Security and Defense: Hizbullah's rise from the ashes

Three years after its devastation in the war, the Shi'ite militia group has bounced back.

Hizbullah flag border 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah flag border 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
They show up along the Lebanese border in Land Rovers. One time they'll roll down the window, lift a camera with a long lens and snap a few pictures of an IDF outpost on the other side of the border before driving away. Other times, they will get out and stroll along the border, right next to the UNIFIL and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) positions. While the men don't wear Hizbullah uniforms, the IDF has no doubt that they belong to the Iranian-backed Shi'ite guerrilla group. On rare and lucky occasions, IDF cameras catch a face of a known Hizbullah operative. These Hizbullah operatives are not alone. On some tours they take with them groups of foreigners, sometimes members of the Iran's Revolutionary Guards. This is the reality along the northern border three years after the Second Lebanon War - Hizbullah may not maintain overt military positions like it did before 2006, but it is still there, growing stronger by the day. According to Israeli estimates, Hizbullah today has somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 rockets of various ranges that could reach from Kiryat Shmona in the North to Dimona in the South and the sensitive nuclear reactor nearby. Since the war and the extensive damage caused to its infrastructure in Beirut and southern Lebanon, Hizbullah has been engrossed in rehabilitating its military wing. Today, its presence in southern Lebanon is mainly inside villages - Shi'ite and non-Shi'ite - not in the nature reserves where it was heavily deployed before the war. Aircraft carrying weaponry for Hizbullah arrive in Beirut fairly frequently. Some of them originate in Iran and Syria, its main suppliers of weapons; others come directly from Eastern European countries that manufacture the anti-tank missiles and Katyusha rockets its forces depend on. The IDF was surprised by Hizbullah's possession of the Chinese-made radar-guided C-802 that hit the Hanit missile ship in the beginning of the war, killing four sailors, so the current assessment in Military Intelligence is that "whatever Iran and Syria have, Hizbullah could have." The operational impact is significant. In a future conflict, navy ships will likely have to patrol the Lebanese coast from greater distances than in the past; the IAF, which still flies over Lebanon to collect intelligence, flies at higher altitudes; and while Israel does not believe that Syria has transferred Scud missiles to Hizbullah, which could draw a preemptive strike, such a possibility is not far-fetched in the event of a new conflict. "It is just a seven-hour drive from Damascus to the Hizbullah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley," explained one senior defense official. During the war, the IDF was impressed by the command-and-control capabilities Hizbullah retained until the end of the war. This was demonstrated by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's ability to turn the rocket fire on and off, as he wished, even though he was deep inside a bunker somewhere in Lebanon. Hizbullah is believed to have improved this capability and has worked to establish a semi-military framework for its forces. Instead of bases, it has a battalion-sized force, split into smaller units, deployed in villages. At the top are the regional commanders. But while Hizbullah has taken on more characteristics of a conventional-looking military, it does not use traditional military jargon. This is in contrast to Hamas in the Gaza Strip which actually calls its battalion commanders "battalion commanders." Hizbullah stays away from the jargon to maintain a semblance of a resistance organization made up of freedom fighters. Despite this, Hizbullah has encountered difficulty in filling its ranks since the war and according to updated Israeli estimates, is missing several hundred fighters as well as a significant number of platoon and company commanders. One of the reasons Lebanese are not enlisting is their disappointment with Hizbullah, which had promised to rebuild people's homes that were destroyed during the fighting but never did. While Nasrallah is still officially in charge, Iran is believed to have solidified its control over Hizbullah since the war because, to some extent, it blames Hizbullah for turning the spotlight on their relationship when it decided to kidnap IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser on July 12, 2006 and draw Israel into a war. Iran does not want to be surprised again, and it cannot be ruled out that Iran's control also manifests itself in its refusal to allow one person to replace Imad Mughniyeh, the Hizbullah military chief who was killed in a meticulously-planned car bombing - attributed by foreign reports to the Mossad - in the heart of Damascus in February 2008. Mughniyeh was perceived to have too much power since he was in charge of Hizbullah's military arm, was the liaison to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and was also commander of its extensive international infrastructure and terror cells. So instead of appointing a single successor, the Iranians split up his responsibilities between a few people. Hizbullah is still trying to avenge the assassination. According to foreign reports, it was behind a thwarted attempt earlier this year to attack the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan. The group has also tried using Palestinian proxies to launch attacks within Israel without success. This frustration, Israel fears, might lead to a decision to launch a retaliatory attack against the northern border. In addition, assessments are that while Hizbullah is heavily deployed throughout southern Lebanon, its control over the territory is not as complete as it was from 2000, after the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, until the war. One clear indication was provided during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip when a number of rockets were fired into the North from Lebanon. The perpetrators were fringe Palestinian groups which Hizbullah apparently does not control. According to some assessments, Hizbullah was even taken by surprise by the rocket fire. This shows that the UNIFIL and LAF presence in the south are having an impact on its ability to maneuver. Hizbullah's rehabilitation efforts have not been limited to its military wing; it has also invested tremendous resources in an effort to boost its political power as seen in the last month's Lebanese parliamentary elections. Contrary to widespread predictions, included some here, Hizbullah lost to the Western-backed anti-Syrian camp led by Sa'ad Hariri. However, the possibility still exists that Hizbullah will join the new coalition and be able to influence policy. For that reason, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet on Sunday that "if Hizbullah joins the Lebanese government, then the Lebanese government is accepting responsibility for Hizbullah's actions, including its actions against Israel." But according to assessments in Northern Command, Hizbullah was not really aiming to win the elections but to use them as a springboard for the next elections, four years from now. If it joins Hariri's coalition, it will use its power to change the election system, which currently elects the parliament based on a multi-member constituency system, to increase its potential power base. Northern Command also believes that the Hariri camp's victory was made possible by Lebanese frustration and public disappointment with Hizbullah and the devastation it brought upon the country during the war. This lack of public support creates Hizbullah's continued identity crisis. On the one hand, it believes in the destruction of Israel and there comes a point when words need to be translated into action. On the other hand, Nasrallah is attracted to the possibility that he could one day take over the entire country in a democratic process, like Hamas did when it defeated Fatah in 2006. Another war with Israel could ruin those chances.