Hezbollah and its allies in the region have responded to Operation Northern Shield with bemused incredulity. While some Lebanese media have broadcasted images of Israel’s work to dismantle the tunnels, overall the response has been tepid.Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri commented on the operation on Wednesday, saying that Lebanon guards its sovereignty, an insinuation that his country had not allowed the tunnels to be built and enter Israel. The statement was designed to make it seem the government was unaware of their existence.The central narrative of media sympathetic to Hezbollah is to portray Israel’s activity as an “internal” Israeli issue.
For instance, Al-Maaydeen ran an article asking what the reasons are for Israel’s operation: “Israel has a crisis in its inability to launch an attack against Lebanon and Syria,” the website of the satellite television station said. The whole operation was “fabricated,” the article asserts, and is a result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s battle with his own government after the “failure” in Gaza – referring to November’s clashes with Hamas in which the terrorist group fired 460 rockets into Israel before a ceasefire was called and defense minister Avigdor Liberman resigned. The article then claims that Israel has been curtailed from entering Syrian airspace after Russia deployed the S-300 defense system with Syrian air defense, leading it to have “launched missiles remotely on November 29,” referring to air strikes that took place south of Damascus, which it blamed on Israel.Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese daily, also had an article on Thursday that claimed the search for the tunnels was an internal Israeli issue and that it would not likely escalate. The article consisted primarily of discussions about what Israeli media are saying about the operation. Al-Manar television station, which is affiliated with Hezbollah, ran an article detailing how the Lebanese army has sought to confirm Israel’s claims of tunnels. It also noted that Lebanon demanded Israel return the Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) area, a disputed border region controlled by Israel that Hezbollah has long used as an excuse to maintain its arsenal of “resistance.”At the same time, as media have downplayed the operation and portrayed it as an Israeli issue unlikely to affect Lebanon, the military and political elites in Lebanon have sought to demand proof that the tunnels came from Lebanon or entered Israeli territory. The Lebanese army has said that so far Israeli activity along the border has not entered Lebanese territory.The review of regional media’s reactions to Operation Northern Shield reveals a very tepid response. This is particularly true among Iranian pro-regime media, Syria’s state media and those channels that are sympathetic to Hezbollah. This group of media usually have similar narratives and Iran’s especially has been in the habit of boasting recently about various new missiles and programs that threaten Israel. Yet, in the last few days, Tehran has been more quiet in its approach. Similarly Hezbollah’s boasting has been reduced. Last Friday Hezbollah released a video threatening sites throughout Israel with retaliation in case of attack. What is particularly interesting is that Hezbollah’s narrative is primarily about retaliation, not its previous discussions of invading the Galilee. This response appears to seek to deescalate the situation along the northern border, and also to indicate that Hezbollah doesn’t care about its tunnels being dismantled. This would be in line with its claims that the tunnels are actually more mundane activities, such as claiming one was actually part of a legitimate cement factory.Overall the Lebanese narrative, whether associated with Hezbollah or the opposition parties such as Hariri’s political coalition, is adamant about not wanting an escalation. For Hezbollah this is an embarrassment – its tunnels have been exposed and it is left unable to respond. But Hezbollah has also been keen on regrouping after its involvement in the war in Syria and the losses it suffered there. It enjoys the war of words with Jerusalem, where Israel accuses Hezbollah of various nefarious activities – such as housing weapons in Beirut – and Hezbollah says any action by Israel will be met with retaliation. But it may be more wary of escalating an actual conflict. This is not a calculation only for Hezbollah. Its allies in the Syrian regime and Tehran are also keenly aware of the risks involved in escalation. Syria appears to think it is close to having an air-defense umbrella with Russian support and its S-300 system. It too wants to consolidate gains on its southern border after having defeated the Syrian rebels there five months ago. So far Operation Northern Shield has been accomplished with quiet on the border.
Netanyahu defends Gaza ceasefire during annual memorial for Ben Gurion, November 14, 2018 (GPO)