In killing seven soldiers, kidnapping two more and reigniting Israel's northern border, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has taken a gamble that the violence will quickly die down and that negotiations on a prisoner exchange will soon begin, an expert on Lebanon said Wednesday.
Attacks against Israel, especially kidnappings of Israelis that could lead to prisoner exchanges, boost Hizbullah's popularity throughout the Middle East, especially at a time when the group is under regional and international pressure to disarm, said Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center.
But for many, including some within Lebanon, who call the group a "danger to stability," Wednesday's actions might just prove them right, Zisser said.
"It's good for their prestige," he said. Based on previous incidents, the militant group is gambling that Israel's response will be restrained, he said.
Hizbullah took control of southern Lebanon when Israel withdrew from its "security zone" there in 2000, leaving a vacuum. The group's leaders say they are defending Lebanon from Israel. They also claim Lebanese sovereignty over the Shaba Farms area, a small parcel of land that Israel captured from Syria in 1967, and have said they will continue to attack until the area is liberated.
But a wide-scale outbreak of violence could backfire for the group, especially if Lebanese citizens feel Hizbullah is to blame.
"These operations reinforce [Nasrallah's] position. It's an matter of image," Zisser said. Nasrallah "is a gambler. He is hoping he will benefit from these actions."
Hizbullah gained much recognition in the Arab world in 2004 when it won the release of hundreds of prisoners from Israeli prisons in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three IDF soldiers. It is also widely seen as responsible for Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon after an 18-year presence.
Zisser said that from Hizbullah's perspective, its actions Wednesday did not constitute an escalation, because it had both attempted and carried out similar operations in the past.
"They don't see this as a step up, this is a step they've taken before," he said. "Hizbullah has an interest that this will end and they will begin negotiations," he said.
The group was taking into account Israel's muted responses to previous Hizbullah provocations, he said.
Within Lebanon, "Hizbullah is under a lot of pressure because... of the many groups that want it to disarm, who say that it is a danger to stability," Zisser said.
Neither Iran nor Syria, both considered enthusiastic sponsors of Hizbullah's activities, would come to the group's aid if Israel began wide-scale operations inside Lebanon, he said.
The next steps are up to Israel, he said, which has no choice but to respond.
IDF operations in Lebanon would probably work on two levels, one aimed at isolating the area near Wednesday's attack and rescuing the kidnapped soldiers, and a second that would exact a high price from Lebanon for a military action initiated from its territory, said Maj.- Gen. (res.) Danny Rothschild, president of the Council for Peace and Security.
An operation to return the kidnapped soldiers would involve bombing bridges and containing the area near where the abduction took place, although only for a very limited time, Rothschild said. "In that sense, you have a window of operation which is closing every minute," he said.
"The other layer of operation is a signal to Lebanon that there is a price," Rothschild said, adding that this could be accomplished via either military or political pressure.
On the political level, Israel could ask foreign governments, including the US and the European Union, to pressure Lebanon for the release of the soldiers, he said.
Military options include bombing Hizbullah's headquarters in Beirut and destroying infrastructure, he said.
Another concern is Hizbullah's military arsenal, said to include approximately 11,000 short- and medium-range missiles, some capable of reaching as far south as Hadera, about 30 kilometers from Tel Aviv.
The missiles pose "a serious threat to civilians in Israel," Rothschild said, noting that most of northern Israel is in range of the missiles.
"Nobody knows" how long an operation inside Lebanon might last, he said, acknowledging that Israeli forces could still be operating in southern Lebanon months from now.
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