(July 31, 2020 / JNS) In light of threats from Hezbollah to retaliate over the death of one of its members in Syria last week, the Israel Defense Force has sent reinforcements to its northern border including advanced fire capabilities, intelligence collection systems and special operational units. But so far, instead of any actual fighting, Israel and Hezbollah are engaged in a game of theatrics and psychological warfare.
On July 27, according to media reports, a Hezbollah terrorist cell crossed the blue line border a few meters into Israeli-controlled territory in the Shebaa Farm region, where it was repelled by Israeli troops, who purposely avoided killing them so as to avoid deterioration into heavier conflict.
But according to most analysts, this was not Hezbollah’s official response and a more severe one is imminent.
Tal Beeri, head of the research department at the Israel-based Alma research and education center, told JNS that Hezbollah’s response “will most likely be limited because it is probable that at this time, Hezbollah is not interested in a wide-scale confrontation with Israel.”
On July 20, an airstrike took place in the region of Damascus. The attack, according to Syrian media outlets, was carried out by Israel and was reportedly aimed at warehouses and weapons depots linked to Iran and Hezbollah.
As a result of the attack, which also included locations in the area of the Damascus military airport, a Lebanese Hezbollah operative named Ali Kamal Muhsem Jawad was killed. In the same attack, a number of Shiite militia operatives and Syrian soldiers were also reportedly injured.
According to Beeri, “Hezbollah will respond in accordance with the equation set by [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah.”
That equation states that Hezbollah will respond to any harm to its operatives at a time and place it sees fit. Thus, Hezbollah can respond from either Lebanon, Syria or elsewhere.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah has vowed in the past to retaliate over any fighter that Israel kills in Syria. The group fired a barrage of anti-tank missiles into Israel in September 2019 after two of its fighters were killed in an Israeli airstrike near Damascus days earlier.
That prompted a reprisal of heavy Israeli artillery fire and then Israel, engaging in psychological warfare, faked injuries to its soldiers to make Hezbollah believe it caused damage, thereby allowing the terror group to avoid an escalation while saving face.
Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in 2006, which ended in what was widely considered a draw.
There has been some speculation that Hezbollah would temper its response now since it is perceived as running Lebanon’s government and would therefore want to avoid a massive deterioration in the situation on the ground at this time as Lebanon is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades.
Orna Mizrahi, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS while it is clear the political situation in Lebanon “greatly affects Hezbollah and its decisions and considerations vis-à-vis Israel” presenting Hezbollah as the one that runs Lebanon is not accurate.
According to Mizrahi, the terror organization “operates behind the scenes and influences decision-making” but is certainly not Lebanon’s sole leader.
Mizrahi believes Hezbollah’s interests are two-fold. “It wants to promote some action that will be considered a retaliatory action to preserve its deterrence, and at the same time contain its response so that it will not cause deterioration into a wider conflict in which it is not currently interested.”
General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), conducted a one-day visit to Lebanon on July 8 and met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
“Hezbollah remains a problem, it remains an issue,” McKenzie acknowledged during a briefing.
“I think it would be a great mistake for Hezbollah to try to carry out operations against Israel,” he said. “I can’t see that having a good ending.”
According to Beeri, regardless of McKenzie’s warning, Hezbollah will respond in a limited way.
“However,” he said, “there is a possibility that even if the intention is to respond in a limited way, this can lead to a deterioration and a possible comprehensive overall confrontation.”
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