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Emboldened by Israel’s restraint, Hizbullah is defining new rules of engagement

By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
web posted April 24, 2023

Speaking on April 13, 2023, at a ceremony marking “Quds (Jerusalem) Day” – an annual event in support of the Palestinians held on the last Friday of Ramadan – Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah pledged to respond against any Israeli attack in Lebanon following the latest major cross-border escalation.

Describing the outbreak as “an important and major event,” Nasrallah said that Hizbullah’s “policy of silence is the best choice in managing the battle with the enemy….There is no need to dive into details or answer questions that the enemy is still confused about,” Nasrallah added.

Nasrallah said: “This year, there were many significant developments and events at the global level, the regional level, the Palestinian level, and within Israel. All these developments, in my opinion, serve in a way to affirm our long struggle along the axis of resistance with Israel, the Zionist occupation, and American hegemony.”

Nasrallah’s speech came within days of the rocket attack on Israel by Hamas from Lebanon (April 6), a Nasrallah meeting in Beirut with the heads of Hamas (April 9), and a meeting with Iranian IRGC-Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani together with leaders of Hamas, Hizbullah, and Islamic Jihad at the Iranian embassy in Beirut, apparently on April 5 at an Iftar dinner. According to the Wall Street Journal, IRGC advisers “landed in Beirut to plan for a strike on Israel.” Esmail Qaani “held a series of clandestine meetings with militant leaders across the region in recent weeks, including some operating in Syria and Iraq.”

Al-Nahar columnist Radwan Aqil provided more details of the Iftar meeting and a fuller guest list:

Alongside senior Hizbullah officials, headed by [Hizbullah’s] deputy secretary-general, Sheik Naim Qassem, [the meeting] was also attended by senior officials of the [Houthi] Ansar Allah [movement] in Yemen and Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi in Iraq, and by a group of Palestinian leaders from the PIJ and Hamas, headed by Ziad Al-Nakhaleh and Isma’il Haniya from Gaza. The most prominent of those present at the meeting, which Hizbullah convenes every Ramadan, was the commander of the Qods Force, Esmail Qaani.

Nasrallah vowed that Hizbullah “will respond appropriately against any attack or security act in Lebanon.”

Mocking Israel, Nasrallah said that the Israelis chose to hit “banana groves” and a water irrigation channel instead of a meaningful target in retaliation, fearing a military flare-up with Iran’s allies: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, and Iran’s proxy militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

A video released by the Israeli army on July 2, 2022, shows a drone launched by Iran-backed Hizbullah heading toward the Karish offshore gas field in the Mediterranean.
A video released by the Israeli army on July 2, 2022, shows a drone launched by Iran-backed Hizbullah heading toward the Karish offshore gas field in the Mediterranean.

Nasrallah’s rhetoric against Israel is not new, but it indeed has reached unprecedented degrees of provocation and audacity that are leading the Hizbullah leader to impose on Israel new rules of engagement in the region. This trend began in 2022 when Hizbullah put the issue of delimiting the maritime border with Israel high on its agenda. Hizbullah warned that if Israel would not agree to surrender to Lebanon “usurped” gas fields, then Hizbullah would not hesitate to confront Israel militarily, threatening to strike Israeli gas fields in the Mediterranean. Hizbullah concluded that the three drones it directed toward Israel’s “Karish” gas field on July 2, 2022, convinced Israel to compromise and surrender to Lebanon its maritime rights in the area. The domestic debate inside Israel, with the parliamentary opposition accusing the government of yielding under Hizbullah pressure, only reinforced Nasrallah’s assessment that Israel had agreed to compromise out of weakness.

This assessment relating to the Israeli lack of resolve crystallized since the election of a new government in Jerusalem and the protests against the judicial overhaul. The schism inside Israeli society, together with the positions expressed by groups of Israeli reservists that they would not respond to the call to IDF duty due to the judicial overhaul debate, was perceived by Israel’s enemies as the beginning of the end of the Zionist state: an erosion from inside that would hasten the end of the Israeli adventure.

Moreover, the irritations in Israeli-American relations and the surprising Saudi-Iranian-Bahraini-Emirati reconciliation convinced Nasrallah that the Arab Sunni-Israeli axis Israel sought to establish against Iran was stillborn. On the contrary, it signified more than any other development Israel’s renewed isolation in the Middle East and the end of the Israeli option to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and infrastructures.

In parallel, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad became aware that during the “Guardian of the Walls” clashes in 2021, a synergy had been established between the confrontations on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where a battle was waged “to save the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Israel’s alleged change of the Jerusalem status quo existing since 1967, and the rocky domestic scene in Israel manifested in violent protests by Israeli Arabs in mixed Arab-Jewish towns. The violence illustrated the volatility of the security situation inside Israel and the lack of cohesion inside Israeli society.

This latest development allowed Hamas and Hizbullah (and Iran) to pose as the protectors of the holy places in Jerusalem and threaten Israel that any harm to those places would lead to a military confrontation with Hamas and Hizbullah.

Israel responded by intensifying air attacks on Hizbullah and Iranian targets in Syria and elsewhere, and, unlike in the past, Israel claimed responsibility for these attacks – no more opacity. In addition, Israel attacked “relief convoys” sent by Iran to assist the earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, which were really shipments of weapons and sophisticated equipment to its proxies in Lebanon and Syria, while refraining from targeting Hizbullah’s facilities in Lebanon.

Those attacks have prompted Tehran to devise a step-by-step strategy whereby if Israel forcefully suppresses a flare-up on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, it would automatically trigger missile salvos on Israel from Iranian proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. In response to such an attack, Israel would react, thus initiating an escalation with Israel attacked from four fronts: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories in Judea and Samaria. This scenario may have been the reason behind Israel’s Minister of Defense’s media appearance to express his concern to the Israeli public.

Hamas began this chain of events by sending a lone terrorist to cross the border in Israel’s north on March 13, 2023. He succeeded in placing an IED near Megiddo Junction before being killed on his way back to Lebanon. Then, drones launched from Syria were intercepted. Finally, a salvo of 34 rockets was fired from a Hamas launch site in Lebanon (the first since the Second Lebanon War in 2006), with the quiet authorization of Hizbullah. Israel’s response was timid and limited – a retaliation that became the target of Hassan Nasrallah’s mockery.

Nasrallah seems convinced he has the upper hand in his fight against Israel. He has presented himself now as the patron of the Palestinian cause and has very openly warned Israel not to trespass his “red lines.” The Hizbullah chief enumerated these points:

  1. Any attack on Lebanese soil would meet an adequate response (be it a Hizbullah target or Palestinian or Lebanese).

  2. Israel’s freedom of maneuver in Syria will soon end, and with it will end what Israel calls “the war between the wars.”

  3. Nasrallah called to send funds and weapons to the Palestinian factions inside Israel.

  4. Attacks or provocations (by Jewish extremists) on Muslim or Christian holy places would be met by Hizbullah.

Nasrallah seems confident that Israel is living on borrowed time because of its domestic weakness, political schism, growing economic crisis, the exit of Israeli companies from Israel, the race to get foreign passports by Israelis, and the lack of dynamic resolve. It will be faced very soon with annihilation. For him, Hizbullah and Israel have established a balance of deterrence. The situational box in which he was considered deterred from action after the Second Lebanon War no longer exists. Contemptuously, he declared, “The Israelis themselves acknowledge that the balance of deterrence is what made their response to what happened in the south limited and silly.”

Nasrallah’s vision is not the first time an Arab leader misconstrued Israeli reality. Many Arab leaders before Nasrallah had the same dream, and their failure to read and analyze the Israeli polity and society proved to be to their disadvantage in the end. ESR

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.


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