Eyal Zisser is assistant professor of Middle Eastern and African history at Tel Aviv University. He was formerly a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African studies. His books include: Syria under Asad - At a Crossroads (HaKibutz Hameuhad, 1999) and Lebanon - The Challenge of Independence (I.B. Tauris, 2000).
Hezbollah, a militant Islamic Shi`ite terrorist group, continues to pose a serious threat to Israeli security and regional stability. With newly acquired military capabilities, it is in a position where (compounded by the ongoing campaign of Palestinian terrorism) it could ignite a catastrophic conflict. Israel, the United States, and many Arab leaders need to examine the implications of Hezbollah-sponsored terrorism.
Hezbollah: The Model
Bashar al-Assad, the young president of Syria, is truly a part of a new elite emerging across the Arab world. These privileged leaders did not grow up with the deep impressions of disastrous Arab-Israeli conflicts on their mind, but instead remember the bloody carnage of the first Palestinian intifada, and, above all, Hezbollah's guerilla war against Israel, which forced a subsequent withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The consequences of the latter event looms large. It is precisely because of Hezbollah's success in southern Lebanon that the peril is clear and ominous. The retreat of Israel - a withdrawal not accompanied by a negotiated settlement - unequivocally conveyed a single message to the terrorists and tyrants of the Middle East: Israel is weak and can be defeated by a sustained war of terrorism. Hezbollah has become the model for international terrorists.
HAMAS and Islamic Jihad have been inspired to adopt the same tactic of employing homicide bombers, believing that Israel, after months of exhaustive violence, will capitulate. In fact, one can surely argue that a direct link exists between Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups committing violence against Israel. Simply look back to 1993 when Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin deported hundreds of HAMAS activists to Lebanon as a form of punishment. These fanatics actually received sophisticated paramilitary training in the methods of mass violence, later exporting these techniques to the territories.
Iranian Logic Adds to the Fire
The Iranian dimension to Hezbollah must also be thoroughly examined. Tehran has given Hezbollah far more than its spiritual guide and the means of sending young men to their deaths. Recently, Hezbollah has acquired over 10,000 rockets and missiles from Iran giving it the capability to unleash considerable firepower across the whole of Israel's northern frontier.
What is Iran's logic behind this daring and reckless venture? Its leaders saw what happened to Saddam Hussein in 1981 when Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor, and the mullahs do not want to be without any credible defense and deterrent. Tehran now believes that it is immune from any Israeli attack given what Hezbollah can now do in half an hour - force tens of thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters.
However, Iran is playing with a fire that it has stoked for many years and, with the latest missile shipments, the fire is no doubt more lethal. For Damascus and Tehran do not fully control Hezbollah and cannot fully constrain its agents. Therefore, the possibility exists that a newly well-armed Hezbollah could strike independent of any decision from its state sponsors.
"Lebanonization" or Not?
Currently, many commentators and analysts are preoccupied with an erroneous argument that Hezbollah is on a path of "Lebanonization." This reasoning posits that Hezbollah will, in time, become more integrated with Lebanese politics and abandon its military capabilities. This argument just doesn't hold water. Admittedly, Hezbollah has many faces - a political wing, a social services wing – but it also has a distinct military arm that it will not give up. Its long-term goal is the creation of an Islamic republic in Lebanon and the destruction of Israel; and Hezbollah sees violence as the only means to achieve these ends.
The current Israeli government is unlike any other. The military and political establishments are united when it comes to defending Israel and defeating terrorism. It will not hesitate to retaliate and harshly pursue their enemies. Hezbollah and its state sponsors, Syria and Iran, are thus engaged in a dangerous game that could engulf the region in war. The stakes are high indeed.