(December 4, 2018 / JNS) Every few months, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah makes a point of warning Israel not to attack Lebanon and make all sorts of threats. Last week, he did so using aerial footage of strategic targets in Israel, including the Israel Defense Forces’ headquarters in Tel Aviv, captioned “If you strike, you will regret it.”
While normally one could say that Nasrallah’s threats serve an internal propaganda purpose, the most recent declarations appear to indicate that Hezbollah believed an Israeli strike was imminent.
These speculations were likely fueled by frequent statements made by senior Israeli officials, whose main concern is the growing threat posed by Hezbollah’s arsenal buildup.
Hezbollah believes that Israel has been laying the groundwork for a potential strike in Lebanon, taking into account a number of indicators: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presentation at the United Nations in September, in which he revealed that the Shi’ite terrorist group was increasing its missile-production facilities in Beirut; the reports exposing Iranian cargo planes that delivered weapons directly to Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Netanyahu’s speech two weeks ago, at the height of a political crisis, in which he suggested it was a “highly sensitive time, security-wise.”
Hezbollah-affiliated media in Lebanon tried to downplay these concerns, saying that the Israeli rhetoric is designed to cause panic in Lebanon, but no one was actually able to breathe easier.
Clearly, neither Israel nor Hezbollah are interested in another war, but recent developments on the Israel-Lebanon border indicate that, given the simmering tensions there, a major flare-up is only a matter of time.
The first prominent development in the sector has to do with what appears to be Israel’s narrowing operational leeway with respect to operating in Syria against Iranian weapon shipments to Hezbollah, in the wake of the Sept. 17 downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane by Syrian air defenses trying to counter an Israeli airstrike.
The incident sparked a crisis between Jerusalem and Moscow, and the Russian government decided to supply Syria with S-300 missile-defense systems, which could pose a direct threat to Israeli aircraft. While those have yet to become operational, Israel has all but refrained from operating in Syria in recent weeks.
The second development most likely evolved from the first: It seems that Iran, whose operational leeway in Syria has also been curtailed by Russia, has come to the conclusion that it would be best if it delivered weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon directly, thus avoiding the more vulnerable Syrian routes.
There is no doubt that these direct deliveries, especially of equipment meant to upgrade Hezbollah’s projectile arsenal with precision-missiles, attests to Tehran’s increasing audacity, as it appears to no longer even try to deny that it is transferring weapons to Hezbollah.
This also attests as to Nasrallah’s self-confidence, which has been fueled by his success in propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime throughout the Syrian civil war. The Shiite terrorist group sided with Assad on Iran’s orders and has gained valuable military experience in fighting alongside the Syrian army.
But, as aforementioned, Nasrallah’s confidence has begun to wane amid public declarations by Israeli officials asserting that Israel will not allow Iran to turn Lebanon into a front with Israel.
Still, Israeli decision-makers face a complex dilemma. Hezbollah is believed to be in possession of 150,000 advanced projectiles—far more advanced than anything Hamas has—and Nasrallah repeatedly boasts they are capable of striking any target anywhere in Israel.
Moreover, a strike in Lebanon is not akin to a strike in Syria. With the Syrian civil war practically over, Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the master of the Syrian domain, meaning that while Jerusalem and Moscow may have their conflict of interests, there is someone to reason with if need be, and someone who can, to an extent, curb the Iranians.
Lebanon, on the other hand, is plagued by serious political turmoil that sees Prime Minister Saad Hariri (whose father, Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, was assassinated by Hezbollah in 2005) and Nasrallah constantly lock horns.
Given Hezbollah’s considerable political clout in the Lebanese parliament, Nasrallah is the real master of the Lebanese domain, and there is no one there who can stop him.
This is why defense officials believe that an Israeli operation in Lebanon, even a limited one, would not necessarily meet a measured response by Hezbollah, making the potential for a full-scale war, which would expose the Israeli homefront to thousands of missiles, far greater.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.