Hezbollah went from a guerrilla group to a terror superpower
Twenty years after the last IDF soldier left southern Lebanon, the hostility between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah has only intensified.
The former guerilla group has morphed into a “terror superpower,” while Israel has strengthened its military might over concerns of a future war with its archnemesis.
Though Hezbollah once spread its wings across the globe in an attempt to inflict as much damage as it could on Jews and Americans, their focus has shifted. The group turned to its neighbor, Syria, and built up local allied groups to open a new front in the south to counter Israel.
Israel has always been willing to take calculated risks when it comes to defending its security and has recently taken the approach of warning Hezbollah fighters of incoming strikes in order to avoid deteriorating into a full-scale war.
And while Israel has overall refrained from attacking the organization in Lebanon, it has carried out hundreds of strikes against Hezbollah infrastructure in neighboring Syria in an attempt to prevent it from obtaining precision missiles and other game-changing weaponry.
On Monday night, an airstrike targeted a Syrian military research complex outside the city of Aleppo.
According to reports, Iranian and Syrian scientists and engineers at the facility are working on bioweapons to use against rebel groups, as well as long-range missiles able to deliver large payloads for Hezbollah deep into Israeli territory.
Senior IDF officers, as well as politicians, say that Israel’s military has the ability to end any future conflict with Hezbollah quickly and will completely destroy the group’s capabilities and infrastructure, even if that means incurring civilian casualties.
But, while Israeli jets can wreak havoc on the group far from Israel’s borders, the defense establishment knows that no war can be won without boots on the ground. The IDF hasn’t conducted a proper ground manoeuvre in enemy territory since troops entered Gaza in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead.
The Hezbollah of 2020 is not the Hezbollah of 2000, or even 2006.
On the eve of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when the two foes fought a deadly 34-day war in which both sides lost hundreds of fighters and hundreds of civilians were killed, Hezbollah had some 15,000 rockets and missiles and fired 4,000 of them at Israel.
Over a decade later, the group has expanded its arsenal with over 130,000 rockets and missiles of all sorts of ranges and payloads. With the help of its patron Iran, the group also continues to work on its precision missile project. But despite the effort and years invested, the organization has only several dozen such missiles.
Nevertheless, security officials believe that in the next war, the terrorist group will aim to fire some 1,500-2,000 rockets per day until the last day of the conflict. With more than 40,000 fighters organized in battalions and brigades, Hezbollah fighters have gained immeasurable battlefield experience fighting in Syria.
The cross-border terror tunnels discovered and destroyed by the IDF last year are another part of the group’s attack plans. The tunnels, the largest of which the author visited, were significantly more advanced than tunnels built by terror groups in the Gaza Strip.
Hezbollah’s flagship tunnel began in the southern Lebanese village of Ramiya and stretched one kilometer before it infiltrated several dozen meters into northern Israel, close to the communities of Zarit and Shetula.
The Ramiyah tunnel, which Hezbollah had been in the process of completing, had been dug at a depth of 80 meters and had 20 stories of stairs. The tunnel, which took Hezbollah several years to dig, also contained railroads to transport equipment, garbage, and was equipped with lighting equipment, ventilation and ladders.
It was astounding and only one of six. And while the IDF says it has destroyed all cross-border tunnels, there are others which have been dug but have not yet crossed into Israeli territory.
And with the civil war winding down, Iran and Hezbollah have been able to focus more of their energy on other targets, with Israel topping the list.
But neither side wants war. At least right now.
Indeed, Hezbollah’s leader Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had to apologize after the end of the 2006 war for the ambush which set everything off. He has since promised the Lebanese people that he is doing all he can to prevent another war with the IDF.
Senior defense sources have said that Nasrallah is a patient, calculating and smart commander willing to take the long route.
“It’s a fact that we are harming his group. It might be under the radar and not published by the media, but he’s heard about it. But he’s done nothing to us in return,” one source told The Jerusalem Post.
Of course, Hezbollah has not been waiting around and has responded to Israeli operations which have targeted its operatives. In mid-April the group sent Israel a message by cutting several holes in the border fence after the IDF reportedly carried out a drone strike against a Jeep carrying Hezbollah operatives.
But nobody was killed in the drone strike on the Jeep, and no Hezbollah operative crossed into Israeli territory.
The message from both sides was clear.
In September, after the IDF carried out a deadly strike against Hezbollah operatives planning a drone attack against targets in northern Israel from Syria, the group fired an anti-tank missile towards an IDF ambulance driving close to the border community of Avivim.
That time Hezbollah aimed to kill IDF troops. None were killed in the attack, but it led to a spike in tensions not seen in years.
The IDF, which has focused much of its covert operations in preventing Hezbollah from acquiring game-changing weaponry, has nevertheless been deterred from striking the group on its home turf.
Israel doesn’t want a similar situation in Syria where it currently has air and intelligence superiority over its enemies. It’s better to deal with Hezbollah when it’s still small rather than when it’s strong and ready to strike.
Israel’s war-between-wars campaign against Iran and its proxies, namely Hezbollah, began close to a decade ago and has seen action on a weekly basis in recent years, with thousands of airstrikes taking out infrastructure and equipment.
And while senior Israeli defense sources recently said that Iran has reduced its forces significantly in Syria, according to a Western diplomat who visits Syria regularly and quoted by Foreign Policy, Hezbollah fighters are doubling down in the Golan Heights and plan to embed themselves as part of the Syrian Arab Army in the south of the country.
Hezbollah has always had a presence in Syria but has recently grown its influence in areas it wasn’t active in before, so that Israel will be deterred from striking these areas like it is deterred from striking the group in Lebanon. In July 2019 the IDF said that the group has begun an attempt to establish and entrench a covert force in the Syrian Golan Heights, designed to act against Israel when given the order.
Called “The Golan Project”, Israel has been blamed for several strikes targeting operatives belonging to the project.
“If no one bothers Hezbollah in the Golan then it will continue to grow and bring in more capabilities to threaten the homefront,” a senior IDF source told the Post. “It doesn’t matter if Iran is hundreds of kilometers away from Israel, if Hezbollah has local operatives on the Golan who can act against Israel.”
But “Nasrallah is walking a tightrope,” said another defense source, explaining that the group is not only feeling a squeeze on its finances due to the economic crisis in Iran, but thousands of Hezbollah fighters have been killed fighting in Syria for the Assad regime.
“What does Hezbollah want? How much power do they really have and how much face can they save in another war with Israel?” he asked.
While the Gaza Strip has for years preoccupied the IDF, with several military operations and dozens of rounds of deadly violence in the last two years alone, Israel’s northern front has once again grabbed the top spot in its list of priorities.
Because over 20 years after the last IDF officer – Benny Gantz – locked the gates with Lebanon, Hezbollah has turned into the military’s greatest foe.