Is Hezbol­lah re­ally Is­rael’s most volatile threat?

The Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - ANAL­Y­SIS • BY CHARLES BYBELEZER

The launch of Op­er­a­tion North­ern Shield to un­cover and de­stroy Hezbol­lah’s net­work of cross-bor­der tun­nels con­tex­tu­al­izes the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion last month to swal­low some tough pills and a lit­tle pride in or­der to avert full-blown con­flict against Ha­mas. At the time, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, un­der sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal and pub­lic pres­sure, spoke cryp­ti­cally of Is­rael al­ready be­ing en­gaged in a mil­i­tary cam­paign and that an “un­nec­es­sary war” in the Gaza Strip would de­rail this un­de­fined en­deavor.

While the move was still panned by a ma­jor­ity of Is­raelis and led to the res­ig­na­tion of de­fense min­is­ter Avig­dor Liber­man – who called the choice a “ca­pit­u­la­tion to ter­ror” – it is now clear that Ne­tanyahu, with the back­ing of the mil­i­tary, was pri­or­i­tiz­ing the north­ern threat that ev­i­dently de­manded im­me­di­ate ac­tion.

That plans to de­stroy Hezbol­lah’s ter­ror tun­nels were dis­cussed dur­ing se­cu­rity meet­ings ahead of a fi­nal de­ci­sion on Gaza dis­pels the no­tion that the premier is act­ing out of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­est in or­der to de­flect at­ten­tion away from the crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions against him. His trip to Brus­sels on Mon­day to pro­vide ad­vanced warn­ing of the IDF op­er­a­tion to US Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo re­in­forces that cur­rent de­vel­op­ments have been weeks in the mak­ing.

There is lit­tle ar­gu­ment among an­a­lysts that Hezbol­lah poses a far greater dan­ger to Is­rael than Ha­mas. In­deed, Ne­tanyahu over the past two months re­peat­edly has warned that Iran’s Le­banese ter­ror proxy is con­struct­ing un­der­ground fac­to­ries ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing pre­ci­sion-guided mis­siles that can tar­get crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture any­where in Is­rael.

No­tably, the prime min­is­ter de­scribed Op­er­a­tion North­ern Shield as a “small piece of the big pic­ture of our ef­forts and ac­tions to en­sure se­cu­rity on all fronts,” a com­ment con­strued as an in­di­ca­tion that the mis­sion may be a pre­cur­sor to con­fronting what is viewed as the more acute threat of Hezbol­lah’s arse­nal of 120,000 pro­jec­tiles.

Then there is the broader and more im­por­tant strate­gic goal of curb­ing Tehran’s re­gional ex­pan­sion­ism—fore­most its ef­fort to es­tab­lish a per­ma­nent mil­i­tary pres­ence in Syria – as well as pre­vent­ing its nu­cle­ariza­tion.

Ac­cord­ingly, Is­rael’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing process and re­lated cour­ses of ac­tion ap­pear well-cal­cu­lated and cor­rect.

Which would be truer if the sit­u­a­tion in Gaza was ac­tu­ally sta­ble.

In fact, news about the diplo­matic push to achieve a cease­fire agree­ment be­tween Is­rael and Ha­mas has con­spic­u­ously dis­ap­peared from the head­lines. It seems that the Egyp­tian-, Qatar­iand United Na­tions-me­di­ated ne­go­ti­at­ing process has reached a stand­still and, in­stead, the par­ties have re­signed them­selves to the re­turn of the long­stand­ing sta­tus quo of “quiet-for-quiet.”

“We are slowly mov­ing back to some sort of reg­u­lar­iza­tion that reestab­lishes the rules of the game set fol­low­ing Op­er­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge,” Brig.-Gen.(res.) Yossi Ku­per­wasser, formerly the di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the Strate­gic Af­fairs Min­istry and cur­rently head of the Project on Mid­dle East De­vel­op­ments at the Jerusalem Cen­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs, ex­plained to The Me­dia Line.

“A long-term cease­fire, how­ever, is not re­al­is­tic be­cause Ha­mas is un­will­ing to give up its ji­hadist iden­tity and its rule over Gaza. Be­cause of this, they are not ready for the type of truce that in­cludes se­ri­ous con­di­tions.” But while rock­ets are not in­dis­crim­i­nately rain­ing down on civil­ian cen­ters, the so- called “March of Re­turn” protests nev­er­the­less are on­go­ing, and one in­ci­dent along the bor­der can eas­ily in­flame ten­sions. Ad­di­tion­ally, there is the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­ter­nal in­ter­fer­ence, as the mul­lahs in Tehran might be tempted to in­struct their Pales­tinian prox­ies in Gaza to re­sume ter­ror op­er­a­tions with a view to di­vert­ing Is­rael’s mil­i­tary fo­cus from North to South.

More­over, the IDF un­doubt­edly will con­tinue to mon­i­tor and pur­sue ob­jec­tives in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory, which car­ries the risk of a botched op­er­a­tion sim­i­lar to that of Novem­ber 11, when an elite unit was iden­ti­fied 5 km. deep in Gaza. The en­su­ing fire­fight killed one se­nior IDF of­fi­cer and seven Ha­mas mem­bers and was a cat­a­lyst for the next day’s largest-ever 24-hour bar­rage of some 500 mis­siles fired into Is­rael.

“The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment has not for­got­ten about Gaza but right now the over­all sit­u­a­tion is more un­der con­trol. There is Qatari money and fuel go­ing in so things are less sen­si­tive,” Brig.-Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, former di­rec­tor of the Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Bu­reau at the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice and prior to that deputy com­man­der of the IDF’s Gaza Divi­sion, ex­plained to The Me­dia Line.

“A long-term cease­fire would be a ‘win-win’ sce­nario and cre­ate a to­tally dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment but this can­not hap­pen yet be­cause of [the in­tra-Pales­tinian di­vide and PA Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas’s re­fusal to re­as­sume con­trol over Gaza so long as Ha­mas re­tains its weapons.] How­ever, the cur­rent Ha­mas lead­er­ship knows two things: namely, that they will not be able to de­feat the State of Is­rael and that com­pro­mises will need to be made.

“In the long run,” he there­fore con­cluded, “so­lu­tions will be found. Un­til then, there can al­ways be mis­takes that could lead to an­other round of vi­o­lence.”

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