Despite fears of a possible outbreak of war between Hezbullah and Israel, a sudden calm descended after Sunday’s flareup on the Lebanese-Israeli border following Hezbullah’s strike against an Israeli military site.
The rapidity with which both sides moved to cool the situation made it clear that neither of them wanted a war. But could it be that they had some secret understanding between them beforehand?
On Sunday, 1 September, Hezbullah released a communique stating that it had destroyed a military vehicle on the road to Avivim and “killed and wounded those inside”. The Israeli army reported that a military site and vehicles were targeted by several missiles fired across the central sector of the border with Lebanon. The statement said that the strike caused damage but no fatalities.
According to press reports, Hezbullah fired several Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles at Israeli military vehicles and a military site in the vicinity of an Israeli settlement. In response, Israel fired around 40 missiles into southern Lebanon. There were no reports of casualties in the Lebanese areas.
The Israeli army and government denied that the Hezbullah strike claimed any casualties among Israeli soldiers. Yet the Israeli media broadcast footage showing the “helicopter evacuation of Israeli wounded” from the scene. The contradictory reports immediately sparked questions.
As the situation escalated, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri urgently appealed to the US, France and the international community to prevent the situation on the Lebanese-Israeli border from spiralling out of control. According to Lebanon’s National News Agency, Al-Hariri spoke by phone with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the adviser to French
President Emmanuel Macron to ask them to help contain the situation. Conventionally, such communications are instrumental to capping mutual escalatory dynamics between adversaries.
Both sides want to emerge victorious from this crisis and it appears they need some narratives to help. Hezbullah needed to retaliate for a number of Israeli strikes, the most recent targeting a Hezbullah stronghold in south Beirut. Its purpose was to recalibrate the balances of deterrence which had tipped in favour of its Israeli adversary.
Israel, for its part, would like to write off the Hezbullah attack as an inexpensive trade-off for its wide-ranging strikes against the three Arab parties in the Iranian axis in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
This, however, is contingent on whether Netanyahu accepts the Hezbullah’s offer to repair the balance of deterrence or whether his calculations for the forthcoming elections will lure him into a destructive war against Lebanon in order to win votes at home.
Security tensions had spiked in Lebanon following the downing of two drones in the Hezbullah stronghold in the southern district of Beirut at dawn on Sunday, 25 August. That strike coincided with another Israeli strike targeting a Hezbullah military base in Aqraba in southern Syria, killing two Hezbullah members.
Then, at Monday dawn — 26 August — three explosions rocked military bases belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which is supported by Hezbullah) in Qousaya near the border with Syria, in the Zahle district of Lebanon.
Israel did not claim responsibility for either the drone attack against southern Beirut or the one against Qousaya. However, it did acknowledge the attack in the vicinity of Damascus in an IDF communique that said Israeli fighter planes struck a number of “terrorist targets” in Aqraba, southeast of Damascus.
Hezbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to retaliate against the Israeli attacks, saying that the responsibility for this lay with Hezbullah commanders in the field.
Israel has launched numerous strikes against the Iranian axis in the region in recent years. But this is the first time that Hezbullah seemed determined to retaliate despite the risks of a conflagration. It was the recent Israeli attacks that had upset the balance of deterrence that Hezbullah worked to put into place following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.
Since Israel’s ill-fated war against Lebanon in which Israel lost 120 soldiers as well as hundreds of civilians, and in which 270 Hezbullah fighters and 50 Lebanese soldiers and police died, there has been an unofficial understanding between the two adversaries that they would avoid actions that could precipitate another full-scale conflict.
So, we have a situation in which Israeli wants to clip Iran’s imperial claws in the region by targeting Iran without incurring a response, and Hezbullah wants to re-establish the lost balance of deterrence. Both parties are not looking for war. Yet, war could happen despite them, especially given the fragile balance of deterrence.
The Israeli elections have played an important part in the crisis. The opposition’s charges that he was weak induced Netanyahu to escalate. But Netanyahu also knew that a war and a possibility of it lasting until the time the elections could be the worst possible scenario.
THE HeZBULLAH OFFER
There has been considerable speculation as to whether a kind of pact had been struck between Israel and Hezbullah before the latter launched its retaliatory strike into northern Israel.
On 28 August, Russia’s Sputnik news agency relayed a report from the Israeli news site Debka exposing an offer allegedly made by Hezbullah to Israel which the latter, according to the report, flatly rejected.
Ostensibly, Hezbullah’s offer, conveyed through secret intermediaries, was that it would stage a limited retaliatory strike so that they could put the matter of the double drone attack on southern Beirut behind them.
Interestingly, the Israeli academic and journalist Edy Cohen predicted such a scenario in an interview with BBC. He said that there will be a prearranged strike agreed upon between Israel and Hezbullah so that Nasrallah can save face.
The idea seems farfetched. To some, it might even seem conspiratorial. But as the details on the Hezbullah retaliation emerged on Sunday, one could only smell something fishy.
Israeli Army Radio announced, on Sunday, that the Hebrew state and Hezbullah were only “30 minutes away” from war when the Hezbullah missile struck the Israeli military vehicle near Avivim. Citing its correspondent at the scene, the presenter said that the vehicle had been empty when the missile struck, but that soldiers had been inside it up to half an hour before that.
According to IDF Spokesman Jonathan Conricus, the vehicle in question was an ambulance with a red Star of David on it. But he subsequently modified this, saying that the vehicle in question — an armoured personnel carrier — was being used as an ambulance even though it lacked the ambulance symbol.
The English language Times of Israel featured an analysis with the title, “No fatalities, mercifully, though truth is a casualty as the IDF fools Hezbullah.” Its author, David Horovitz, asks:“Why did the IDF come clean about faking an evacuation of ‘injured soldiers’ from an APC after a terror strike Sunday? And what else got obscured in the fog of near-war?” The answer was that the whole film about injured and evacuated soldiers “was a decoy operation ― an instance of ‘psychological warfare’ ― designed to fool Hezbullah into thinking that it had, indeed, managed to harm IDF soldiers in its much-anticipated attack on troops at the northern border”.
The scenario presented by Netanyahu, whose sole concern is the forthcoming elections, failed to convince his rivals and much of the Israeli media. Some even accused him of deliberately lying to the people for electoral purposes. But if indeed this was “an instance of ‘psychological warfare’”, as the scenario goes, then why admit this so quickly? Aren’t Netanyahu and army leaders afraid that Hezbullah might stage another strike to exact revenge for the deception? Or was the whole “fiction” agreed on in advance, as the Times of Israel article suggests?
Did Israel know the time and place of the attack in advance? If the purpose of the “decoy operation” was to let Nasrallah think his retaliation had worked, why provoke him by publicising the deception? If these unanswered questions tell us anything it is that much of the truth about the “momentary flareup” is still missing.
Developments in the course of the next two weeks, until Knesset elections on 17 September, should be revealing. If the calm that followed the brief tit-for-tat along the border lasts until then, it will lend considerable weight to the theory that the flareup had been carefully scripted by both sides.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly