date gains on its south­ern bor­der after hav­ing de­feated the Syr­ian rebels there five months ago.

So far Op­er­a­tion North­ern Shield has been ac­com­plished with quiet on the bor­der.

(Aziz Ta­her/Reuters)

IS­RAELI SOL­DIERS pa­trol near the north­ern bor­der, as seen this week from the vil­lage of Kfar Kila, in south Le­banon.

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