Sarit Zehavi, founder and president of the Alma Research and Education Center, which specializes in Israel's security challenges on its Lebanese border, spoke to an August 14th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the increasing tensions with Hizbullah, Iran's proxy in Lebanon. The following is a summary of her comments:
The Alma Center is an independent organization situated twelve kilometers from the Israeli-Lebanese border. It is comprised of former Israeli military intelligence professionals and Arabic media researchers who provide analyses of the "military capabilities of Hizbullah and other Iranian proxies in the region and in Iran itself." The center's recent report on CERS – the French initials for Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center – examining Syria's advanced weapons industry yields two main conclusions: (1) Contrary to announcements that Syria's infrastructure for the production of chemical weapons had been dismantled, it still exists and there is evidence it is now controlled by Hizbullah, and (2) Iran is gradually taking over this infrastructure throughout Syria.
Institution 4000, a Syrian entity within CERS that manufactures precision guided munitions (PGMs), is located at Masyaf in northwest Syria. Iranian control of this facility enables the Iranians to avoid using smuggling routes via Iraq to bring weaponry into Syria. The weaponry produced at CERS is distributed in Syria and to Hizbullah in Lebanon to advance Iran's "vision" of a multi-front campaign against Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. Physical changes at Israel's northern border are evidence of this shift.
Hizbullah operatives, combatants, and patrols at Israel's border probe, survey, and photograph Israel Defense Forces (IDF) positions. Hizbullah employs a "faux-environmental" organization, Green Without Borders (GWB), that positions itself at the Blue Line border between Lebanon and Israel to purportedly fight forest fires. GWB serves as a cover for Hizbullah to surveil Israeli troops, train Hizbullah in weaponry, and impede the UN Interim Force in Lebanon's (UNIFIL) freedom of movement. The U.S. State Department recently designated GWB as a terror organization.
The current escalation originated one year ago during the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel. Hizbullah threatened war, and Israel yielded under pressure. The subsequent agreement, under which Israel extracts gas from the disputed area and complies with Lebanon's conditions, signaled to Hizbullah that its "provocations" would go unchallenged. In recent months, Hizbullah's stream of terror attacks against Israel have included over thirty rockets launched into northern Israel, a thwarted terrorist loaded with explosives to kill Israelis, and two anti-tank missiles targeting a border village.
Following its successful challenge over the maritime issue last year, Hizbullah next probed how it would fare challenging its land border with the Jewish state. According to a UNIFIL report, in the past six months Hizbullah has been emboldened to "take much more risks" by committing "hundreds" of border violations against Israel. In 2000, following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, the UN recognized the subsequent land border, but it remained disputed by Lebanon.
A problem with the UN-marked and internationally recognized border is that it runs through "the middle of the town" of Ghajar, an Alawite municipality taken by from Syria by Israel in 1967. Its inhabitants became Israeli citizens when Israel annexed it in 1982, yet Lebanon and Hizbullah demand the northern part. A few months ago, Hizbullah erected some tents on Israel's side of the UN border, alleging that Israel's border violation was egregious. Israel opted to resolve the dispute diplomatically rather than responding to it aggressively — an unforced error that sent a clear message of weakness that "Netanyahu is not going in that direction."
For most of the seventeen years since a ceasefire ended the previous war Hizbullah launched against Israel in 2006, the status quo consisted of an errant Hizbullah-launched rocket "here and there" landing in Israel. However, it is "nothing like the reality that we're experiencing today." After the 2006 war, Hizbullah was busy "rebuilding its capabilities." Since the end of major combat operations in the Syrian civil war in 2018, Israel has exposed Hizbullah's tunnels that it had been preparing for "war and conflict with the state of Israel."
Hizbullah has more recently focused on improving the "rocket infrastructure, the human shield tactic, and ... offensive land capabilities" of its Radwan Brigade commando units they had primed to invade Israel through the now-exposed tunnel system, including by planning to deploy the Radwan brigades above ground.
What lies ahead extends beyond Hizbullah's border activity. The motivation to "draw the Israeli military attention from Iran['s] nuclear program to Lebanon" originates in Tehran and its decision-making strategy. Iran's rising self-confidence in the Middle East is attributable to international acceptance of its presence in Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen as the status quo. In addition, due to the weakness of the West and the war in Ukraine, the mullahs believe they do not have to "pay any price" for their nuclear activity. Iran's drones, which the Islamic Republic sells to Russia to use against Ukraine, contribute to Tehran's "feeling of supremacy." Given Lebanon's internal economic crisis, even with the impending normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, there is a sense there that Hizbullah has "very little to lose." Possibly Hizbullah has concluded that increasing escalation will not start a war, because Israel will not respond. Or perhaps the organization is genuinely seeking to escalate towards war; it is impossible to draw 100 percent certain conclusions in this regard. But it is beyond question that Hizbullah is escalating. "The bottom line is that there is a different risk management going on in the Israeli-Lebanese border, and today Hezbollah is willing to escalate the situation here, willing to take more risks."
Although many wonder whether the current turmoil engulfing Israeli society over the government's judicial reforms is contributing to Hizbullah's hostile acts, the terror group's actions predated the internal civil strife in Israel. In response, Israel's cabinet met recently to address the dilemma of postponing a war while still sending a clear message of deterrence to Hizbullah.
Israel is "never willing to go to war" unless Hizbullah crosses all the red lines, because "we know the cost of war" would be paid by our children. "Are we willing to go all the way? If we have to, we'll do that, but ... Israeli policy looks like now we're doing everything we can to avoid it or at least to postpone is as much as possible."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.