The Complexity behind Hezbollah’s Response to Israel’s Attacks

Yoram Schweitzer and Orna Mizrahi, INSS, August 4, 2019

With permission, read full article at INSS.

The considerations that have so far guided Hezbollah’s calculated retaliation on September 1, 2019 following Israel’s strikes, and the August 25 drone strike in Beirut in particular, reflect its character as an organization with multiple identities – all of which influence its decision making. Hezbollah simultaneously constitutes a pivotal link in the regional “resistance axis” led by Iran; a Lebanese “resistance” movement and “defender of Lebanon”; and an organization within Lebanon that preserves its independent identity and autonomous decision making. Even as Hezbollah is involved in the overarching “resistance axis” against Israel, its commitment to the Lebanese state serves as a restraint. In its brief round of fighting with Israel, Hezbollah, which seeks to avoid broadening the confrontation to a war ruinous for both Lebanon and itself, behaved like a careful state-like actor. At the same time, in its response to the Israeli strikes, Hezbollah laid down a red line whereby it will not tolerate further strikes within Lebanon’s borders, and that any such action will prompt a harsher response – something of a signal to Israel that it should take this possibility into account when mulling operations in Lebanon. In the circumstances created, Israel has several alternatives: avoiding further military action within Lebanon’s borders; continued “campaign between wars” activity in Lebanon, accompanied by the risk of escalation into a broad conflict; and a “preemptive strike” – a broad operation against Hezbollah aimed at significantly damaging Hezbollah’s precision missile capabilities and force buildup.

The anti-tank missile fire by Hezbollah at IDF forces in the Avivim area on September 1, 2019 was, in the view of Hassan Nasrallah, required, given his public statements on his intention to respond. Nonetheless, Nasrallah is not interested in an all-out war with Israel at this time. Hezbollah claimed that the attack on a military vehicle in Avivim was a response to the killing of two of its operatives in the Israeli strike on August 24 on Akraba, south of Damascus. This claim implies that the limited round of fighting with Israel has ended, while still letting Hezbollah retain the option of another strike, as Nasrallah explained (September 2). With that said, the main motive for the decision to respond was Nasrallah’s fear that the drone attack in Beirut’s Dahiyeh quarter on August 25 would serve as a precedent for further Israeli attacks on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. The objective of the response was thus to restore the balance of deterrence with Israel and reassert rules of the game observed since 2006, under which any Israeli action within Lebanon’s borders will prompt a response by Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s Multiple Identities

Recent events in the conflict theater between Hezbollah and Israel demonstrate the multiple identities that Hezbollah finds itself in – primarily between its identity as a patriotic Shiite Lebanese organization and its identity as a Shiite organization aligned with the Iranian Islamic Revolution that supports Iran and is supported by it. Hezbollah is a pivotal component in the Shiite Islamist “resistance axis” across the Middle East, in which Nasrallah has of late been wont to include, beyond its familiar partners – Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon – Hamas and Islamic Jihad (both Sunni) as well, in addition to the Houthis in Yemen.

At the same time, Hezbollah is a multi-faceted, autonomous organization in Lebanon. It is a political movement that in recent years has deepened its integration in the Lebanese government system; an economic organization; and a social movement that attends to the welfare of the Shiite population in Lebanon. It has at its disposal a strong and independent military with an operational arm that carries out terrorism and is also involved in crime, and it is a religious and a cultural movement. These various identities form a complex dynamic within Hezbollah’s decision making process, such that they coexist mostly in harmony, but at times reveal the contradiction between them.

Nasrallah’s statements and Hezbollah’s activity should be assessed through the spectrum of this slew of identities. Sometimes what stands out here is loyalty to Iran, the organization’s patron, and in other cases what is noticeable is the effort to preserve the organization’s status as “defender of Lebanon.” In any event, Hezbollah is careful to preserve its independence, even when dealing with Iran.

Hezbollah as an Actor in the Resistance Axis

In the military confrontation between Israel and Iran in recent years on Syrian soil, and of late in Iraq too, what is noteworthy is Hezbollah’s role as a central actor in the Shiite axis military network, run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Israeli strike on Akraba, which thwarted a drone attack on Israel, demonstrates Hezbollah’s identity as an element in the Shiite axis. The operation exposed operational cooperation by at least two Hezbollah fighters who had been dispatched to Iran for training in piloting drones and returned to Syria in order to take part in a mission against Israel, working alongside foreign Shiite militiamen, apparently Iraqi, and under the oversight of members of the Revolutionary Guards. Furthermore, Nasrallah was quick to claim responsibility for the facility attacked by Israel, in which his men were killed.

In addition, in a speech on August 15 delivered to mark the 13th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, Nasrallah supported Iran against the backdrop of Gulf tensions between Iran and the United States, Western powers, and some Gulf states. He threatened that if the United States were to attack Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia would be the first to be harmed, and the Middle East would be set ablaze. Likewise in a speech on August 25, the anniversary of Hezbollah’s triumph over the rebels in Syria and shortly after the recent Israeli strike, Nasrallah praised his forces on their fighting in Syria and stressed their contribution to the victory over the Islamic State (ISIS). Such opportunities highlight Hezbollah’s “Iranian identity.”

Hezbollah as “Defender of Lebanon”

Nasrallah’s reaction to the drone attack on the Dahiya quarter of Beirut, attributed to Israel, which damaged a component to enable the conversion of rockets held by Hezbollah to precision-guided missiles, displayed primarily its identity as “defender of Lebanon” and leader of the Lebanese “resistance.” This strike, the first military action by Israel on Lebanon’s soil since 2006, was regarded by Nasrallah as having crossed a red line, and he therefore promised to retaliate and hastened to make good on his threat. The anti-tank missile fire against IDF vehicles was meant to prevent Israel from dictating new rules of the game and renewing its strikes within Lebanon’s borders on a permanent basis, as it does in Syria and Iraq, and to allow Hezbollah to pursue its military buildup. On the day of the strike, Hezbollah underscored: “If we are silent about this violation, it will put Lebanon on a dangerous course in which an explosive drone will come along every two days and attack targets on our territory.”

At the same time, Hezbollah’s self-assigned role as “defender of Lebanon” constitutes a restraining factor. Its response to the strike reflects its role as a careful state-like actor, derived from a sense of responsibility on the part of the organization toward the Lebanese state, in which it assumes an increasingly significant role in the political system. Hezbollah has an interest in preventing another heavy blow befalling both the failing Lebanese state and the organization’s supporters among Lebanon’s public, which include not only Shiites but also members of the Maronite Christian community and a Sunni minority.

What Next?

Hezbollah’s limited and calculated response so far points to its desire to avoid, at this stage, a widening of the confrontation with Israel, both out of considerations linked to the situation facing its patron Iran and due to its interest in preventing a calamitous war in Lebanon. Compounding these considerations are also independent reasons. Hezbollah is currently under political pressure: additional countries have designated it as a terrorist group, and Arab countries, responding to the attack on IDF vehicles in Avivim, even accused it of irresponsible behavior. In addition, Hezbollah is in economic distress due to the direct sanctions imposed on it by the United States.

Hezbollah thus will likely aspire to cement the equation that its response created, which should spark a rethinking by Israel as to the boundaries of the “campaign between wars” (CBW), on the assumption that any further operation within Lebanon’s borders is liable to incur Hezbollah retaliation. Furthermore, there still remains the possibility that Hezbollah’s decision, designating the attack on the IDF vehicle as a response to the strike on its combatants in Syria, is liable to lead to another response against Israel or serve as a threat lest it dare attack within Lebanon again. Moreover, it is not clear whether Iran will be satisfied with the Hezbollah retaliation against Israel, or rather, that it also intends to respond directly, or via Hezbollah, for Israel’s actions in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Iranian Quds Force head Qassem Suleimani claimed on August 25 that the recent strikes in Iraq, Akraba, and the Dahiya quarter “are insane operations by the Zionists and will be their last.”

In the circumstances created, Israel has several options: avoiding further actions within Lebanon’s borders; continued CBW activity, including in Lebanon, undertaken as a “calculated risk” in order to thwart strategic threats, specifically the precision-guided missile project; and an Israeli-initiated “preemptive strike” – a broad campaign against Hezbollah aimed at landing a significant blow to the organization’s military capabilities. In any event, any decision to launch a broad campaign in Lebanon, which is liable to spiral into a bloody confrontation wreaking great havoc on both sides, should be deferred until its ramifications can be thoroughly assessed by the new government after the elections in Israel.