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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Hezbollah’s growing military threat

Key Points

  • The explosion at the village of Khirbet Selm in south Lebanon last week reveals the nature and extent of Hezbollah’s rearmament efforts. Subsequent events have also shown the relative ineffectuality of UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1701 south of the Litani River.  
  • Hezbollah has preferred to keep the Israel-Lebanese border quiet since the end of the 2006 War. But the movement has succeeded in maintaining its independent military infrastructure beyond the influence of any other Lebanese player and contrary to the demands of the UN. 
  • Hezbollah’s independent military infrastructure is primarily intended for use against Israel, though it also serves an internal role in intimidating rivals within Lebanon. Since the 2006 Lebanon war, the movement has been rearming, with its heavier weaponry north of the Litani River. South of the Litani, despite the presence of UN and LAF forces, Hezbollah has built an impressive infrastructure cantered on populated areas which UNIFIL and the LAF rarely enter.   
  • Despite the current quiet in the north, the rebuilt Hezbollah military infrastructure remains a strategic asset in the hands of Tehran, available for activation on behalf of the Iranians at some future date. Most Israeli security officials fear that another round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah is a matter of time.     

Introduction

A large explosion last week at a Hezbollah arms cache concealed in the small south Lebanese village of Khirbet Selm, cast light on the modus operandi adopted by the Shiite Lebanese movement following its war with Israel in 2006. Hezbollah’s mishap also raises serious questions regarding the performance of UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which are tasked with enforcing the UN Security Council Resolution that ended the war. UNIFIL described Hezbollah’s storing of the ammunition in the village as a ‘serious violation’ of Resolution 1701, which required the disarming of Hezbollah south of the Litani. The blast confirmed long-standing suspicions that Hezbollah has been reconstructing an extensive, hidden military infrastructure south of the Litani since the ceasefire of 14 August 2006. This analysis will look at the implications of last week’s events for understanding Hezbollah’s intentions, and for evaluating the performance of UNIFIL in implementing Resolution 1701.  

Hezbollah’s priorities since the war

In the three years since the 2006 war, Israel’s border with Lebanon has been quiet. Hezbollah’s decision to avoid confrontation with Israel derives from a number of factors. Firstly, both the military infrastructure of Hezbollah itself, and the civilian infrastructure of southern Lebanon, suffered considerable damage in the course of the war. The organization saw its Iranian long-range missile capacity destroyed, and its medium range capability very seriously damaged. At least 500 of its fighters were killed in action. 

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 calls for the disarming of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Prior to the war, the movement had openly controlled the south of the country.  Its fighters had patrolled the border, and the movement maintained an extensive military infrastructure without serious interference from the small UN presence there. The post-war period, however, saw the Lebanese army deployed across the south of the country for the first time since the Israeli withdrawal, and the introduction of a much larger 15,000 strong UN force. Hezbollah had to change its methods of operation and to focus attention on recruiting new fighters and replacing destroyed equipment. The civilian infrastructure of the south was also badly damaged in the course of the war, and Hezbollah and its Iranian patron have also been forced to expend energy and resources on reconstruction work. This has proceeded slowly.

Since the war, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been in hiding. He admitted shortly after the war that had he known the scale of Israel’s response, he would not have ordered the kidnapping of the IDF soldiers that precipitated the war. So the damage inflicted on Hezbollah during the war, and the movement’s focus on repairing it, partially explain its decision to refrain from military activity against Israel in the last three years.

It has been widely noted that the performance of the IDF in the 2006 war contained many worrying deficiencies, as detailed in the Winograd report commissioned by the Israeli government after the war. Nevertheless, despite its problematic performance, it appears that the scale of damage inflicted on Hezbollah in 2006 may have deterred the Shia group from initiating another round of fighting in the immediate future. Subsequent blows to the movement such as the killing of its military commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in February 2008, which international observers have attributed to Israel, should also be taken into account.

In addition to recovering from the damage inflicted in the war, Hezbollah has been focused on advancing its political activity within Lebanon. From November 2006, its cadres were engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to topple the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. In May 2008 Hezbollah took Lebanon to the brink of civil war in response to government attempts to limit the scope of the movement’s independent military infrastructure. In the subsequent Doha agreement of June 2008, Hezbollah achieved veto power in the government. In the few last months the movement has been focused on Lebanese elections, in which its bloc did worse than expected. The movement is currently attempting to retain its veto power in coalition negotiations. 

It should be borne in mind that whilst Hezbollah’s long term goal is power in Lebanon, the movement does not currently seek to overturn the political system in the country. Rather, its focus is on maintaining its independent military capacity and slowly building its levels of support. Britain has responded to Hezbollah’s attempt to expand its role within Lebanese internal politics by engaging in contacts with the movement, a policy which Gordon Brown defended to the House of Commons Liaison Committee this month.[i]

Hezbollah’s dance with UNIFIL and the LAF

Whilst on the surface Hezbollah has been focused on internal Lebanese politics, behind the scenes it has been determinedly rearming and rebuilding its military infrastructure. According to the 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the Lebanese civil war, the movement remains the only body permitted to maintain a militia, by virtue of being denoted as a ‘resistance force’ against Israel. However, UN Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for the disbanding of all militias in Lebanon and the influx of arms from Syria is in direct contravention of resolution 1701. The movement has rebuilt its main infrastructure north of the Litani and is now estimated by Israel to possess 40,000 missiles in total, more than it had in July 2006. [ii]

But in addition to its deployment north of the Litani, Hezbollah is also making preparations in the south. It appears that Hezbollah’s approach is to circumvent UNIFIL and LAF forces in the area. Whereas prior to the 2006 war, Hezbollah built its military infrastructures in open, rural areas, this time around the movement is weaving its infrastructure into the fabric of the civilian population. 

The reason for this change of approach is that both UNIFIL and the LAF concentrate their activities on rural areas. UNIFIL forces carry out 400 foot, vehicle and air patrols a day, but these take place exclusively along recognized patrol paths and in rural areas. UNIFIL does not have a mandate to forcibly disarm Hezbollah members, but its job is to enforce resolution 1701, and as such it is permitted to search for munitions. However, it is currently required to coordinate such activity with the Lebanese army. The LAF, while highly visible in southern Lebanon, prefers not to enter populated areas and risk incurring the wrath of Hezbollah. Israel suspects that elements within the LAF may be working in collusion with Hezbollah.[iii] 

Israeli officials believe that the ‘live and let live’ attitude adopted by the forces tasked with implementing resolution 1701 derives from the desire not to confront Hezbollah. So whilst UNIFIL and the LAF have enjoyed some successes in locating ordnance in rural areas, they have failed to address the true extent of Hezbollah’s rearmament. As a result, Israel estimates that Hezbollah has around 20,000 rockets south of the Litani.[iv]  The explosion of a weapons storeroom in the village of Khirbet Selm cast light on this situation. The IDF estimates that 160 villages across southern Lebanon contain Hezbollah military equipment. Yet none of these emplacements have been discovered by UNIFIL or the LAF, because their activities have been taking place elsewhere. Israeli officials claim that UNIFIL knew months in advance of the existence of the arms storehouse at Khirbet Selm, but chose not to act on it. This, according to the officials, is in line with other similar failures of UNIFIL. 

Events since the explosion have also shed light on the balance of power between Hezbollah and the other players south of the Litani. Hezbollah initially sealed the area of the explosion from other forces. Later, 14 UNIFIL soldiers were wounded when residents of a neighbouring village carried out a violent demonstration to prevent them from searching an abandoned building near the sight of the explosion. The movement has refused to comment on the explosion or subsequent events, but demonstrations do not take place in the Shia villages of southern Lebanon without authorization. It is a reasonable assumption that Hezbollah coordinated the incident to stop further investigations. 

Hezbollah, meanwhile, has been doing its best to divert attention from the explosion. Over the weekend Nasrallah delivered a harsh attack on Israel, claiming that it still holds a Lebanese prisoner who took part in a Palestinian terror attack in the 1970s. The movement also arranged a provocation over the weekend in which a small group of Lebanese civilians infiltrating a few dozen meters into Israeli territory in the Mount Dov/Shaba Farms area. How best to handle the disputed Shaba Farms areas and the divided village of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanese border is under consideration by the Israeli government. It was reported in Israel this week that Prime Minister Netanyahu has instructed Foreign Minister Lieberman to draw up a plan on these issues to be presented to the Cabinet in a fortnight. [v] 

Conclusion

Hezbollah has preferred to keep the Israel-Lebanese border quiet since the end of the 2006 War. Their decision is based on the need to recover from the losses suffered during the war, a desire to avoid harsh Israeli counter-measures and the fact that the movement has been engaged in a bid to increase its internal power in Lebanon. The latter attempt has largely been frustrated, but the movement has succeeded in rebuilding its independent military infrastructure, intended for use against Israel. The explosion at Khirbet Selm reveals the nature of Hezbollah’s efforts. The subsequent events show the relative ineffectuality of UNIFIL and the LAF in implementing resolution 1701.

Hezbollah is an organization created by and allied with the Iranian regime. Despite the current, perhaps deceptive quiet in the north, the rebuilt Hezbollah military infrastructure is a strategic asset in the hands of Tehran, which remains available for activation at some future date. Most Israeli security officials fear that another round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah is a matter of time.    


[i] British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy has held talks with Hezbollah parliamentarians. In evidence to the Liaison Committee given on 16 July, Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressed his support for building stability in Lebanon in the following terms: ‘Our desire is to support democratic development in Lebanon, and I have talked to all of those in Lebanon in such a way. We need the democracy of Lebanon to be more stable’. 

[ii] ‘Israel’s Barak warns of growing Hezbollah arsenal,’ Reuters, 10 September 2008. 

[iii] Ya’acov Katz, ‘Israel pushing to get UNIFIL more search powers in S. Lebanon’ 19 July 2009, Jerusalem Post

[iv] From report of IDF Strategy Division, as reported in Yediot Ahronot, 20 July 2009. 

[v] PM instructs Lieberman to draft plan on Shaba Farms, Ghajar, Jerusalem Post, 20 July 2009,


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