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    Middle East
     Nov 20, 2010


Israel moves to counter Hezbollah
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - In the past few months, Israel has gone out of its way to cast itself as a victim of aggression in case a war with Hezbollah breaks out. As the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) inches closer to indicting senior Hezbollah officials for the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and the likelihood grows that the Shi'ite militant group will stage a coup d'etat in response, the clouds of uncertainty hanging over Lebanon are only getting darker.

One would have to be blind not to notice the warning signs. The most recent one came this week when the Israeli government approved withdrawal from the northern part of the village of Ghajar - one of the last disputed territories which Hezbollah in the past has used as an excuse to keep its weapons and its feud with the Jewish State. "Israel wants [the] UN to declare it free of Lebanon

 

border violations," an unnamed senior government source told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz on Wednesday.

This is a clear move to deny the Shi'ite militia any jus ad bellum (and thus to secure an impeccable right to wage war should an attack from Lebanon come). It was bolstered by detailed revelations of Hezbollah's mechanisms of smuggling in violation of UN resolutions. It was also preceded by serious efforts to set the stage for powerful jus in bello arguments justifying the use of massive force in the event of hostilities. Photographic proof of Hezbollah infractions such as its usage of civilians as human shields served the latter purpose.

Plans for withdrawal were approved against the backdrop of protests from the inhabitants of the village. "Just like the other citizens of Israel, we deserve fair treatment different from that which we have been receiving these past few years," a resident told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, adding that the inhabitants were united against the withdrawal.

What is notable is that the majority of the people in the village are Arabs who are Alawite by religion, and thus belong to the same sect of Islam as Syria's ruling family. By protesting the Israeli withdrawal, they break Arab consensus, and potentially set a precedent for other territories that are internationally recognized as occupied - for example, the Golan Heights.

Should Israel have wished to, it could have made quite a big deal out of their protest, and perhaps even tried to use it as a basis to "legalize" its presence in the northern part of the village. Such an attempt, however, would have taken some time to play out, and by choosing to withdraw, the Israeli government demonstrated that it is in a hurry to gain some legal high ground.

Similarly, a few months ago Israel demonstrated that it was willing to forego some tactical advantages for the sake of proving to the world that Hezbollah was using civilians as human shields. [1] Moreover, according to prominent Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, a detailed report of Hezbollah arms smuggling published by French newspaper Le Figaro last month, "prepares world for possible war". [2] A statement from a few days ago by the chief of staff of the Israeli army, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, who warned that the Shi'ite organization may take over Lebanon in the near future, can be interpreted in a similar way. [3]

While Israel is clearly preparing for hostilities against Hezbollah, the full story need not at all be a simple or straightforward one. All this comes at a time when Hezbollah is facing indictments by the special tribunal for the murder of Hariri [4] and has threatened to overthrow the Lebanese government if this happens. [5] Its patron, Iran, is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the West over the illicit nuclear program it is widely assumed to be harboring, and the American administration is weighing choices ranging from a military intervention to a dramatic rapprochement. [6]

There are several main scenarios. Firstly, it is quite possible that Hezbollah would launch an attack, as happened in 2006 at the beginning of the second Lebanon war. It is somewhat unlikely that the Shi'ite militia would stage a major provocation (it has acknowledged that even in 2006 it miscalculated the Israeli response and did not intend to start a war), but if the international and domestic pressure resulting from the indictments intensifies, it could easily launch a few missiles into Israel as a distraction. In turn, given the elaborate steps taken by the Israeli government to justify a campaign in Lebanon, such an action could seamlessly blend into a second scenario: an Israeli preemptive attack on Lebanon.

We should not forget that Hezbollah is a major part of the Iranian deterrence against an attack on its nuclear facilities. An Israeli pre-emptive strike against the militia's missile arsenal could degrade its deterrent capacity severely, and could come as a prelude to an attack on the Islamic Republic. In an October report, prestigious American think-tank Stratfor writes: "We have identified three Iranian counters to an American or Israeli attack: Hezbollah, Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz ... these each have to be counteracted prior to an attack."

However, there is another major possibility, and it is that neither the Americans nor the Israelis intend to use violence to achieve their goals. While they are preparing for this scenario, they may be hoping that they can achieve their goals through non-violent pressure.

In addition to several UN Security Council resolutions (most recently UNSCR 1701) calling on Hezbollah to disarm, the issue of the Shi'ite militia's weapons has been brought up a few times in internal Lebanese debates. In the past, Hezbollah has used for domestic purposes the excuse that it needs to fight Israel in the south of the country (a large part of which was under Israeli occupation until 2000). After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, the militia struggled to uphold this facade, and kept adding territorial claims for this purpose. [7]

However, with the withdrawal from northern Ghajar, there is a very real chance that the United Nations will declare Israel free of infractions on Lebanese sovereign territory (the international body has previously decided that the Sheba farms, another disputed territory, belongs to Syria rather than Lebanon). This would increase the pressure on Hezbollah to disarm, and, in addition to the STL indictments, could seriously delegitimize the militia. Even without a military intervention, such a sequence of events could bring about its downfall, particularly if Syria decides to abandon it. [8] The Syrian regime is arguably capable of preventing Hezbollah from initiating a violent escalation.

Such a course, moreover, seems very much in line with the current American administration's policy of soft pressure and diplomacy. It is far from clear that US President Barack Obama is ready for a rapprochement with Iran, but even in that scenario he would be well served by weakening the Iranian proxies, if only to be able to negotiate from a more favorable position. What is much more likely is that the United States will continue to pile pressure on the Islamic Republic, in which case Lebanon would be an obvious place to do that.

Thus, it could be that the Israelis are towing the American line for the moment. What they will receive in return is uncertain, but it could range from the F-35 planes which the United States offered to Israel last week, ostensibly in return for a settlement freeze extension, to more decisive American action against the Iranian nuclear program. In any case, they have little to lose with this course of action, and should hostilities break out, they will be prepared diplomatically as well as militarily.

Notes
1. IDF reveals intel on huge Hezbollah arms stockpile in southern Lebanon, Ha'aretz, July 8, 2010.
2. Message to the world, Ynetnews.com, October 27, 2010.
3. Warnings of Hamas, Hezbollah threats should be taken seriously, Ha'aretz, November 16, 2010.
4. U.N. Indictments Near in Lebanon Killing, The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2010.
5. Nasrallah: We'll hurt regime if charged with Hariri murder, , Ynetnews.com, November 16, 2010.
6. The Fog of Containment, Foreign Policy, November 15, 2010.
7. The Seven Villages: Origins and Implications, Now Lebanon, Undated (accessed November 18, 2010).
8. Syria, Hezbollah and Iran: An Alliance in Flux, Stratfor, October 14, 2010.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

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