In an attack that was largely ignored by the Western press last week, Hizbullah in Lebanon launched a “battle day” against Israel’s Northern border, wounding 12 Israeli soldiers and civilians. Rocket attacks against towns all along the border punctuated some 8 hours of the heaviest fighting in the area since the IDF withdrew from South Lebanon in May 2000. It is only through sheer luck that there were no Israelis killed, and consequently the day ended with an exchange of fire, and nothing more.
Hizbullah bellicosity is nothing new. The IDF has been on high alert along the Northern border since a Hizbullah spokesperson stated recently that the terrorist organization would abduct an Israeli soldier before Lebanese Independence Day, which fell last week. Based on Hizbullah’s reputation, it made sense to assume that they would attempt to keep their word. Using bikes and mini-tractors under the cover of the rocket barrage, terrorists entered the border town of Ghajar, hoping to lure some IDF soldiers into a trap. But, unfortunately for Hizbullah, the trap was sprung on them as the soldiers turned out to be paratroopers who quickly turned the tables on the terrorists, killing at least four and sending the rest scurrying for safety.
While Hizbullah’s attack is not in itself a surprise, the timing of this last raid remains somewhat puzzling. Why Now? As is the case with many terrorist attacks, the timing had little to do with Israel, and much to do with outside factors.
Hizbullah has been steadily losing ground in the internal Lebanese political arena. As Lebanon attempts to reach some sort of level of stability in the wake of the forced Syrian withdrawal, even traditional Hizbullah allies like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt have called for the terrorist organization to lay down its arms. Last week’s attack was both a demonstration of Hizbullah’s power and an attempt by the organization to remain relevant as an armed faction in the Lebanese political framework.
Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah affirmed this assertion when he spoke at the burial ceremony of the Hizbullah fighters whose bodies were given back by Israel in response to a request by the Lebanese government. In a passionate speech to 10,000 supporters, Nasrallah spoke about those who think that Hizbullah became weaker as a result of the events in Lebanon. "Hizbullah will remain steadfast in its course to defend the country despite all events since Sept 11, 2001 until the occupation of Iraq and the Syrian pullout" he asserted as he again vowed to try and capture Israeli soldiers. "We openly say that we are friends and allies of Tehran just like we are friends and allies of Syria from 1982 till 2005," he added, asserting that little has changed in the Lebanese scene and that the fight – the only reason that keeps Hizbullah alive – will go on.
Hizbullah needs that fight, especially with its two international allies, Syria and Iran, coming under increasing Western pressure and scrutiny. The Syrian regime, leveraged out of Lebanon following the Hariri assassination, is now facing further embarrassment. U.N. investigators have implicated circles closely associated with Syrian President Assad who, pushed into a corner, agreed to send his top general for investigation by the team headed by German judge Mehlis in Vienna. Iran is facing progressively louder calls to cease its nuclear weapons development program while its president, Ahmadinejad, openly calls for the renewal of the Islamic revolution – this time on a worldwide basis.
The Hizbullah attacks were meant, in part, to divert the world attention from both crises, and perhaps refocus some of it on the Lebanese-Israeli border. An added benefit to Syria would be the claim that the withdrawal of their troops has actually destabilized the situation, and that Lebanon and the world would be better off with a renewed Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
Hizbullah’s leaders are masters of brinkmanship, as are their Syrian and Iranian mentors. Unfortunately, given the current state of Israeli domestic politics with elections on the horizon, the distance to the brink is considerably greater than it should be, providing the terrorist organization with quite a bit of maneuvering room. The Israeli government has decided to forego a strong military response to the attacks, sufficing with air strikes during the barrage and hoping for quiet on the Northern Front as the politicians ponder their tactics for the upcoming elections.
This decision is likely to produce an endless stalemate along the Northern border that will guarantee further instability for Lebanon, Israel and the PA. The key to end the stalemate, however, is not to be found in the hands of Israel but rather in those of the Lebanese government as it seeks to reclaim its vitality and sovereignty. The current government, which came into existence as a result of Hariri's assassination and the Syrian withdrawal, will greatly benefit from a successful move to assert its control in south Lebanon.
Unfortunately, that move is unlikely to occur and, in the volatile cauldron of Lebanese politics, the Hizbullah gambit may well pay off. With Islamic radicalism surging in most of the neighboring countries, it will be difficult for Lebanon to attain a position of pragmatic sanity. Hizbullah is maneuvering to position itself to take advantage of any opportunity provided by the weakness of the existing Beirut regime.
In the absence of a strong Israeli response and with America tied down in Iraq, the U.N. alone may be unable to bring sufficient pressure to bear on Iran or Syria so as to keep them from further meddling in Lebanese affairs. By demonstrating its continued relevance in maintaining the conflict with Israel along the border, Hizbullah argues that it alone is capable of concerted action in a political arena that has witnessed severe paralysis in recent years.
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