Security and Defense: What's Hizbullah plotting now?

According to the latest intelligence assessments, Hizbullah will likely use the period following the swap to renew its attacks.

nasrallah 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
nasrallah 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
While terrorist Samir Kuntar returned to Lebanon in a Red Cross van on Wednesday to be greeted by throngs of Hizbullah leaders and supporters, the bodies of reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were being transported in a special military convoy to a military base on the northern border for a private ceremony with their families. Moments earlier, Ofer Dekel, the former deputy Shin Bet head whom Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appointed a year-and-a-half ago to negotiate the soldiers' release, recited Kaddish over their coffins, now covered by Israeli flags. The contrast symbolized just how problematic the deal was. While Israel received bodies and began preparing for funerals, Hizbullah held a party for Kuntar attended even by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who for several minutes took his chances outside his bunkers. One particularly disturbing picture was that of the large, gold-colored "Arc de Triomphe" Hizbullah erected in Naqoura - on the Lebanese side of Rosh Hanikra. Decorated with Hizbullah flags, it featured a picture of Nasrallah on one column, and on the other, an image of Imad Mughniyeh, the group's assassinated chief operations officer. It is interesting that it was called a "victory arch." Even two years after the war, Nasrallah, aware that he is a marked man, lives in hiding and in underground bunkers. While Israel repeatedly failed to assassinate him during the Second Lebanon War - in a number of massive bombing runs on buildings in Beirut - top officers in the Northern Command told The Jerusalem Post this week that intelligence on the guerrilla group had dramatically improved since the war. As for the second picture, it was also nothing for Hizbullah to cheer about. Mughniyeh, one of the most-wanted terrorists in the world over the past 25 years - for his involvement in attacks against Israel, the United States, Argentina and France - was assassinated in a meticulously planned car bombing in Damascus in February. The Mossad was accused of responsibility for the bombing, which some reports claimed was caused by a small explosive device planted in the driver's seat headrest in Mughniyeh's Mitsubishi jeep. But even with Nasrallah in hiding and Mughniyeh dead, Hizbullah has managed to convey that it is in the ascendant, and has emerged with the upper hand from the prisoner swap since it received terrorists and Israel got bodies. There is something to this argument, but there is also no doubt the swap will have a positive effect on the IDF. Soldiers who know they will not be forgotten behind enemy lines after being taken captive will likely be quicker to run into combat. Over two decades since Ron Arad went missing and eight years since Madhat Yousef was left to bleed in Joseph's Tomb in Nablus - an issue that still reverberates strongly for soldiers and reservists and is brought up frequently in discussions between commanders and their subordinates - Israel proved Wednesday that it really is different, and will do everything to return its soldiers, even the dead ones. But with the deal now completed, Israel has more pressing issues to deal with than worrying about the price it will pay in the event of another Hizbullah kidnapping attack. According to the latest intelligence assessments, Hizbullah will likely use the period following the swap to renew its attacks. While Hizbullah has amassed new weapons since the war, it has refrained from using them. There have been only two incidents of rockets being fired at the North - once in Kiryat Shmona and once in Shlomi - but both were attributed to Global Jihad elements, not Hizbullah. The assessment that new attacks are imminent is based on intelligence information but also on "open sources," such as recent interviews of Hizbullah leaders and articles by reporters associated with the terrorist group which have hinted that it is planning new violence. Defense officials said that Hizbullah has restrained itself over the past two years - firstly, to rebuild its damaged infrastructure, and then to allow the deal to be completed. Now, however, the swap is over. There is no clear indication of what Hizbullah will do. On the one hand, it is part of the Lebanese government and has veto power in cabinet. As was seen by the returning heroes' welcoming ceremony on Wednesday at Beirut International Airport - attended by President Michel Suleiman and other senior politicians - Hizbullah is viewed not just as a terrorist group in Lebanon but even more as a political player and opponent. In such a capacity, Hizbullah would need to think twice before launching an attack that could draw an even harsher response than the war two years ago which destroyed Lebanon's key infrastructure and left more than 800 dead. This would likely turn the Lebanese people against Hizbullah. On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that by releasing Kuntar, Israel has removed Hizbullah's excuse for attacking. Firstly, there is the Mt. Dov/Shaba Farms area, which Hizbullah and Suleiman have both threatened to use military force to redeem. Then there are the seven villages in the Galilee - including Malkiya, Iron, Margaliyot and Yuval - that Nasrallah has claimed are Shi'ite and belong to Lebanon. If those pretexts are not enough for more conflict, then there is also the traditional reason to attack Israel - the liberation of Palestine and to free the thousands of Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons. Assessments concerning Hizbullah's military buildup heard over the past two weeks - in conjunction with the war's second anniversary - are not accepted by everyone in the defense establishment. While Defense Minister Ehud Barak said recently that Hizbullah had "tripled" its number of missiles, sources in the IDF said this week that the buildup was not nearly so significant, even though it was of concern. According to the latest estimates in the IDF, the number of long-range Iranian-made Zelzal and Fajr missiles has more or less stayed the same and the number of medium-range rockets has grown from several hundred to a couple of thousand. The greatest increase has been in the short-range rockets - the 107 mm. Katyushas - by close to 40 percent. Hizbullah is, in addition, reported to have obtained new weaponry, such as anti-aircraft missiles which it is reportedly deploying - with Iranian and Syrian assistance - on mountains in the Bekaa Valley, as well as longer-range rockets that can reach as far south as Dimona and Arad. There is also a discrepancy between the way Barak views UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended the Second Lebanon War and the way its implementation is understood in the IDF. Barak said this week that 1701 has "failed" and "collapsed," and that it is time to come up with alternatives. The language used by senior IDF commanders is much more moderate. Yes, UNIFIL is limited in its operations - it cannot enter Lebanese villages without being accompanied by the Lebanese Armed Forces, which are two-thirds Shi'ite and usually warn Hizbullah of the raids - but it has had some success and Israel is without a doubt better with the peacekeeping force than without it. Another primary concern is that with the prisoner swap over, Hizbullah will now decide to finally avenge the assassination of Mughniyeh. Defense officials have said in the past that even if Hizbullah retaliates abroad, the violence will likely reach the Israeli-Lebanese border. As a result, the IDF has raised its level of vigilance along the northern border. So while one chapter in the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict ended this week, another one has just begun.