Hezbollah and last week’s Lebanon border incident

Aug 13, 2010

Update from AIJAC

August 13, 2010
Number 08/10 #04

This Update contains some selections from the large quantity of analysis that has been written about the situation in Lebanon in the wake of the fatal border clash between Israeli and Lebanese army forces last week. In particular, there is speculation that Hezbollah’s increasing role in Lebanon, as well as expectations its leaders could be named as suspects in the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, might have helped precipitate the episode.

First up is a backgrounder from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) which clearly lays out the salient facts, as well as speculation on the possible causal links. It concentrates especially on the role of the Lebanese Army, the increasing influence of Hezbollah on it, and the possibility that Hezbollah deiberately sparked the border incident. It also puts the investigation into Hariri, and anticipated accusations against Hezbollah, into local political context. For the full analysis, CLICK HERE. More background on the border incident comes from Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre think tank, as well as Israeli general turned security analyst Shlomo Brom.

Next up is a view on the politics of the incident from inside Lebanon – specifically from Michael Young, author  and opinion editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper. Young places the latest events in the context of the actions and interests of outside political actors – especially Syria and Iran – and their struggle to dominate Lebanon. Young believes that while Syria and Iran remain allies, the border incident may have been orchestrated by the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah to demonstrate to Syria its importance while Syria is currently attempting – with Saudi approval – to build a reluctant relationship with the anti-Hezbollah Prime Minister, Said Hariri (son of the late PM). For Young’s insights from within Lebanon, CLICK HERE. More on the possble Hariri tribunal link with recent events comes from American analyst Matthew RJ Brodsky.

Finally, David Schenker of the Washington Institute explores Hezbollah’s fortunes in Lebanon through the prism of its policy toward women in the areas it controls. He notes that the organisation has not only suddenly launched a major PR campaign to convince women to don veils, but, bizarrely, seemingly recently refused to allow Haifa Wehbe, Lebanon’s most famous singer, to join a planned aid convoy to Gaza because of her “immodest” dress. Schenker says that Hezbollah is doing this now to re-furbish its moral credentials in the wake of a major financial scandal, but concludes that it is finding few takers in Lebanon for its program of an “Islamic state” there. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in: 

BICOM Analysis: Where stands the Lebanese Armed Forces?


Key points

  • The recent skirmish on the Israel-Lebanon border raises questions about the role of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which receive extensive Western support.
  • The incident comes against the backdrop of internal Lebanese tensions. The tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is expected to indict senior members of the Lebanese Shia organisation, Hezbollah.
  • Some suspect Hezbollah’s hand in the recent skirmish, and that the organisation may be supporting provocations on the border to focus attention on Israel, and away from its involvement in the Hariri assassination.
  • Whether Hezbollah was involved or not, the border incident calls for close scrutiny of the LAF, its relationship with Hezbollah, and whether it is truly capable of being a unifying and stabilising force in Lebanon.

Introduction: Questions raised by recent events

The shooting incident in Lebanon, which resulted in the death of IDF Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari, two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist, was the most serious outbreak of violence in the border area since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The Lebanese Armed Forces opened fire on IDF troops pruning trees over the border fence, but still clearly on Israel’s side of the border. UNIFIL officials confirmed that IDF troops did not cross the border prior to the incident.

Tension has increased on the border as Hezbollah has increased the size and quality of its missile arsenal aimed at Israel. This tension is accompanied by a looming political crisis inside Lebanon, which stems from the possible imminent indictments against those suspected of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

The main suspect for the Hariri murder is the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, or elements within it. Hezbollah has been engaged in a propaganda campaign in recent weeks, in which it has sought to maintain that Israel was responsible for the murder. Tensions are high in Lebanon because of a fear that Hezbollah may choose to react violently, should the tribunal indict its members.

The violent incident on the border highlights an additional problem, which is the role being played by the Lebanese Armed Forces. The LAF has benefitted greatly in recent years from US and French assistance. The force is promoted as the defender and guarantor of the democratically elected government in Lebanon. Since 2006, the United States has given $600 million of security aid. But the view of the LAF as simply the non-political army of the elected Lebanese government is under strain.

Sections of the LAF are influenced by pro-Hezbollah sentiment. There is evidence of a certain crossover and coordination between Hezbollah and elements within the LAF. This has serious implications both for the implementation of international law in southern Lebanon, and more generally, the political crisis facing the country.

The Hariri tribunal and tension in Lebanon

The UN appointed Special Tribunal for Lebanon was long reckoned to be focusing on the Syrian regime as its main suspect. In recent months, however, there has been a shift toward the view that Hezbollah was probably responsible. Recently, senior Hezbollah figures, including Mustafa Badreddine, brother in law of assassinated senior Hezbollah military operative Imad Mughniyeh, have been mentioned as possible suspects.

In response, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has held a series of incendiary press conferences, alleging an ‘Israeli project’ or ‘scheme’ is targeting the ‘resistance’ in Lebanon (i.e. Hezbollah) and is attempting to frame it for the murder of Hariri. Hezbollah’s intention is to turn the issue of the tribunal into a patriotic matter for the Lebanese. It can then portray Hezbollah’s opposition to it as representing the national will, and proponents of the tribunal as traitors.

Hezbollah is the strongest military force in Lebanon. The democratically elected coalition government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which includes Hezbollah, has no independent force capable of opposing it. Hezbollah may believe that threatening renewed civil strife will be sufficient to intimidate its opponents into joining its opposition to the tribunal. In May 2008, when the central government sought to move against it, Hezbollah swiftly took over West Beirut. Elements opposed to Hezbollah did not resist it, out of a desire to avoid another civil war.

Hezbollah traditionally garners national legitimacy by depicting itself as the ‘resistance’ to Israel. If Hezbollah’s strategy is to deflect attention from the Hariri tribunal, including by raising tensions along the border with Israel, then it is a worrying development.

The Lebanese Army: instrument of Lebanese sovereignty or Hezbollah stooge?

Can the Lebanese Armed Forces defend Lebanese institutions, prevent civil strife, and act as a counterweight to Hezbollah? The LAF does not currently appear able to play this role. Despite considerable investment from the US, today’s LAF is inferior to Hezbollah in its military abilities and level of training. But the more fundamental problems is its sectarian make-up, and the political leanings of many of its senior commanders.

Lebanon is a deeply divided society and the make-up of the LAF reflects this. It is estimated that around 60% of rank and file troops and 30% of officers of the LAF are Shia. The LAF’s Shia Lebanese soldiers, come from the same communities as Hezbollah’s fighters. It is hard to imagine these men confronting Hezbollah. The last time that the movement openly challenged the authority of the government, in May 2008, the LAF stood aside.

This situation undermines the army’s ability to impose the government’s authority. It has also directly affected the extent to which UN Security Council Resolution 1701 has been enforced. After the 2006 war, the LAF deployed in southern Lebanon, taking official control of the border. It was supposed to assert Lebanese state authority in place of Hezbollah. But the official position of the LAF is one of “endorsement” of Hezbollah’s “right to resist.” The LAF defines Israel as its “primary antagonist and enemy.”

Though the border has in general been quiet since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, tension has been growing due to Hezbollah rearmament. Hezbollah has largely succeeded in rebuilding its infrastructure south of the Litani River. This has taken place contrary to UN Resolution 1701, and with the tacit consent of the LAF. The LAF have avoided entering the populated areas where Hezbollah stores its weapons. Elements of the LAF are also suspected of informing Hezbollah prior to any possible incursions.

The result is that the army has replaced Hezbollah as the main visible armed presence in southern Lebanon but has had no other noticeable impact. This is not primarily because the LAF has been intimidated by Hezbollah. Rather, it is because large parts of the LAF, particularly in the South of Lebanon, share Hezbollah’s agenda, or at least have no interest in confronting the organisation.

This was dramatically reflected in the events which resulted in the death of Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari. One possible interpretation of the events is that the Lebanese government in Beirut is seeking to assert that it, and not Hezbollah, is the defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty. However, according to UNIFIL and Israeli intelligence sources, the order to fire upon IDF troops clearing bushes on the Israeli side of the border was given by an LAF brigade commander sympathetic to Hezbollah. Details have emerged which seem to indicate a planned provocation. Six journalists from the pro-Hezbollah media were present at the scene, having been invited in advance. The decision to target an IDF officer with sniper fire also appears to reflect a clear decision to escalate the situation. The officer was at an observation post behind the fence, and in a separate location from the IDF forces clearing the trees.

The most worrying possibility is that this was a deliberate provocation initiated by Hezbollah, in line with a strategy of increasing tension with Israel to divert attention from the Hariri tribunal. If such a strategy is being pursued, it makes the Israel-Lebanon border even more unstable than before.  If, alternatively, it was an LAF brigade commander acting unilaterally, the implications are hardly less serious, since they are a troubling indication of the loyalties and sentiments prevalent in the LAF.

As recently as 28 July, incoming head of US Central Command, General James Mattis, defended US military support for the LAF. He outlined a policy of, “building capabilities in the Lebanese Armed Forces to provide an even-handed counterweight to the influences of Syria and Hezbollah.” He added that, “A strong and effective Lebanese Armed Forces provides a pillar of stability for the Government of Lebanon and its citizens to lean upon.” Recent events highlight the challenges in this approach, and call for close scrutiny of whether it can really be made to work.

What are the implications for the Israel-Lebanon border?

The prospects for further escalation are considerable. The war of 2006 began as a result of a Hezbollah provocation, in which they failed to anticipate the extent of Israel’s response. It was not because of any conscious decision by either side to go to war. The Lebanese border has been particularly tense this year, because of reports of Syrian transfer of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah. Because of Israeli restraint, the border incident last week did not lead to a major confrontation. Israel has enjoyed a year and a half of relative quiet on its borders, and there is strong will at the political level and among the public to continue the calm and avoid conflict. But IDF defensive doctrine is based on strong deterrence, created through swift responses to acts of aggression on Israel’s borders. Further provocations will place Israeli decision makers in a very difficult position, in deciding whether a more substantial response is required to reassert Israeli deterrence.

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In Lebanon, a Power Struggle and Pitiable Choices

A young prime minister pays court in Syria, while Iran also jockeys for more influence.


Wall Street Journal, AUGUST 9, 2010, 10:35 P.M. ET

Beirut – It’s unclear whether Hezbollah had a role in the exchange of fire last week between the Lebanese and Israeli armies along their common border. Yet here in Beirut there is suspicion that the “Party of God” may have prompted an army officer to order his men to fire at the Israeli soldiers to reaffirm that Hezbollah alone controls Lebanon’s border. The incident might be best understood as part of a power play between Syria on one side and Hezbollah and Iran on the other.

Although Damascus and Tehran are allies, Syria and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah are struggling for domination over Lebanon. It’s not personal, just business.

Hezbollah’s principal contract is with Tehran, and its weapons are there to retaliate for any Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. But the party also serves a broader purpose as an Iranian military extension into the Mediterranean. To surrender this and return to being an adjunct of Syria in Lebanon appeals little to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. It does him even less good in the eyes of his patrons, who have spent what is estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, to arm Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad is making a bid to reimpose its hegemony over the Lebanese, which it lost five years ago. To do that it needs to bring Hezbollah back into line with Syrian priorities—to show that Damascus, not Tehran, rules again in Beirut.

Syria’s 29-year-old military presence in Lebanon came to an abrupt end following the assassination in 2005 of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The public outcry forced the only serious suspect, Syria, to withdraw its army.

The Syrians never reconciled themselves to that departure and sought to prevent the emergence of a sovereign Lebanese state and effective government. Because Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents were no longer on the ground, the Assad regime came to rely on Hezbollah to destabilize Lebanon, handing the party, and Iran, major sway over the country’s affairs.

This development so alarmed Arab states, above all Saudi Arabia, that early last year King Abdullah decided to “reconcile” with Syria after years of mutual hostility. The Saudi calculation was a cynical one: Mr. Assad would be given latitude to reassert Syrian domination over Lebanon in exchange for curbing Iran’s influence here. The Saudis would press Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq who became prime minister late last year, to mend fences with Damascus. This was a golden opportunity for Mr. Assad to reverse his 2005 Lebanese setback while earning an apparent certificate of innocence from the victim’s family.

Politically dependent on the Saudi regime, Mr. Hariri had little choice but to accept. He knows who killed his father, but his most immediate foe in Lebanon is Hezbollah, and he hoped that the new rapport with Syria would allow him to counterbalance Hezbollah while buying him time to consolidate Lebanon’s state institutions. Mr. Hariri’s gamble may fail, but he might still have one trump to play, and it explains why Hezbollah is so nervous.

Nasrallah recently said that he believed that the special United Nations tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination was likely to indict Hezbollah members. The accusations are false, he said, the tribunal just an “Israeli project” to undermine Hezbollah. The implication was clear: Mr. Hariri must sever Lebanon’s ties with the tribunal, which is a mixed Lebanese-international court. Any indictment, he knows, could weaken his party.

Nasrallah seemed doubly put out by the fact that Damascus might escape accusation. That’s because Serge Brammertz, a Belgian judge who led the U.N. investigation between 2006-2008, failed to adequately explore Syria’s involvement.

Mr. Brammertz’s German predecessor, Detlev Mehlis, had no doubts about Syria’s role and recommended the arrest of Syrian suspects. Mr. Brammertz did, however, follow up on other leads, among them telephone analyses allegedly pointing to a Hezbollah role in surveying Hariri’s movements. Mr. Brammertz’s Canadian successor, Daniel Bellemare, may announce these and other leads in the coming months and perhaps even indict suspects.

Mr. Assad will gain much traction from selling his return to Lebanon as a way of stifling Hezbollah. But that’s an illusion. The Syrian leader will not disarm Hezbollah, nor will he break with Iran, because that would deny him the ability to exploit regional rivalries.

Even if the Hariri tribunal momentarily makes Hezbollah more pliable, the Assad regime also would like to see the investigations go away to make sure Syria will not be implicated. Yet Mr. Assad does not want an open conflict over the matter, one that might pit Mr. Hariri’s Sunni community against Hezbollah’s Shiite community. He prefers “Lebanese” measures to scuttle the tribunal, which he can negotiate with the Saudis or even Mr. Hariri.

At a recent summit in Beirut with King Abdullah, Mr. Assad signed a statement defending Lebanon’s stability and calling for all differences to be settled within the national unity government. This was a warning to Hezbollah not to intimidate Mr. Hariri on the tribunal issue or try to bring down his government. The border clash was possibly Hezbollah’s way of voicing displeasure, and a reminder to Syria that Hezbollah remains its sole military stick against Israel.

The Lebanese could be pitied for having to choose between Syria and Iran, were it not their own divisions that brought about this situation. Damascus and Tehran will probably avoid open confrontation, even as they wage an understated struggle, lately through competing Lebanese intelligence agencies. But there may yet be vigor in the fisticuffs, because neither state is timid when it comes to power games. This cannot make Lebanon any more stable or the border with Israel more secure.

Mr. Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, and author of the recently published “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).

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The Women of Hezbollah

By David Schenker

New Republic, August 9, 2010

Since the 1980s, the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah has not been given to blunt public moralizing about the need for women to wear the veil. It originally made no secret of its desire to convert Lebanon into a Shia Islamic state — the organization’s 1985 manifesto called for the establishment of “Islamic government” and the conversion of Christians to Islam — but these efforts proved exceedingly unpopular, given Lebanon’s plurality of Christian and Sunni Muslim citizens. So when its leader, Abas Musawi, was assassinated in 1992, his successor Hassan Nasrallah refrained from offering explicit support for theocracy in Lebanon — and largely backed away from efforts to impose conservative religious traditions on Hezbollah’s female constituents. But now, suddenly, the organization is again behaving in a way that evinces deep insecurity about the decorum of Shiite women.

Here’s one example. Two months after Israel interdicted the Mavi Marmara, another aid flotilla is preparing to set sail toward the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory of Gaza. This Lebanese fleet, slated to depart in the coming weeks, is led by the Miriam, a vessel manned solely by females. The idea behind this creative and progressive staffing is to raise the negative impact on Israel if it tries to enforce the blockade against a boat full of sympathetic ladies.

Yet it turns out that not all Lebanese women are welcome on the cruise. In June, the Kuwaiti daily As Siyassa reported that the curvaceous Lebanese diva Haifa Wehbe — perhaps the most famous woman in all of Lebanon — tried to sign on, but was rebuffed by Hezbollah. Why? Apparently Hezbollah was concerned that Wehbe’s “immodest” attire would “harm the reputation of all the women participating in the trip.”

The militia’s rejection of Wehbe was remarkable. Not only would her presence have raised the profile of the voyage, it would have dramatically increased the public relations cost to Israel if it again mishandled the boarding. Moreover, Wehbe — a Shiite Muslim from Hezbollah’s home turf in south Lebanon — is a strong supporter of the “resistance.” In 2006, she praised the militia for defending Lebanon from Israel; in 2008 she declared that she was “under the command” of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Even more distinctive is the recent campaign that the militia has launched to convince women to don the veil. Females in Dahiya, a Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut, haven’t been covering up in sufficient numbers for the resistance, so Hezbollah, via its youth advertising affiliate, the Islamic Cultural Knowledge Association, has launched a massive poster campaign targeting those who have yet to adopt the hijab. The ubiquitous bright orange posters — on overpasses and roadside billboards — all depict a faceless woman wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf, and a series of slogans urging the attire. One of the more popular placards reads, “Your Hijab my sister is more precious than my blood.” Yet another notes that the veil “[p]rotects the position of women.” Still a third describes hijab as the “[f]ortress of chastity,” an adage the sign attributes to the late Iranian theocrat Ayatollah Khomeini.

The campaign is part of a “restorative propaganda effort praising the moral-religious ideal of the [organization’s] elapsed beginnings,” explains Lokman Slim, a longtime observer of local Shia politics. “It [is] meant to reassure those women who wear the hijab of the righteousness of their choice as much as to tell the ‘loose’ ones — in a friendly way — that they are wrong.”

Why is Hezbollah engaging in these campaigns now? The timing is not coincidental. Politically and militarily, 2009 was a banner year for the militia. But, image-wise, Hezbollah’s reputation for probity was tarnished when its chief local financier was arrested for perpetrating a Ponzi scheme a la Bernie Madoff — implicating the militant Islamist organization in odious corruption. Since then, the group has been trying to remake itself, not only by issuing its first new “manifesto” since 1985, but by refocusing the organization on its religious objectives. All this appears to be part of a Hezbollah effort to rehabilitate its diminished ethical and moral standing by returning to its socially conservative roots.

These events suggest something important about the nature of Hezbollah itself. Its leaders are clearly concerned by the fact that, although the organization is exceedingly popular among Lebanese Shiites, it remains unable to convince its constituents to adhere to its conservative social mores. In other words: They are troubled that support for Hezbollah derives from its military exploits and not from its Iranian-inspired religious message.

This also means, more fundamentally, that Hezbollah’s motives have not altered nearly as much as it would have us think. The organization’s actions belie a wider social agenda, which seems to extend far beyond “resisting” Israeli occupation. While Hezbollah no longer articulates the long-term goal of exporting the Iranian revolution to Lebanon, the hijab campaign and the counterintuitive decision to exclude Haifa Wehbe from the Gaza aid flotilla suggest that the organization’s hopes for an Islamic state in Lebanon remain alive and well.

Yet it looks as if Hezbollah will not be able to realize those goals. No doubt, the organization will continue to press its militant and religiously conservative agenda in Lebanon. It still possesses a preponderance of force in the state. But if the evidently tepid response to the hijab campaign is any indication, sectarian and political considerations will cause the militia’s efforts to fail. Fortunately — for Washington and the majority of Lebanese — the fact that Hezbollah’s constituents refuse to consent to its socio-religious agenda suggests that aside from “resisting” Israel, the organization has limited appeal.

David Schenker is Aufzien Fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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