Security and Defense: The fly in the spider web?

Five years after the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is "less inclined to enter a new conflict with Israel."

Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
In a few weeks, Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot will leave Northern Command headquarters in Safed after nearly five years in the post. He is now finalizing plans to spend the year studying at one of the country’s think tanks, and in 2012 will be appointed deputy chief of General Staff.
Since becoming head of the Northern Command, Eizenkot has kept in his desk drawer a copy of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s famous “Spider Web Speech,” which he gave to celebrate the end of Israel’s 18-year presence in southern Lebanon following the IDF withdrawal in May 2000.
The speech’s name came from the metaphor Nasrallah used to describe Israel, whose strength, he claimed, was an illusion and in reality was “weaker than a spider web.”
For Eizenkot, even though the speech was given over 11 years ago, its underlying message is still relevant for Israel today as it considers the challenges it faces in the North.
When Hezbollah thinks Israel is weak, it attacks, as it did when it kidnapped three soldiers just five months after the 2000 withdrawal. But when Nasrallah thinks Israel is strong, he does not attack, as has been the case since the end of the Second Lebanon War, which broke out on July 12, 2006.
In fact, this quiet – 10 rockets have been fire into Israel since the war, but not a single one by Hezbollah – is what might be guaranteeing Nasrallah his life.
Since the war in 2006, Israel has been accused of a spate of targeted killings of senior Hezbollah, Syrian, Iranian and Hamas officials – including Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh in the beginning of 2008, Syrian Gen. Muhammad Suleiman that summer, Hamas weapons smuggler Ali Mahmoud Mabhouh in January 2010, and a slew of Iranian scientists.
Traditionally Israel neither denies nor confirms its involvement in such cases, even though the assassination of these officials fits Israeli policy.
Following the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Israel launched a reprisal – widely known as operations Wrath of God and Spring of Youth – that included the assassination of top PLO terrorists in Beirut and throughout Europe. This is widely considered the last time Israel acted strictly out of vengeance.
Nowadays, the country holds by a policy that those eligible for assassination should be judged not by what they did in the past, but by the potential danger they pose to the country in the future. Nasrallah, as leader of Hezbollah, would definitely fit this category.
Of course, in his case, there are other considerations.
Hezbollah would respond forcefully to Nasrallah’s assassination and would not limit its response to Israeli targets overseas, as it has been doing since Mughniyeh was killed in a meticulous 2008 car bombing in downtown Damascus.
But that is not the only argument against targeting Nasrallah.
There is also some thinking within Israel that today he is actually something of an asset in preventing a future war, since he experienced the Second Lebanon War personally, witnessed the devastation Israel caused throughout Lebanon, and continues to live in a state of constant fear in underground bunkers, the locations of which are known only to a few close relatives and bodyguards.
“This experience might make him less inclined to enter a new conflict with Israel,” a senior defense official said recently in explaining the dilemma. “On the other hand, he is a terrorist who continues to operate against Israel, and it is obvious what needs to happen to him.”
Most Western intelligence assessments place Nasrallah in a series of bunkers throughout Beirut, likely in the Dahiya neighborhood, the known Hezbollah stronghold that was heavily bombed during the 2006 war.
Senior officials who would like to meet him – whether Lebanese, Iranian or Syrian – follow strict orders, are sometimes blindfolded and are under heavy guard.
Practically this means Nasrallah lives his life something like a Palestinian terror suspect in the West Bank – he rarely sleeps in the same place for more than a few nights, rarely meets his wife and children, and commands his vast guerilla terrorist infrastructure with the use of encrypted communications devices and other technology.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and particularly the Quds Force, is believed to be intimately involved in protecting Nasrallah.
His bodyguards are close confidants, such as his son-in-law Abu Ali, who is married to his daughter Zena.
Over the years, these bodyguards have also become communications experts. With Iran’s help, Hezbollah has built an encrypted fiber-optic communications network throughout Lebanon that links all of the organization’s headquarters and command posts. But Nasrallah also needs to be able to communicate with the outside world and deliver speeches to his faithful followers.
During the 2006 war, for example, and after the IAF bombed all of Hezbollah’s long-range missiles within half an hour on the first night, the Quds Force moved in and helped Nasrallah find refuge in a bunker under the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
The subsequent bombing of a complex in Dahiya that included his office and home sent a clear message to the embattled leader that he had to remain underground. That he rose to power following Israel’s 1992 assassination of his predecessor, Sheikh Abbas al-Mousawi, has also served as a constant reminder of the threat to his life.
The reliance on the IRGC however, which was enhanced following Mughniyeh’s assassination, has dealt Nasrallah something of a setback. Fearing that their investment was at risk – Iran has given Hezbollah between $500 million and $1 billion annually in recent years – the Quds Force decided after the war to bolster its presence in Lebanon and install key officials within the organization’s top hierarchy.
The increased Iranian supervision of Nasrallah serves as a restraint and prevents him from embarking on military adventures that don’t fit Tehran’s interests, like the kidnapping of reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser on July 12, 2006.
Another restraining factor is the Lebanese economy, which comes in third in the Middle East after Israel and Saudi Arabia and has seen a 7-percent growth in GNP since the war in 2006, as well as an annual two million tourists. The new government in Beirut, established earlier this month by Najib Mikati, is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, making Nasrallah the first to be blamed if war with Israel breaks out.

Hezbollah in 2011 is vastly different from the guerrilla organization Israel fought in 2006. Its rocket and missile arsenal has tripled in size, it has established thousands of arms caches, command centers and bases throughout villages in southern Lebanon, and it has significantly increased its ranks.
For Iran, Hezbollah is a force meant to deter Israel from attacking its nuclear facilities, which means that even if Nasrallah is eliminated, Tehran will likely still want to safeguard its investment.