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Was this indeed another Israeli victory?

  • Paula
Israel just scored another victory in the ongoing psychological warfare against her enemies. Or did she? On Sunday, after Hezbollah, the militant Iranian-sponsored group, fired three missiles at northern Israel, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) posted photographs of injured soldiers on its Facebook page.
by PAULA SLIER | Sep 05, 2019

Soaked with fake blood, the soldiers were depicted as being evacuated to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. It was all staged. Intended for Hezbollah and Iran who follow the page, the photos hit the mark. As expected, the group issued a triumphant statement, claiming to have killed and wounded a number of Israeli servicemen.

The IDF kept mum. Only later after the situation had calmed down did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirm that there had been no Israeli casualties.

Israeli pundits have been quick to praise the IDF, arguing that her actions led Hezbollah to refrain – at the time of writing – from further attacks on Israel. Some even suggest that the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is not that upset that no Israeli soldiers were killed because he knows that if there had been casualties, the IDF’s response would have been much more forceful. In essence, Nasrallah saves face while he can claim he’s slapped Israelis on the wrist.

Sunday’s flare-up was the worst since the last 2006 war between the sides, and thankfully ended as quickly as it started. Had it not, I’d be writing a very different column. Neither Israel nor Hezbollah really wants a war, which is just as well because they were a hair’s breadth away from a major escalation.

Hezbollah’s funding from Tehran is drying up after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, and Lebanon’s economy is suffering. Unless there is good reason to go to war with Israel, Nasrallah will have a hard time convincing Lebanese leaders that the huge damage to infrastructure it will invoke is worth it, especially with no funds forthcoming to help with reconstruction.

The group also has members in parliament and government, and enjoys close ties with Lebanese President Michel Aoun. It’s heavily invested in domestic politics. War with Israel risks damaging all the bridges it has built.

Both sides saw Sunday’s violence coming. Last week, Nasrallah vowed to retaliate after an Israeli strike in Syria killed two of his fighters. The IDF took responsibility, admitting that it had targeted a factory developing precision-guided missiles with support and parts from Iran. Hours later, two drones – which Israel has not claimed responsibility for – crashed in southern Beirut in a Hezbollah stronghold.

The IDF took Nasrallah at his word and closed roads along its border with Lebanon for military vehicles and, according to Hezbollah, placed dolls in some of the vehicles. Residents living within 4km of the border were ordered to remain in their homes and open their bomb shelters. After the three Hezbollah missiles were fired, the IDF responded by dropping incendiary materials from drones on fields and forests along the Lebanese border which created a smokescreen and made it more difficult for Hezbollah to accurately target the Israeli army. At the same time, it fired about 100 shells at Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon.

The Israeli side wasn’t completely casualty-free. As seen in a video clip released by Hezbollah, one of the group’s missiles hit an Israeli ambulance carrying soldiers. They managed to escape, and no-one was hurt. But as Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported, “Had the Israeli military ambulance with five soldiers inside on the Lebanese border taken a direct, lethal hit by a Hezbollah missile, there would have been funerals, not victory celebrations.”

What’s not clear is why the ambulance was on a road vulnerable to fire from Lebanon when instructions had been given for soldiers to use back roads. This isn’t the first time such an incident has happened. The IDF reportedly has an ongoing problem with enforcing discipline in the field during emergencies.

Still, it seems clear that Sunday’s incident was contained, and both sides can claim a victory of sorts. This is important for Netanyahu as elections are just two-and-a-half weeks away, and the last thing he needs is a war on his hands.

But the question remains whether the psychological trick the IDF played on Hezbollah won’t backfire. Nasrallah might also not want war, but should he come to feel humiliated, he will want to take revenge. And then we’re back to where we were a week ago.

Israeli leaders are hoping that Nasrallah will come to believe that a second attack would portray him as someone who compromises Lebanon’s security and gives Israel legitimacy to intensify its strikes across the border. They’re banking on the fact that this will deter him from taking further action. But they understand his dilemma, and for this reason, the IDF has not lowered its level of alert. Nasrallah needs to convince his supporters and the Lebanese public that he struck a damaging blow to the IDF. If he can do this, then what many feared could turn into the third Lebanon war will have been averted for now.

Israel considers Hezbollah its most immediate threat. It continues to face efforts by the group to produce advanced missiles in Syria and Lebanon. On Tuesday, two days after the flare-up, the IDF issued a statement saying that “in fear of strikes” by Israel, Hezbollah had moved key equipment to “civilian locations in Beirut”. Nasrallah continues to deny that the group has factories producing precision-guided missiles, but Israel has proof to the contrary.

At the time of writing, the Lebanon-Israel border was mostly calm, with United Nations peacekeepers patrolling it. The IDF said it would “continue to keep a high threat level – both defensive and offensive – for a wide variety of scenarios”.

Is this the next war?

Many feared Nasrallah’s promised reprisals from two weeks ago would provoke the situation. That fear hasn’t gone. It’s just been temporarily placed on hold.

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