Hezbollah's new offensive - cutting holes in border fence raises tensions

Hezbollah knows that it is sitting on a powder keg, in a Lebanon that is financially strapped.

UNIFIL PEACEKEEPERS deploy at the Lebanese-Israeli border in the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila in 2012, when parts of the fence were increased. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
UNIFIL PEACEKEEPERS deploy at the Lebanese-Israeli border in the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila in 2012, when parts of the fence were increased.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Bright, fading yellow lights hung in the air over northern Israel on Friday, April 17. They were illumination rounds fired after reports of activity along Israel’s border fence with Lebanon.
Residents in the North witnessed the flares. Soon images and video were being shared online.
“We found three locations where our security fence along the Blue Line with Lebanon was damaged tonight,” the IDF said.
Concerns and memories of past Hezbollah attacks meant there was a security alert along the northern border. No infiltration had occurred, though. Nevertheless, Israel viewed the incident as severe and held Lebanon responsible.
Three sections of the fence were damaged that evening. This was no ordinary damage by wild boar or a human error. It was also not an innocuous event, such as drug smuggling or some farmer lost near the border.
The next morning revealed propaganda posters showing late Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iran and Hezbollah have blamed Israel for killing Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008, and the US killed Soleimani and Muhandis in a Baghdad airstrike in January. Whoever put up the poster wrote “Revenge” in Farsi with a hashtag. Iran has vowed “hard revenge” for the killings.
The posters were a message from Iran and its proxy Hezbollah. Sitting in his bunker, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah was watching. His organization dominates on its side of the fence. It put the posters near the fence cuttings to send a message that it could breach the barrier.
On April 18, IDF soldiers repaired the fence near the border communities. In this area, Israeli communities sit right on the fence, within view of Lebanon. At Metulla, the northernmost community, Hezbollah posters and flags sit on hillsides across the border. Old bunkers from past wars are dug into the earth there. Bucolic fields dot the landscape, and Lebanese villages can be seen in the distance.
IN METULLA in 2018, IDF soldiers guard near a barrier blocking an entrance leading to the border with Lebanon. (Photo Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)IN METULLA in 2018, IDF soldiers guard near a barrier blocking an entrance leading to the border with Lebanon. (Photo Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Several years ago, when Hezbollah was threatening attacks on Israel, it put up a poster showing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, arguing that one day it would “liberate” al-Aksa.
This is Iran’s narrative. Tehran sees Israel and the US as its main enemies and vows to destroy the Jewish state. It has funded Hezbollah, sent precision-guided munitions and helped Hezbollah stockpile more than 150,000 rockets. Iran holds an annual “Quds Day” dedicated to Jerusalem, to express support for the Palestinians and oppose Zionism.
Hezbollah’s April message was part of a long context of tit-for-tat attacks and tensions along the border.
The terrorist movement appears to act with impunity inside Lebanon. It has hijacked the government in Beirut such that it holds enough seats and influence in parliament to make sure it can control who becomes president. It also now influences the Health Ministry. It carries out its own foreign policy, sending troops to fight in Syria and also sending Hezbollah members to Iraq to help corral pro-Iranian militias there. It runs smuggling operations across Syria to Iraq, and has put up bases and safe houses like mushrooms in Syria, including near Israel’s Golan border.
HEZBOLLAH WAS clearly riding high from the April border event. A journalist from Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar media took a photo near one of the fence cuttings on the border with Israel.
“Our brother Ali Soeib reporting one of the gaps in the bordering town east of Meis el-Jabal in Marjeyoun, Lebanon,” wrote supporters.
Other Lebanese journalists posed for selfies. Hezbollah and allies also filmed IDF soldiers repairing the fence. They also filmed a robot and drone next to the fence on the day after the cutting, as Israel tried to investigate several bags left behind near the openings. By midday two cuttings were repaired.
HEZBOLLAH FLAGS flutter along an empty street, at the entrance of Mays Al-Jabal village (Photo Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)HEZBOLLAH FLAGS flutter along an empty street, at the entrance of Mays Al-Jabal village (Photo Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Foreign Minister Israel Katz ordered the ministry to file a complaint with the UN Security Council, asserting the fence cutting infringed upon Israel’s sovereignty. He told the UN that Jerusalem expects Lebanon’s government to prevent these kinds of threats to security. “The state of Israel thoroughly condemns these attempts to breach the border fence.”
Israel believes this incident threatens the entire region because incidents like these can lead to a wider conflict.
Iran was chuffed, with its Tasnim media bragging about the great threat Hezbollah poses to Israel, and portraying the operation as gallant, striking fear into the hearts of Israelis.
Some of this is just the usual Tehran bragging. Iran has been sending weapons to Hezbollah for years, but Israel has said that it has also carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes in Syria designed to curtail these efforts. In the first four months of 2020 the Syrian regime accused Israel of more than five airstrikes, at bases as far north as Homs and near Palmyra in the Syrian desert.
Iran, in turn, put out new photos of Ababil-3 drones, a flying machine with twin-tails, showing it carrying anti-tank smart bombs. Iran claimed it had “replicated” the bombs from Israeli Spike missiles. Iran also unveiled an anti-ship missile and launched a military satellite on April 22, claiming that now it has new strategic intelligence abilities.
For Hezbollah, of course, all this is good news; its main ally and backer is getting stronger.
The fence-line incident blended these tensions with some of the braggadocio that Lebanese Hezbollah uses to highlight its actions. Hardly a month goes by without Nasrallah giving a speech about how great his organization is and its far reach in the region.
Hezbollah has even sought to ally with the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The Houthis’ official slogan includes the term “death to Israel” and “curse the Jews, victory to Islam.” Of course, Hezbollah finds this attractive.
But Hezbollah also knows that it is sitting on a powder keg, in a Lebanon that is financially strapped.
For instance, Lebanon purposely made a show of force as the IDF repaired the fence. The same show of force was made in days prior to the fence cutting, as the IDF investigated other activity along the length of it.
This was part of bubbling tensions. Lebanese social media spread rumors online that there was increased Israeli drone activity. Pro-Hezbollah activists termed the Hezbollah actions “brave” and a lesson to the “murderous” Israel’s “super fence.”
Hezbollah soldiers were like “ghosts,” these supporters said. Al-Akhbar media in Lebanon wrote a huge report about Hezbollah’s actions, detailing every aspect of the fence cutting.
The Akhbar report claimed that Hezbollah has returned with confidence to the border area. To confront what Hezbollah claimed was Israel’s use of drones and “dense enemy deployments and fixed military positions equipped with sophisticated monitoring and eavesdropping devices,” Hezbollah developed new methods. “The resistance,” as Hezbollah calls itself, sent cadres of fighters who were insulated from other Hezbollah operations in Iraq and Syria to the border with Israel to prepare for “day and night” activity confronting Israel.
Akhbar claimed Hezbollah monitored Israeli movements and Israel’s “high level of technical work” that is aimed at “preventing kidnappings and preventing infiltrations of [Israeli] settlements.”
Hezbollah “studied the additional options to respond to the assassinations or attempted assassinations of resistance fighters in Lebanon and Syria, which happened last week [April 15].”
The report makes it seem like Hezbollah felt this was some extraordinary special operation, with the “resistance” members watching the Friday sunset before setting off in three groups of “Islamic resistance advancing towards specific points on the fence with occupied Palestine.”
Along 34 km., Hezbollah teams acted to cut three holes, the movement claimed. One was near Avivim, another near the “colony of Metulla,” and a third near Meis el-Jabal close to the Manara cliff.
Hezbollah then watched the next day as “enemy snipers fired at the targets the resistance left behind.” Hezbollah seems to have chuckled at this, claiming they purposely left behind “useless wires and a broken cleaning machine [vacuum cleaner].”
Perhaps more serious is the claim in Akhbar that the size of the breach near Meis el-Jabal “exceeded six meters, allowing vehicles to cross into occupied Palestine in depth, not exclusively for infiltrating fighters.” This implies Hezbollah’s larger warning was that it could launch an invasion.
This conjures up memories from a trip to the same border area in Israel in June 2017, when locals said the next conflict with Hezbollah would be bloody. At the time, reports indicated border communities could be evacuated, and that Hezbollah would seek to grab territory as part of its initial attack.
We now know that Hezbollah built tunnels under the border. In December 2018 Israel launched Operation Northern Shield to root out the tunnels. I was on the border those nights as well, as Israel uprooted the threat.

HEZBOLLAH’S ATTEMPT to portray itself as “ghost-like” along the border is in stark contrast to some of its bumbling in Syria.
Along a pretty section of the Syria-Lebanon border, about a 40-minute drive from Damascus into the rolling hills that are north of Mount Hermon, Hezbollah men dashed from a Jeep Grand Cherokee on April 15. The usually quiet Syrian border village of Jdeidat Yabous, known mostly for Syrians crossing during the last nine years of Syrian civil war, was shattered with an explosion. The jeep’s back roof was torn up like a sardine can ripped apart.
According to reports, Mustafa Mughniyeh, son of the late Imad, was in the jeep with two colleagues when a missile fell next to it. Suspecting the next missile would hit them, they grabbed duffle bags and dashed from the vehicle. One man came back and got more items. Then the jeep exploded. Iranian media blamed Israel.
These incidents have a long background. Israel’s border with Lebanon has often been unstable. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stop Palestinians firing rockets at the North, leaving Lebanon in 2000 after years of war against Hezbollah. In 2006 Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in the North that began with an attack on an Israeli patrol and kidnapping of bodies. Commander Imad Mughniyeh, a key conduit to Iran, was killed in Syria in 2008. Tensions grew with Hezbollah during the Syrian civil war, as Hezbollah played a larger role in Syria.
A strike by Hezbollah targeted Israeli vehicles near the border in 2015, after Imad Mughniyeh’s son Jihad was killed in an airstrike. Two Israeli soldiers were killed. Another attack targeting an IDF border patrol took place in January 2016. In August, after Israel killed a Hezbollah drone team in Lebanon, Hezbollah fired anti-tank rounds into Israel, destroying an IDF vehicle near Avivim.
For Hezbollah, this border is its cause and legacy. It says it is “resisting” Israel and claims it wants to retake areas Israel “occupies,” including a slice of territory – Mount Dov, aka Shaba Farms – north of Metulla. Hezbollah lives off its stories of confronting Israel, airing footage in 2019 of the 2015 attack as if to claim it could do it again.
The border incidents have a kind of clockwork about them. In each incident Hezbollah attempts to respond to what it claims is an Israeli action with a reaction. The airstrike on the vehicle on the Syria-Lebanon border on April 15 led to the fence cuttings. An incident in Beirut in August, in which Hezbollah claimed it downed an Israeli drone, led to the attack near Avivim last year. That, at least, is one narrative.
There have been other incidents as well. A Hezbollah member was killed near the Golan in the Syrian village of Khadr on February 27 and another Hezbollah member was gunned down in southern Lebanon in March.
Hezbollah threatens retaliation but is caught up in its own internal struggles at home in Lebanon. There is a budget crisis, and the organization does not appear to want to provoke war. It does want to show, via leaking information about its fence cutting, that it poses a threat.