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Op-eds

Israel sails close to wind with Hezbollah, but gamble pays off

  • harry joffe
Israel and Hezbollah supposedly came within 30 minutes of war last Sunday. In order to understand how they got there and what was different to the status quo, it’s important to understand the rapidly changing strategic landscape.
by HARRY JOFFE | Sep 12, 2019

Although Israel and the Hezbollah/Iran axis are in a state of low-key war, there are certain rules that frame this conflict. The first is that because Syria is in a state of civil war and without an internationally recognised government, Israel has relative freedom to act in Syria.

Although the Syrians do try and shoot down Israeli planes, and there might be the odd rocket shot at Israel by the Iranians, Israel has engaged in hundreds of bombing raids in Syria and this hasn’t been seen as an escalation that might lead to war. Israel engages in these raids to prevent sophisticated rocket equipment being transferred to Hezbollah via land from Iran.

When it comes to Lebanon, however, the second rule is Israel has no freedom to conduct any bombing raids or attacks in Lebanon. Hezbollah has made it clear that this would lead to instant retaliation against targets in Israel. Hezbollah does this as it styles itself as a Lebanese liberation movement [although it, in effect, controls Lebanon]. Therefore, it has to be seen to be protecting “Lebanese sovereignty”.

By and large, Israel hasn’t conducted any bombing raids inside Lebanon since the end of the Lebanese war in 2006 (although it does fly over Lebanese air space). However, on 24 August, two armed drones hit Hezbollah offices in Beirut. The question is what has changed, and why did Israel decide to attack when it did?

While Hezbollah has more than 130 000 rockets aimed at Israel, it has only about 50 precision-guided missiles (missiles that can accurately strike their intended target). The rest are “dumb” missiles – they can be fired only in the general direction of a target, but aren’t accurate. Hezbollah has been trying for years to bring in Iranian-made precision missiles, but this was thwarted by Israeli airstrikes in Syria. It has also tried to bring in specialist equipment to upgrade its “dumb” missiles to precision ones, but these efforts have been similarly thwarted by Israeli bombings.

It has therefore started a relatively new project, setting up operational factories to produce precision-guided missiles inside Lebanon, where, as above, Israel has not attacked since 2006. Israel views this attempt to obtain precision-guided missiles as a serious threat to its security, second only in danger to Iran’s attempt to get nuclear weapons.

The Jerusalem Post edition of 30 August, in fact, details the names of the Iranian offices involved in this precision-guided missile project, which, it says, has accelerated over the past year. It also quotes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying “we are determined to destroy this dangerous project”.

What did Israel attack on 24 August? According to various media sources, the main target was an “industrial planetary mixer”. This is used for the production of solid fuel propellant for precision-guided missiles. Also destroyed was an electronic control system for the machine. The machine was apparently manufactured in Iran, and is used for its ballistic-missile industry. Solid fuel propellant improves a missile’s range and payload capability, and would allow Hezbollah to create longer range and more sophisticated missiles.

Israel attacked when it did, taking a calculated gamble that the timing meant it wouldn’t provoke a major response from Hezbollah. This proved to be correct. The reasons for this were as follows:

  • The Lebanese economy isn’t in good shape. Hezbollah escalating a major war now and causing more economic damage to Lebanon wouldn’t make it popular with the Lebanese people whose interests it’s supposedly looking after.
  • American sanctions on Iran have caused it to struggle financially, and consequently, it has less money to give to Hezbollah to finance a war.
  • Most importantly, that week was the same week the G7 summit was being held. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif paid an unexpected visit to the G7 summit over the weekend, and there were strong rumours that French President Emmanuel Macron was trying to reopen talks between the United States and Iran over the nuclear agreement. While the prospect of such talks remain open, Iran definitely wouldn’t want Hezbollah to escalate a small attack by Israel into a major war, which would effectively scupper any such prospects as well as the chance of US sanctions against Iran being relaxed.
  • Finally, Lebanon and Israel are currently engaged in indirect negotiations to mark the boundaries of both countries’ exclusive economic zones. If agreement on this could be reached, it would allow Lebanon to start drilling for gas in the Mediterranean, and start bringing in some desperately needed money and investment. A major Hezbollah escalation with Israel would effectively end such negotiations and delay any gas project.

For all the reasons mentioned above, Israel decided to “change the rules of the game”, and attack missile manufacturing systems in Beirut. The Hezbollah response was relatively mild, apart from an attack on an armoured personal carrier which was empty when it was struck, but apparently had soldiers in it a mere 30 minutes before. This might have been an error by Hezbollah (the truck shouldn’t have been where it was with soldiers) or maybe it thought there were no soldiers in it – Israel has deployed army vehicles with dummy soldiers inside to confuse Hezbollah and draw its fire. Whatever the reason, there were no soldiers in the vehicle when it was hit, and the situation has since calmed down quickly. However, as David Horovitz writes in the Times of Israel, “Further confrontation is inevitable. Iran is trying to deepen its military capabilities in Syria and Lebanon, and Israel will continue to strike at arms warehouses, military convoys, and other targets in Lebanon, Syria, and beyond, as it tries to thwart the ayatollahs’ plans.”

In the meantime though, Israel has won a small but significant victory. Its gamble paid off, and it succeeded in destroying some important and dangerous missile equipment. However, it remains to be seen whether it has effectively changed the rules with respect to operations in Lebanon.

  • Harry Joffe is a tax and trust attorney in Johannesburg who has a keen eye for the Middle East.

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