Hizbullah’s streak

Rabha Allam
Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Leaping to the foreground of the escalating tensions surrounding Iran’s retaliatory strike against Israel and the latter’s response is Hizbullah’s role, reports Rabha Allam


Hizbullah carried out a qualitative operation on 17 April. It targeted a secret Israeli intelligence camp in the vicinity of Arab Aramsheh in northern Israel. According to official Israeli figures, 18 reservists were wounded in the attack, four critically. Israel subsequently announced the death of a reserve officer with the rank of major. The operation stirred considerable alarm in the area not only because of the casualty count but also because of the element of surprise, the precision targeting, and the coordinated use of both drones and missiles. Apparently, the warning sirens had failed to sound.

Two days before this, Hizbullah detonated explosive devices on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel just as a contingent of the Israeli Golani Brigade had approached the designated spot. Four soldiers were wounded in the explosion.

The Arab Aramsheh operation aimed to convey several messages to Tel Aviv. Above all, it was a reminder that Lebanon was not some weak spot in an Iranian flank, as Israeli strategists might imagine. For some strategic planners in Israel, Lebanon had emerged as a possible option for an Israeli response to the Iranian missile strike that would not trigger an all-out war. The 17 April strike in which Hizbullah’s drones were able to deceive Israel’s iron dome and penetrate northern Israel without triggering the sirens told Israel to think twice before using Lebanon as a sacrificial lamb.

The operation also demonstrated Hizbullah’s increasing ability to obtain up-to-date intelligence on Israeli military positions and movements. In addition, it revealed the Lebanese resistance organisation’s growing mastery of military drone technology, not just for reconnaissance and surveillance, but also for combat missions. Hizbullah’s lightweight fibreglass unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not only able to fly under the radar but can also be pre-programmed with a flight route, thereby dispensing with the need for communication signals to guide it. The success of last week’s mission in which UAVs were deployed is therefore a measure of the Hizbullah drone teams’ proficiency with the latest developments in UAV technology and their ability to exploit Israeli defence vulnerabilities, including those of the Iron Dome.

Some analysts believe that the Arab Aramsheh Operation should be seen independently from the tit-for-tat exchange between Iran and Israel. Iran’s retaliation for the Israeli attack against its consular premises had already been carried out successfully, and it did not need Hizbullah’s help. Instead, they argue, this operation was an extension of Hizbullah’s battle of solidarity and support for Gaza from the Lebanese front in accordance with the rules of engagement that have been in effect on that front since 7 October. This particular round was in response to the Israeli Occupation Force’s (IOF) killing of several Hizbullah fighters in Ain Baal and Chehabiya. In recent weeks, the IOF has killed a number of Hizbullah’s field operatives. Israel claimed to have weakened Hizbullah’s defences and exposed its loss of command and control in southern Lebanon. The Arab Aramsheh Operation put paid to that notion.

Nevertheless, Hizbullah remains keen to keep the confrontation on the Lebanese front within bounds, calibrating its operations so that the situation does not spiral out of control. It responds to Israeli strikes against Lebanese villages in the south with strikes against Israeli military targets on the other side of the border, Israeli strikes on the Beqaa with rocket barrages targeting the northern Galilee and the Golan, and assassinations of Hizbullah personnel with attacks against concentrations of Israeli soldiers in military sites in northern Israel.

Within this framework, Hizbullah’s recent strikes were also calculated to signal that it was capable of much more. Some of Hizbullah’s drones could strike as far south as the Negev if fired from the southernmost point in Lebanon, which explains why Israel is desperate to push Hizbullah forces northward to beyond the Litani River.

Meanwhile, plans in Lebanon for the immediate future remain up in the air and controversial. Given Hizbullah’s linkage between the Lebanese front and Palestinian defence, planning is contingent on the efforts to achieve a ceasefire in Gaza.

The “day after” regarding the Lebanese-Israeli border was on the agenda of the discussions between Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and French President Emmanuel Macron and the chiefs of their respective armies in the Elysée Palace on 19 April. Macron, in the meeting, reiterated France’s support for Lebanon and its determination to keep the conflict in the Middle East from spreading. He also stressed his government’s support for Lebanese institutions and especially the Lebanese Armed Forces, reiterating Paris’ commitment to providing the army’s logistic needs and ensure its sustained ability to protect Lebanon’s security.

These pledges are expected to be backed up by an anticipated visit to Beirut by the US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein. Western mediators are keen to promote progress in Lebanon on two tracks. The first is to restore calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border through a truce and military and logistic arrangements designed to remove Hizbullah forces from the border by a certain distance in exchange for guarantees to prevent Israeli aircraft from violating Lebanese airspace. An agreement might possibly include a permanent official border demarcation agreement brokered by the US. The second track, which is mainly French sponsored, is to promote the resumption of normal government in Lebanon, starting with the election of a new president to fill the year-and-a-half long vacuum in that office. This should theoretically pave the way for an acceleration of the long-awaited economic salvation plan.

Hizbullah appears determined to block progress on both tracks pending an end to the Israeli war against Gaza. This has contributed to rising discontent in Lebanon, aggravated by the expansion of Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon the Beqaa, wreaking extensive damage to people’s property for which they have no visible prospect for compensation. Meanwhile, the anti-Hizbullah opposition has intensified pressures for presidential elections to be held immediately, instead of after a ceasefire in Gaza.

Hizbullah, for its part, has become more determined to sustain the linkage between Gaza and Lebanon. Recently, it let Hamas resume strikes into northern Israel from Lebanon after a nearly two-month hiatus, which was seen as a snub to the French initiative. Paris wants to uncouple the Lebanese and Gazan fronts, presumably to facilitate the prioritisation of the Gaza truce negotiations for fear of a potential IOF military assault against Rafah.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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