In January of 2016, the relations between Israel and Hezbollah, which were already quite high, intensified further after Israeli forces killed a Hezbollah leader, Samir Kuntar, in Syria. Shortly after this killing, Hezbollah retaliated against Israel, striking an Israeli Defense Force outpost. These events in late December 2015 and early 2016 were just one of the more recent increases in violence in a series of hostile activities between Israel and Hezbollah that goes back decades..
In this article, we will outline the Israel-Hezbollah relationship, with particular attention to more recent, contemporary international relations issues between the two actors. We will discuss the history of Hezbollah and Israeli relations, we will note and discuss particular events in the timeline of their relations (such as the 2006 Israel Hezbollah War), and spend significant time on more recent developments between the two actors. As we will see, given the history between the two, the situation between Israel and Hezbollah is one that many fear could potentially lead to another war between these two entities.
History of Israel-Hezbollah Hostilities
The beginnings of the Israel-Hezbollah relations begin in 1982 with the formation of the Hezbollah military organization in Lebanon. The organization was founded to counter Israeli actions in Lebanon, and more specifically, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As Norton writes:
As the Israeli army streamed northward in 1982 to lay siege to Beirut, they ran into stiff resistance not only around the Palestinian camps, but also on the southern approaches to the capital where Lebanese Shia fighters put up stiff resistance. Many of these fighters, inspired by the Iranian revolution that had toppled the Shah three years before, would migrate away from Amal and eventually join Hezbollah. The Israeli army would remain in Lebanon for eighteen more years, although it withdrew to a border occupation ‘‘security’’ zone – accounting for more than ten percent of Lebanese territory – in 1985″ (476).
While the organization was officially established in 1982, it became more solidified in 1984 (Norton, 2007). It was during the war, and then following the conflict, that Hezbollah stated their positions as an organization; much of their political objectives revolved around the expulsion of Israel from Lebanon, as well as other areas such as the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Israel did eventually fully withdraw from Lebanon in 2000, but shortly after, Hezbollah claimed that Israel continued to occupy other Lebanese territory (in the Shebaa Farms). Hezbollah took the position that they would fight to remove Israel from these areas. Since the 2000s, the two sides continued to fight with one another through public statements, border skirmishes, and other forms of conflict, although it was much less than previous years of conflict (Norton, 2007).
2006 Hezbollah-Israel War
The situation between Hezbollah and Israel hit one of the highest points of tension in 2006 when the two sides went to war with one another. In Lebanon, there were talks about disarming Hezbollah, an position established and supported through United Nations Security Council resolution 1559. Hezbollah however, was unwilling to disarm, arguing that they were a much-needed defense against Israel. In addition, at the time, Hezbollah was still continuing to pronounce what they felt were Lebanon’s right to the Shebaa Farms.
During the summer of 2006, Hezbollah went into Israel, with the goal of taking back Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Scholars argue that part of the reason for the attack was to also show Hezbollah’s military might (Norton, 2007). As a response to this attack (in which Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers, and also taking an additional two Israeli soldiers) (BBC, 2008), Israel invaded Lebanon, with the objective of devastating Hezbollah as an organization.
This conflict, which lasted 33 days, led to the deaths of 1,109 civilians killed, as well as over 15,000 homes shattered (Norton, 2007: 486). While each side claimed they were victorious in the conflict, many within Israel were critical of the military and government for not reaching their objectives of ending Hezbollah (Hezbollah survived the war, which is something that many in the Israel government and military were not expecting). Moreover, there were also criticisms of war crimes having been committed (Guardian, 2006) (The Amnesty International Report can be found here).
Israel-Hezbollah and the Syrian War
The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah have increased with the Syrian War. In fact, the Syrian War, which began as a civil war, became an international conflict shortly after. And now, with the conflict going into the fifth year, there are many international relations elements of this war. While one can examine the Syrian war by looking at the conflict between different internal forces (such as the Syrian government under Bashar Al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army, The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as well as many other forces). However, for this article, one can see that the Syrian war is related to Israel-Hezbollah relations. Both of these actors have strong interests in Syria.
In the case of Hezbollah, they have sent in fighters and military support since 2012 to keep Al-Assad in power. For them, this is of high importance, given the financial and military backing that Al-Assad has offered them. Losing him as an ally would surely negatively affect Hezbollah’s power in the region.
And because of Hezbollah’s interest in keeping Al-Assad in power, along the similar position that Iran takes on Al-Assad (and on the Syrian conflict), Israel has also became involved in the conflict. They have been quite active in carrying out strikes in Syria, against military leaders and fighters of Hezbollah, as well as any weapons caches that Israel fears are being transferred from Syrian authorities to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In fact, “In January last year , an Israeli helicopter attack killed six Hezbollah members including a commander and the son of the group’s late military commander Imad Moughniyah. An Iranian general was also killed in that attack” (Davidson & Al-Khalidi, 2016).
Thus, Israel and Hezbollah have been, and still are engaged in the Syrian conflict, with each side looking to shore up their own geo-political interests, whether it is to weaken Al-Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah (for Israel), or to aid Al-Assad and Iran (for Hezbollah). With little to suggest a halt in violence, it is expected that Hezbollah and Israel will continue to promote their respective interests in the country.
Israel-Hezbollah Relations: December 2015-January 2016
On December 20th of 2015, Israeli forces carried out a strike, which killed Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar in Damascus, Syria. Kuntar was in an Israeli jail since 1979 (Davidson & Al-Khalidi, 2016) for the killing of an four Israeli civilians when, in 2008, after almost three decades, he was part of a swap prisoner with Hezbollah; “Kantar, who was once the longest serving Lebanese prisoner in Israel, was released in 2008 in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in cross-border raids” (DW, 2016).
As a result, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, made three publicized statements in the week that followed the killing. Then, following the Israeli killing, Hezbollah attacked Israeli forces by a roadside bomb on an IDF Hummer. It was also reported that an armored bulldozer was also attacked. This took place in the disputed Shebaa Farms, that are currently controlled by Israel (but Hezbollah contends that the land belongs to them). No soldiers died, but injuries were sustained (BBC, 2016). Hezbollah did take responsibility for the attack, saying that the Samir Kuntar group of Hezbollah was behind the attack.
This then resulted in Israeli attacking Southern Lebanon. According to reports, “Lebanese media said Israeli shelling had hit the nearby town of Al Wazzani and other areas, with reports of material damage but no serious injuries. Witnesses said at least 10 Israeli shells had hit Al Wazzani shortly after the blast. A Reuters witness said the shelling had stopped later in the day. Al Manar TV reported that calm had returned to the Shebaa area” (Davidson & Al-Khalili, 2016).
There have been many angles to examining this killing, and the response by Hezbollah.
For Israel, they view Hezbollah, Iran, and Al-Assad as working together in the fight to keep him and the current Syrian regime in power. This ability for Al-Assad to continue running the country is viewed as a threat to Israeli security, given that he continues to provide support to Hezbollah, and that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are attempting to promote their regional interests, which Israel believes includes attacks (and potential attacks) against the Israeli state.
With regards to why Hezbollah responded to the killing with violence against the IDF forces, on the one hand, it seems that they felt they needed to show that a killing of a leader in the organization would be met with a retaliation; doing this seemed to suggest Nasrallah wanted to provide evidence of his power, all the while highlighting his interest in responding to the killing, something that he may have believed would increase his popularity in Lebanon.
However, there are some that have looked at the Hezbollah response to Kuntar’s death, saying that the level of retaliation suggested a “weakened” Hezbollah. For example, Melman, in an article published in the Jerusalem Post on January 5th, 2016, wrote: “The incident reflects the new reality on the northern border. The Syrian civil war, in which Hezbollah is involved up to its neck and has already lost about a quarter of its military force, has neutralized the Shi’ite-Lebanese organization’s ability to act against Israel. Almost ten years have passed since the Second Lebanon War, and Israel’s deterrence is still holding. Hezbollah does not want to find itself in a conflict with Israel on the border, forced to open up a second front in addition to its ongoing role in the Syrian conflict.”
Others however offer a different analysis on the power and capabilities of Hezbollah. Some have argued that Hezbollah continues to be the largest threat to Israel in the region. While much of the attention has centered on Iran, Hezbollah’s weapons are said to increased multiple times over compared to the 2006 war with Israel. Furthermore, some are suggesting that not only do they have more weapons, but that Hezbollah also now has greater military combat experience, given their multi-year activity in Syria.
Israeli-Hezbollah: February 2016
Given the ongoing civil (and international) war in Syria, Israeli-Hezbollah tensions have continued to be quite high. However, the rhetoric between the two sides intensified greatly in February 2016 following statements by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. On February 17th, 2016, Nasrallah gave a speech in which he threatened that Hezbollah could hit an Israeli gas storage building in Haifa, the effects of which could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (Sridharan, 2016). Nasrallah was quoted as saying that “Israel knows Hezbollah has missiles and rockets that can strike anywhere in its territory.” He went on to say that “The inhabitants of Haifa are afraid of an attack…that will lead to the death of tens of thousands of inhabitants out of a population of some 800,000. What does this mean? It means that a few missiles on this ammonia site could have the result of a nuclear bomb” (Sridharan, 2016).
Along with this, Nasrallah also spoke about an increase in military technology for Hezbollah, given the effects of the Syrian war. Again, Hezbollah has been quite active in the conflict, going in to fight along side government forces under Bashar al-Assad. It is also understood that Iran has also been fighting in Syria alongside Hezbollah, Russian, and pro-government forces.
Israel responded to Nasrallah’s comments quickly. The Israeli Environment Protection Minister Avi Gabbai said did say that the site Nasrallah was referring to would be moved. Specifically, the ammonia tanks referenced by Nasrallah would be transported to the Negev desert (Sridharan, 2016). Leaders in Haifa also responded to Nasrallah’s statements, saying that “We will continue to fight with all the means at our disposal for the safety and health of residents of the north. We do not think that the country should be run according to Nasrallah’s haughty speeches, but we are happy that he is assisting in bringing this most important and worrying issue to the agenda, even if it comes from a frightened man who has for years been hiding in a bunker in Lebanon” (Sridharan, 2016).
Others, such as Israeli Defense Force [IDF] chief Gadi Eisenkot responded with a different message, offering recognition that “Around the State of Israel, Hezbollah is the organization with the most significant capabilities…The IDF is succeeding in generating deterrence an dover the past decade, the Lebanon front is quiet” (JTA, 2016). He went on to stay that Nasrallah and Hezbollah have “over the years build up the ability to target with missiles centers of population in Tel Aviv and elsewhere” (JTA, 2016).
Along with Nasrallah’s comments with regards to Israel’s storage facility in Haifa, he also criticized Saudi Arabia, which he argued was working together with Turkey, and Israel, in the fight in Syria. Speaking on this issue, he said, addressing Saudi Arabia, ““Do you accept a friend occupying Sunni land in Palestine? Can you become friends with an entity that has committed the most horrible massacres against the Sunni community?” he said” (Pileggi, 2016). He went on to say that ” “You are free to consider Iran an enemy, but how can you consider Israel a friend and ally? This issue must be confronted in a serious manner.[“] “It is beneficial to monitor the Israeli media to realize that the Israeli rhetoric has become identical to the rhetoric reflected in some Arab media, especially in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia” (Pileggi, 2016). Saudi Arabia and Israel both have similar interests in Syria (removing Al-Assad, and minimizing the role of power in the region).
Israel Hezbollah: April 2016
On April 11th, 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted that the Israeli military has been involved in Syria, carrying out various strikes against weapons that Netanyahu said were going to be delivered to Hezbollah. Netanyahu was quoted as saying: ““We are proud that, in the stormy and volatile Middle East, we were able to maintain relative calm and relative safety in Israel. We act when we should act, including here, across the border, in dozens of attacks, to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring game-changing weaponry” (Jerusalem Post, 2016). According to reports, one such weaponry was an S-300 missile defense system. This is the same system that Russia has been giving Iran (Keinon, 2016).
The S-300 missile defense system is quite powerful. Namely, the system is able to intercept missiles at a distance of up to 90 miles. This would make targeting a site (such as Iran’s nuclear sites, or Hezbollah targets) much for difficult for countries like Israel (Kahn, 2016).
It does not come as a surprise that Israel has been carrying out military actions in Syria, given reports of such activity. However, it is interesting that the government is now openly admitting their action in the country. Netanyahu also spoke about the need to protect Israel from groups like Hezbollah (and others), saying that ““You look at the earthquake around us and you see people and countries wiped out, and if anyone expects someone to come to his aid, that will not happen. If we have learned anything, it is that we need to be able to defend ourselves by ourselves – that is also the significance of the reserve duty you are doing here” (Keinon, 2016). Israel seems to worry that if Hezbollah were able to be given the S-300 missile defense system, that it could greatly alter the power dynamics between the two actors. It was for this reason that Israel (along with the United States), were so adamant about Russia not selling the missile defense system to Iran (Kahn, 2016).
Given the increasing concerns that Israel has, on April 20th, 2016, a top figure within the Israeli Defense Force, Major General Yair Golan spoke on the rising concern of Hezbollah, saying that Hezbollah poses “unprecedented” threats to the Israeli state (Al Jazeera, 2016). In addition, recognizing the increased weaponry that Hezbollah has (in the form of the rockets), he also said that any future war with Hezbollah would not be the same as the 2006 war, but rather, it would be “much harsher” because of Israel would be willing to use all of its military-related abilities in that war (Al Jazeera, 2016).
Israel-Hezbollah: May 2016
In early May of 2016, it was reported that Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed by an Israeli air strike. Badreddine was seen as holding one of the highest positions within Hezbollah’s organization, and was said to have been a part of the organization since 1982. Badreddine was also said to be behind Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian Conflict. (Perry, 2016). It should be noted that
“According to a July 2015 US Treasury statement announcing sanctions against him, Badreddine “is assessed to be responsible for Hizballah’s military operations in Syria since 2011, including the movement of Hizballah [Hezbollah] fighters from Lebanon to Syria, in support of the Syrian regime. Since September 2011, strategic coordination was handled between Assad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah on a weekly basis, with Badr Al Din [Badreddine] accompanying Nasrallah during the meetings in Damascus. Since 2012, Badr Al Din coordinated Hizballah military activities in Syria. Badr Al Din led Hizballah ground offensives in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr in February 2013, and in May 2013 the Free Syrian Army (FSA) confirmed that Badr Al Din was leading Hizballah’s operations in al-Qusayr” (in Times of Israel, 2016).
Hezbollah leaders came out with a statement saying that it was not Israel, but rather, militant Islamists who killed Baddredine (Moussaoui, 2016). However, as the story developed, it seemed that Israel was responsible for the killing. But, as has been mentioned, Hezbollah, and their ally Iran, have an interest in spinning the story to suggest that it was Islamists and not Israel? The reason? If they admit that Israel committed the killing, then there might be expectations among their constituents for a counter-strike, which could open up a new war with Israel. Fighting in Syria, Hezbollah is not in a position to begin a war with Israel (Daoud & Toumaj, 2016).
Plus, the killing of Baddredine is different than other killings against Hezbollah. As Daoud & Toumaj (2016) explain,
Previously, when Hezbollah military leaders have been killed, the group immediately pointed the finger at Israel, threatening revenge and retaliating shortly afterwards. That was its response after both the January 2015 strike that killed Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of Badreddine’s predecessor Imad Mughniyeh) and the strike in December that killed arch-terrorist Samir Quntar. Though both had military roles, their importance to the organization was primarily symbolic. As a result, the organization’s need to save face within Lebanon could be satisfied with a relatively minor retaliation against Israel in the contested Shebaa Farms border area.
Badreddine, however, was different. His leadership role and storied career within the organization—arguably paralleling only that of his predecessor—necessitated a deadly response. He was also important to the Iranians, as his death prompted condolences from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and a visit from Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani to the slain commander’s family in Beirut on Sunday. According to several sources, Soleimani may have even been spotted beside Badreddine in Syria shortly before his death.
One can imagine that Hezbollah nor Iran want to allow this to go without a response. But they also recognize what that would mean for this forces, and with a battle for keeping Al-Assad in power, it looks as if they will try to deflect attention from this killing, at least when it comes to Israel.
In addition, by suggesting that the killing was carried out by Sunni extremist groups, Hezbollah can attempt to justify further involvement in Syria (as we see reported, Nasrallah announced an additional Hezbollah presence in Syria (Yahoo News, 2016)).
According to an AFP report on September 16, 2016, Israeli army officials have been preparing for a large scale civil defense drill in the country. Military leaders spoke about the conditions in the region, and how, at any moment, Israel could be targeted by rockets from many different locations (the concern seems to be primarily from Lebanon and also Gaza). Again, while Hamas’ power has been weakened since the most recent conflict, Hezbollah’s capabilities have increased greatly since the 2006 war.
While there was no war, the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah did not go away in 2017, but rather, were elevated given the ongoing conflict in Syria. Israel continued to express concern about weapons potentially reaching Hezbollah from Syria. Hezbollah itself also spoke about a potential conflict in the future between Hezbollah and Israel, and how the fighting could take place within Israel itself. Speaking about this issue in May of 2017, according to reports, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that “Israel “is scared and worried of any future confrontation … and knows that it could be inside the occupied Palestinian territories,” Nasrallah said. “There will be no place that is out of reach of the rockets of the resistance or the boots of the resistance fighters””. This comes after Hezbollah said they were moving out of the Eastern part of Lebanon (bordering Israel) (Francis & Bassam, 2017).
As we also discuss here in our article on Hezbollah in Lebanon, there are conversations in Israel about what a future war with Hezbollah would look like. While Israel has tried to limit weapons coming into Hezbollah from Syria, the shifting tides in favor of Al-Assad staying in power has only bolstered Hezbollah’s power and position in Syria and Lebanon. Many in Israel understand that a future war with Hezbollah would not be the same as the 2006 War in Lebanon, since Hezbollah has much more military experience and training than they did in 2006, along with the increase in military power. While some member of the IDF have suggested that Israel would be able to do what they did in 2006 quicker and with more efficiency, there are others like the director of Israeli’s military intelligence, Herzl Halevi who point out that such a would “not be simple or easy” (Beaumont, 2017). Moreover, there are also questions about what regional actors such as Iran, as well as Russia would do if a war breaks out between Hezbollah and Israel (Beaumont, 2017).
The verbal language from Hezbollah towards Israel escalated further following Trump’s announcement that he would recognize Jerusalem as Israeli’s capital. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke out against this decision; as Al Jazeera notes, “Nasrallah said he hoped the “foolish [US] decision” would mark the “beginning of the end” of Israel.” He also said that the organization would refocus its attention to Palestine (Al Jazeera, 2017).
The Israel-Hezbollah relationship is one that does not seem to be getting less hostile. These actors, whether it is the current Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu, or Hezbollah under Hassan Nasrallah, continue to look at each other as an enemy. Moreover, each recognizes the power of the other in the region. However, as events escalate between them, there is genuine concern that another war between Hezbollah and Israel is a real possibility. For now, Israel, nor Hezbollah wants to engage in a new war with one another. While Israel has a strong military, a fight with Hezbollah would not be easy, nor would it be quick. For Hezbollah, it has been reported that they continue to build their missile stockpile–being at much higher rates than ten years ago. However, as Hezbollah continues to be involved in Syria, a new war with Israel may not be in their interests, given their attention to ensuring that Al-Assad stays in power.
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