Twenty years ago, on May 15, 2000, I was attending a small, elite gathering of a major lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. Dennis Ross, who had then been the Special Middle East Coordinator for President Bill Clinton, addressed the group. Those were the days when negotiations were in full swing between former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak giving up the Golan Heights to Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Ambassador Ross casually mentioned that “we have people in our embassy in Damascus, and they watch every day as Boeing 747 planes leave from Tehran with men, arms and equipment for Hezbollah, refuel in Damascus and land in Beirut.”
I raised my hand, and asked the ambassador how, when the Clinton administration was in the midst of serious discussions with Assad, they are allowing this to happen. His response: “Yes, I have brought this up to President Clinton, and he expressed his concern.”
“Expressing concern” is diplomatic double-speak for doing nothing.
Just 10 days after that fateful meeting, on May 25, 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon.
Now in the time to reflect and examine how that withdrawal worked out.
In 2004, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which called upon all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.
Of course, the Israelis had been so careful to withdraw from southern Lebanon that they painted the stones blue, hence the term “the blue line.”
The Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, however, has gotten increasingly entrenched into that territory. They have become a massive force to reckon with—the size of a regular army—with an arsenal of approximately 150,000 rockets staring down at Israel.
And all this takes place under the watchful eye of the utterly useless U.N. International Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
There are now conversion factories within Lebanon where their dummy missiles are having GPSs inserted into them, so with precision-guided missiles installed in them they can be programmed to strike critical points in Israel’s infrastructure.
We know that Israel has a sophisticated missile-defense system that can handle incoming missiles one at a time. We do not know whether they are capable of handling swarms of missiles, like flocks of vultures, which we know that Hezbollah is preparing for.
On April 17, the fence separating Israel and Lebanon was penetrated in three separate places, and pictures were hung up of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Qassem Soleimani, former the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who had been killed at Baghdad Airport in a U.S. airstrike on Jan. 3. By April 21, Hezbollah made clear in its official website, Al-Akhbar, that they were responsible for breaching the border.
After the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the United States began giving the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) approximately $224 million annually so that it will act as leverage against Hezbollah.
However, now it seems that Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and the LAF are totally enmeshed, so that it’s difficult to know where the margins of the LAF ends and Hezbollah’s begins. As Professor Efraim Inbar from the Jerusalem Center for Strategy and Security says, “The LAF and Hezbollah are now one and the same.”
The LAF shares their uniforms with Hezbollah; they go on joint patrols together. We have seen photos of American-made armored vehicles with Hezbollah members driving them, and photos on the LAF’s own website of Hezbollah members with flags of both the LAF and Hezbollah.
Lebanese society is a mosaic of cultures. Southern Lebanon, however, is dominated by Hezbollah. As U.S. Ambassador to Israel Ron Dermer said to me approximately two months ago, “I could point to any house in southern Lebanon, and the owner will say to you, ‘Here is my bedroom; here is my kitchen; here is my rocket room.’ ”
Hezbollah controls two major ministries in the Lebanese government, and the Lebanese Prime Minister, Hussein Diab, although Sunni, was nominated by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has grown from a force of approximately 600 men when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon In 2000 to the formidable size of approximately 40,000 men today, with a vast arsenal of rockets.
This answers the question as to how the withdrawal from southern Lebanon worked out.
Israel is now careful to avoid a direct conflict with the Shi’ite force in southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah is well aware of Israel’s massive artillery power. They therefore now play a “cat and mouse game.”
Israel strikes at empty Hezbollah vehicles. Hezbollah cuts holes in fences.
Still, Israel is extremely careful not to provoke a war.
The failed state of Syria, however, provides fertile ground for Israel to prevent a further build-up of men, arms and equipment en route to Lebanon, or for Syria becoming another front dominated by Hezbollah. According to reports from the Syrian news agency, on May 5, the Israeli Air Force attacked Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Studies Center (Syria’s most important research and development center), used to develop chemical and biological weapons, and an essential component In Iran’s efforts to equip Hezbollah.
As to the wisdom of America’s annual aid to the LAF?
As Lt. Col. Sarit Zehavi of the Israel Defense Forces and director of the think tank dedicated to Israel northern border, Alma, said today, “I am afraid in the next war, the LAF will be fighting alongside Hezbollah.”
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.