In early April 2002, Israel and Hizbullah seemed to be on the brink of war. Hizbullah had stepped up its military operations against Israeli targets, both military and civilian, along the border, creating a situation that Israel could tolerate no longer.

In early April 2002, Israel and Hizbullah seemed to be on the brink of war. Hizbullah had stepped up its military operations against Israeli targets, both military and civilian, along the border, creating a situation that Israel could tolerate no longer. Jerusalem sent a warning to Damascus, but it appeared that Syria's young leader, Bashshar al-Asad, failed to recognize the gravity of the situation. At times, he seemed indifferent to the possibility that the region might be plunged into war. At that moment, it looked inevitable that Israel would take military action, which might trigger a regional conflagration—or at the very least, war between Israel and Syria.[1]

Predictions of all-out war along Israel's northern border did not come true, and the frontier has settled into a period of relative calm—for the time being. For that calm is the result of decisions by radicals whose basic objective is to defeat calm. The April crisis subsided thanks to Hizbullah's own decision to suspend the offensive it had launched against Israel. Ominously, the restraining influence on Hizbullah appears to have been Iran, not Syria.

The events that took place in April along Israel's northern border confirm three crucial facts. First, Hizbullah has established its own "Hizbullahland," a territory in south Lebanon over which it has complete control. This territory serves as a home base both for Hizbullah's military operations against Israel and for mobilizing support for the organization's activities within Lebanon. The area lies outside the effective control of the Lebanese government, and even of Syria.

Second, Hizbullah has succeeded in recent years, and particularly since the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000, in building an impressive military capability. It has a rocket arsenal that includes thousands of Katyushas and more advanced rockets that cover the entire north of Israel.[2] Hizbullah's direct and immediate threat to the Israeli civilian population is greater than that of some neighboring Arab states.

Finally, and as a result of its territorial base and arms buildup, Hizbullah has become a powerful player in the region and enjoys much more independence than in the past. Syria, which once had an important say in the activities of the organization, has been brushed aside. For good or ill, Iran is now in charge.

All this has come as a cruel surprise to many analysts. After the Lebanese civil war came to an end in October 1989, and even more so after the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, these analysts predicted that Hizbullah would undergo a process of "Lebanonization"—becoming a Lebanese political movement, moderated by its local responsibilities. "Hizbullah has no appetite to launch a military campaign across the border, should Israel withdraw from the south," wrote one such analyst in 1998.[3] "Episodic attacks on Israel might occur from Lebanon, but the broadly popular resistance will close up shop when Israel leaves."[4]

It now seems obvious, however, that Hizbullah has not changed, and that it remains a radical and militant organization whose principal objective is to lead an armed struggle against Israel. The fact that in recent years its military power has grown to strategic proportions, with the aid and encouragement of Iran, proves that the Lebanese "veil" worn by Hizbullah is exceedingly thin. Sham "Lebanonization" allows the organization to continue building its military strength undisturbed and to attract a political following for future struggles, not only against Israel but also within Lebanon.

This situation has many implications, not only for tranquility along Israel's northern borders with Syria and Lebanon, but also for Lebanon's own future. An entity is taking shape within Lebanon that has the military power of a mini-state but that lacks the conventional restraints of a sovereign state. There is a precedent for this—the mini-state created in Lebanon by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s—and the tensions it created led to war. For now, the military confrontation along the Israel-Lebanon border has been postponed. But it is still a possibility; some might say that it is inevitable.

Post-Pullout

In May 2000, as the IDF completed its withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hizbullah portrayed this retreat—and rightly so to a certain extent—as an important historical victory in the Arab struggle against Israel.[5] For the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel had pulled out unconditionally from Arab land—without a peace treaty, without a cease-fire agreement, without even a tacit understanding that quiet would prevail on its border with Lebanon. On the contrary, both Damascus and Beirut made it very clear to Israel that its withdrawal would not guarantee the quiet it craved and that the armed struggle against Israel would continue.[6]

Following Israel's pullout, Hizbullah asserted its position as a rising force in the Arab and Muslim worlds and as a vanguard in the Arab and Muslim struggle against Israel. But along with the short-term rewards Hizbullah reaped when the IDF pulled out, the withdrawal accentuated the acute dilemma that had shadowed Hizbullah since the early 1990s: Would Israel's pullout, and with it the relaxation or even cessation of the armed struggle against Israel, bring about the "Lebanonization" of the organization?

Throughout the 1990s, most analysts believed that Hizbullah was undergoing a process of "Lebanonization" that would turn it into an ordinary Lebanese movement—an Islamist equivalent of such movements as the Communist Party, the Syrian Nationalist Party, the (mostly Shi'ite) Amal movement, the (mostly Druze) Progressive Party, and so on. This process of "Lebanonization," so people thought, would force Hizbullah to shelve its long-term goals, including its demand for an Islamic regime to replace the confessional order. This process, more importantly, would force Hizbullah to give up its military struggle against Israel.

True, throughout the 1990s, Hizbullah had made a great effort to establish itself as a political and social force, and in many respects it succeeded. From the outset, Hizbullah grounded itself in the Shi'ite community in Lebanon, which provided thousands of recruits and a mass constituency. For many Shi'ites in Lebanon, Hizbullah was and still is a legitimate force for social and political change. And it is true that Hizbullah today is something more than a quasi-military formation. Even were it to lay down its arms, it would continue to exist as a political and social movement.[7]

At the same time, however, it is also obvious today that the military mission of Hizbullah, including its armed struggle against Israel and the West, is central to the organization's world-view and practical agenda. Without it, Hizbullah would cease to exist as the heroic organization its followers have come to admire and support—a transformation that Hizbullah's current leaders will go to every length to avoid.

The tension Hizbullah is now experiencing—that is, the tension between the sweeping ideological goals on which it was nurtured and the need to adopt a pragmatic strategy in order to survive—is reminiscent of the tension experienced by other Muslim movements, such as Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Muslim Brethren movement in Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan. And yet Hizbullah's case is unique, for three major reasons.

First, Hizbullah's unprecedented success in its struggle against Israel and the West appears to have gone to its leaders' heads. This is especially true of its secretary general, Hasan Nasrallah, who now sees himself as a hero on a divine mission—due in part to his portrayal as a Shi'ite mastermind in the Israeli and Western media. Hizbullah has always been obsessed by its own media coverage and swayed by the media reports on Israel (which it follows assiduously). This has led the movement's leaders to make ever-more-boastful assessments of their own strength—and Israel's weakness. Nasrallah has set the tone, claiming that "Israel, which has both nuclear power and the strongest air force in the region, is weaker than a spider's web."[8] At the height of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign in March 2002, Sheikh Nabil Qa'uk, Hizbullah's commander in south Lebanon, determined that "Israel is exploding from the inside. Tel Aviv is turning into a city of ghosts. … Israel is down on the ground and bleeding at political, military, and security levels. All we have to do now is to finish it off."[9]

Second, Iran's support for the organization, in particular the aid it affords Hizbullah in building military capabilities superior to those of some Arab countries, has released Hizbullah from the restraints generally imposed upon Islamist movements and that usually compel them to adopt a more pragmatic line.

Third, Hizbullah has found a territorial niche that no state is eager to occupy. When the IDF pulled out of the security zone in May 2000, Hizbullah quickly took over the territory along the border with Israel and became the area's de facto ruler—military, political, and civil. Syria had given Hizbullah the green light to seize the south, and the Lebanese government was powerless to stop it.

Hizbullah has also succeeded in militarizing its territorial base. Because Israel did not wish to give Hizbullah an excuse to strike northern Israel, it has stood with folded arms while Hizbullah has built an extensive military presence along the border. This presence includes reconnaissance and surveillance positions, supported by Hizbullah troops deployed throughout southern Lebanon.[10] Even more disturbing from Israel's point of view is a powerful arsenal that reportedly includes some 10,000 Katyushas and Iranian-made rockets (al-Fajr) with ranges up to 70 kilometers, covering Israel as far south as Hadera (between Haifa and Tel Aviv).[11] Hizbullah has thus turned southern Lebanon into a kind of "Hizbullahland"—successor to the "Fatahland" that the Palestine Liberation Organization ruled until 1982 but geographically much larger. This is an area completely under Hizbullah's control that serves as its home base and from which it could ignite all-out war in the region.

As Hizbullah became a powerful political and military player in the Lebanese arena, Syria declined in stature and power. The downward trend that began when Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000 gained momentum following the death of Hafiz al-Asad on June 10, 2000, and the accession of his son Bashshar al-Asad. Many of those who feared or respected the father regarded the son as an unworthy heir. He was thought to lack the necessary charisma, self-confidence, and experience to rule Syria. In Lebanon, Christians (and others) grew bolder in calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country. Bashshar failed to deflect this challenge and decided instead to capitulate, pulling his troops out of populated areas in Lebanon in order to reduce the day-to-day tensions between them and the Lebanese population. By so doing, he hoped he would be able to appease critics of Syria's heavy-handedness in Lebanon. Yet, it goes without saying that his strategy was seen in Lebanon as a form of weakness.[12]

The relationship that began to form between the Syrian president and Hizbullah's secretary general, Nasrallah, testifies to Bashshar's weakness in the Lebanese arena. Nasrallah once admitted that he had never met Hafiz al-Asad face to face.[13] Probably the elder Asad saw no point in such a meeting, since for him Nasrallah was just one more Syrian pawn in Lebanon. Bashshar, on the other hand, has met with Nasrallah numerous times and obviously looks up to him as an admired warlord and experienced role model. Indeed, when Bashshar succeeded his father, Nasrallah quickly took the younger man under his wing and has since expressed Hizbullah's willingness to help Bashshar strengthen his position and defend Syria's interests.[14]

Hizbullah Joins the Intifada

The outbreak of the so-called "al-Aqsa intifada" in September 2000 resolved Hizbullah's post-withdrawal dilemma. As violence swept the Palestinian territories, Hizbullah joined the struggle. Its television station, Al-Manar, put itself completely at the service of the intifada. And Hizbullah itself began to ratchet up its armed struggle against Israel. It attacked IDF positions in the Shib'a Farms area, which it declared to be Lebanese territory occupied by Israel. In its first operation, on October 7, 2000, Hizbullah managed to kidnap three Israeli soldiers, then announced it was willing to negotiate their release. Later, Israel determined from forensic evidence that the soldiers had been killed during their abduction.[15] Since October 2000, Hizbullah has launched attacks against IDF positions in Shib'a Farms every few weeks.

Hizbullah probably assumed that Israel would refrain from retaliating because it was expending all its energies on the Palestinians. Hizbullah also assumed that the concentrated and limited attacks on military posts would make it difficult for Israel to present these as a casus belli against which to launch an all-out offensive. Hizbullah also calculated that it had established a balance of terror with Israel: if Israel retaliated, it would face Hizbullah's rocket launchers, spread throughout southern Lebanon. Initially, Hizbullah's gamble paid off: Ehud Barak, as prime minister, refrained from retaliating for Hizbullah's attacks on its military posts.

However, when Ariel Sharon became prime minister after the elections of February 2001, Israeli policy changed . On April 17, 2001, following an attack on the IDF post at Har Dov that left one soldier dead, the Israeli air force struck a Syrian radar station in Dahr al-Baydar. Four Syrian soldiers were killed in this attack. Later, on July 1, 2001, the Israeli air force hit a Syrian radar station in Riyaq, also following Hizbullah attacks against IDF positions in Shib'a Farms.[16]

Israel's response probably surprised Hizbullah. Yet, Israel did refrain from attacking Hizbullah directly and did not strike Lebanese infrastructure targets as it had done in the past. Instead, Israel attacked Syrian military targets, a choice that theoretically absolved Hizbullah of the need to retaliate. Israel also warned Damascus that it must curb Hizbullah's new offensive or suffer the consequences.

But Hizbullah decided to resist Israel's attempt to change the rules of engagement. When Israel attacked the Syrian radar position in Riyaq, Hizbullah immediately retaliated by launching offensives on Israeli posts in Shib'a Farms, as well as on Mt. Hermon. In so doing, Hizbullah made clear that it would not allow Israel to change the equation Hizbullah had imposed, according to which the struggle between Israel and Hizbullah would be confined to the Shib'a Farms. Hizbullah sought to deter Israel from widening its range of operations against Hizbullah or opening a new front against the Syrians elsewhere. Paradoxically, since Syria itself failed to retaliate for Israel's attacks on its forces in Lebanon, Hizbullah emerged from the tit-for-tat in mid-2001 as the defender of the Syrians in Lebanon, alongside its acknowledged role of defender of Lebanon and the Lebanese against Israeli attacks.[17]

Second Front

In March 2002, the wave of Palestinian terror against Israel reached an unprecedented peak, triggering Israel's Operation Defensive Shield. The objective of this operation, according to Israeli spokespersons, was to destroy the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. In the course of this operation, Israel launched incursions into most of the cities of the West Bank.

Hizbullah, for its part, saw the violence in the territories as an opportunity to advance its own agenda. Its spokesmen announced their unconditional support for the Palestinian cause and added that they would shortly translate their words into deeds. As Nasrallah put it: "The intifada in Palestine today is our front line, so that our support is not only an obligation but also a necessity, and we have, therefore, taken it upon ourselves to aid the intifada, not only in words but in deeds."[18]

Even before Operation Defensive Shield, Hizbullah—perhaps emboldened by the perception of Israeli vulnerability—had launched a dramatic attack on Israeli civilians near the northern town of Shlomi, killing seven people. Hizbullah was careful to deny any connection to the operation; an unknown Palestinian organization took credit for the attack. According to Israeli sources, however, Hizbullah was clearly responsible for it.[19] It became clear from that incident that Hizbullah had already decided to escalate its operations, and events in the Palestinian territories during March and April encouraged it to raise the stakes even higher.

Hizbullah began by increasing its attacks on IDF posts around the Shib'a Farms and extended its operations to other areas, such as the northern Golan Heights and central and western Galilee. In some cases, Hizbullah denied responsibility and pointed to the Palestinians. Palestinian organizations, such as Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, helped Hizbullah by launching their own attacks on Israel from within Lebanon, undoubtedly with Syria's knowledge and support, and perhaps even with the connivance of Hizbullah. On the other hand, Hizbullah, as well as the Lebanese government, impeded other Palestinian activists (for instance, Arafat's Fatah faction) from opening their own Lebanon front against Israel.[20]

Israel was loath to retaliate against Hizbullah, lest a limited exchange escalate into war. Israeli sources did not hide their concern that Hizbullah might make use of its rocket arsenal to strike at Israeli civilian targets in retaliation for a serious Israeli offensive against the organization. Israel knew that if this happened, it would have to launch a comprehensive military campaign, and perhaps even send ground forces into Lebanon to stop missile attacks on Israeli cities. This scenario raised old apprehensions in Israel, especially for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was involved in a similar campaign twenty years earlier in 1982.

Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission to the Middle East in early April 2002 ostensibly eased tensions along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Powell issued firm warnings to the governments of Syria and Lebanon, saying they should curb Hizbullah's operations.[21] Yet, it was actually Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharazi who, during a visit to Beirut, instructed Hizbullah to scale back its offensive. Kharazi surprised many people when he spoke in Beirut in favor of restoring quiet (even though he quickly interpreted himself, saying he had meant that it was Israel that had to be curbed).[22]

Why did Iran restrain Hizbullah? At the time, Iran was reeling from its inclusion in what President George W. Bush called the "axis of evil," and Iranian leaders openly speculated that Bush's speech might be a prelude to U.S. "aggression" against Iran. Iran may have curbed Hizbullah for fear that the United States might blame Iran—Hizbullah's sponsor—for any escalation and might even retaliate against Iran. Iran may also have preferred to keep Hizbullah's capabilities under wraps. Iran's own original design in building Hizbullah's military strength has been to deter Israel, in the event Israel should consider striking strategic Iranian targets (such as a nuclear reactor). To reveal and perhaps endanger this strategic asset, in a mere show of solidarity with the Palestinians, would not have served Iran's own long-term interests.

In contrast, Syria played no visible role in the crisis. Was Bashshar acting cleverly behind the scenes, using Hizbullah as leverage against Israel? Or were Hizbullah and Iran already acting independently of Bashshar, keeping the inexperienced Syrian president out of the loop? Whatever the case, Syria did not loom large in the crisis, once more raising questions about who really called the shots in Lebanon: a weakened Syria or an emboldened Hizbullah?

The dust has settled, but the question remains: What did Hizbullah try to accomplish by the offensive it staged in April 2002, and what will it do next?

Many in Israel believe Hizbullah would prefer an all-out war in the region.[23] But Hizbullah conceptualizes the struggle in its own way. The deputy secretary general of Hizbullah, Na'im Qasim, explained his organization's long-term guidelines in fighting Israel:

Liberation is a long process and does not come about after a single military campaign or within a day or two or ten. Such resistance does not follow classical war strategies where you attack and vanquish. Our method is hit and run; we strike at specific targets in specific circumstances. As for our current operations, you should note that we stepped up our struggle in response to the events in Palestine [Operation Defensive Shield]. We have made clear that these were warning signals for Israel and are meant to express our solidarity with the Palestinians.[24]

Thus, Hizbullah's actions fall just short of goading Israel into war but are intended to test Israel's limits, wear Israel down, and justify Hizbullah's own continuing role as a "resistance" movement. So it was before Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, and so it is now.

In the meantime, evidence accumulates against the much-anticipated "Lebanonization" of Hizbullah. The organization continues to build an independent military potential. And it continues to strengthen its ties with radical Palestinians and with the Palestinian Authority. From its involvement in the Karine-A arms smuggling ship (foiled by Israel), to its attempt to sneak arms through Jordan (foiled by Jordan), Hizbullah acts as a militant organization, determined to keep the conflict with Israel alive, directly and indirectly.[25]

For most of the 1990s, it was unfashionable to take Islamist leaders at their word. Their public statements were categorized—and sometimes dismissed—as ideological rhetoric. But now that one Islamist organization—al-Qa'ida—has acted on its rhetoric, perhaps the statements of Hizbullah's leaders also deserve closer scrutiny. Here, then, is Nasrallah on the future intentions of Hizbullah:

One of the central reasons for creating Hizbullah was to challenge the Zionist program in the region. Hizbullah still preserves this principle, and when an Egyptian journalist visited me after the liberation and asked me if the destruction of Israel and the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem were Hizbullah's goal, I replied: "That is the principal objective of Hizbullah, and it is no less sacred than our [ultimate] goal. The generation that lived through the creation of this entity is still alive. This generation watches documentaries and reads documents that show that the land conquered was called Palestine, not Israel." We face an entity that conquered the land of another people, drove them out of their land, and committed horrendous massacres. As we see, this is an illegal state; it is a cancerous entity and the root of all the crises and wars and cannot be a factor in bringing about a true and just peace in this region. Therefore, we cannot acknowledge the existence of a state called Israel, not even far in the future, as some people have tried to suggest. Time does not cancel the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim.[26]

For the last twenty years, this has been the position stated by every leader of Hizbullah, and it has not changed.

Now this movement, swearing eternal enmity to Israel, occupies its own "Hizbullahland," an enclave as wild as the Afghanistan of the Taliban, where a radical Islamist movement calls the shots. Sheltered from the intervention of Arab governments and retaliation by Israel, it has become a military power of considerable strength and one full of its own sense of invincibility. By astute maneuvering among much larger forces, Hizbullah has become the key to peace and tranquility in the Middle East.

Only one player has a clear license to remove this time bomb from the stage: Syria. But Bashshar al-Asad appears to lack both the will and the strength to take the necessary actions. In this vacuum, and with each passing day, a confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah moves from the realm of the probable to that of the inevitable.

Eyal Zisser, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and head of Middle Eastern degree studies at Tel Aviv University, is the author of several books on Syrian history and politics.

[1] Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Apr. 12, 2002; Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), Apr.16, 2002.

[2] Ha'aretz, Mar. 12, 2002.

[3] Augustus Richard Norton, "Hizballah: From Radicalism to Pragmatism?" Middle East Policy, Jan. 1998, at http://www.mepc.org/journal/9801_norton.html.

[4] Bahman Baktiari and Augustus Richard Norton, "Lebanon End-Game, " Middle East Insight, Mar.-Apr. 2000, at http://www.mideastinsight.org/3_00/baktiarinorton_3.html.

[5] Hasan Nasrallah, Hizbullah secretary general, al-Manar television (Beirut), June 6, 2000.

[6] As-Safir (Beirut), Apr. 21, 2000; Ash-Sharq al-Awsat (London), Apr. 21, 2000.

[7] Eyal Zisser, "Hizballah at a Crossroads," in Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Efraim Inbar, eds., Religious Radicalism in the Greater Middle East (London: Frank Cass, 1997), pp. 90-100; Hala Jaber, Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 145-168.

[8] Hasan Nasrallah, al-Manar television, June 6, 2000.

[9] Quoted in The Daily Star (Beirut), Mar. 7, 2002.

[10] Ha'aretz, July 7, 2000; Yedi'ot Aharonot, Feb. 1, 2002.

[11] Yedi'ot Aharonot, Feb. 1, 2002; Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Israeli defense minister, Israeli television, June 5, 2002.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), Apr. 5, 2002; Ha'aretz, Apr. 5, 2002.

[13] Radio Damascus, June 10, 2001.

[14] Tishrin (Damascus), June 13, 2000.

[15] Ha'aretz, Oct. 9, 2001, Feb. 1, 2002.

[16] Ha'aretz, Apr. 18, 2001; al-Hayat, Apr. 18, 2001, July 2, 2001.

[17] Al-Hayat, July 2, 2001; as-Safir, July 2, 2001.

[18] Al-Manar television, Feb. 1, 2002.

[19] Ha'aretz, Mar. 15, 2002.

[20] Al-Hayat, Apr. 19, 2002; Ha'aretz, Apr. 19 and 20, 2002.

[21] The New York Times, Apr. 16, 2002; al-Hayat, Apr. 16, 2002.

[22] Al-Hayat, Apr. 10, 2002; as-Safir, Apr. 22, 2002.

[23] Ha'aretz, May 24, 2002; Ma'ariv (Tel Aviv), June 1, 2002.

[24] Al-Manar television, Apr. 17, 2002.

[25] Ha'aretz, Mar. 15, 2002; al-Hayat, Mar. 15, 2002.

[26] Hasan Nasrallah, interview, Egyptian television, June 2, 2000.