Analysis: Eliminating Nasrallah easier said than done

It is currently not in Israel's interest to find itself in a renewed conflict with Hizbullah.

Nasrallah beirut 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Nasrallah beirut 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Following the Second Lebanon War, a number of top IDF officers, including then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz, were asked during press briefings if Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was a target for an Israeli assassination. "The fact that he is not leaving his bunker means he knows the answer to your question," was the answer provided by the IDF top brass. Just over a year and a half has passed since then, and Nasrallah clearly still understands that he is a target for an Israeli assassin or IAF-fired precision bomb. His decision to leave his bunker on Saturday and speak in public while surrounding himself with a tight security envelope and an audience of thousands demonstrates that understanding. Eliminating Nasrallah is easier said than done. As in any targeted killing either from the ground or the air - like those carried out daily in the Gaza Strip - a number of factors are needed for success: high-quality intelligence regarding his whereabouts; a low risk to innocent bystanders; and finally, an assessment of the outcome of the assassination. Reliable intelligence is difficult to come by. A week after last summer's war erupted, on July 19, 2006, IAF fighter jets dropped 23 tons of explosives on an underground bunker in the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in southeast Beirut. The bunker turned out to be empty. One question that needs to be asked is who would replace Nasrallah. This same question was on Israeli defense chiefs' minds when the option of assassinating former PA chairman Yasser Arafat was raised periodically over the years. Nasrallah himself became secretary-general of Hizbullah after Israel assassinated the group's previous leader, Abbas al-Musawi, in 1992. Hizbullah would most probably feel compelled to respond to the assassination, and Israel could find itself in a renewed conflict with the organization, currently not in Israel's interest - especially at a time when it is facing a potential difficult and large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip. While defense officials predicted Sunday that Hizbullah would likely respond to an Israeli assassination, the question of who would replace Nasrallah may no longer be relevant. According to a report last month in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has relieved Nasrallah of control over Hizbullah's military wing and transferred it to the group's deputy secretary-general, Sheikh Naim Kassem. While Hizbullah has denied the report, Iran has not. Nasrallah's appearance in Beirut Saturday was aimed primarily at the Israeli public and indicated, defense officials said, the immense pressure he was under to reach a deal with Israel under which kidnapped reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser would be released. The pressure on Nasrallah has a number of reasons, but centers on his need for some sort of success that could help rehabilitate his image, weakened following the war and most recently by media reports like the one in Asharq al-Awsat. Sucking Israel into negotiations over the body parts he claims to be holding could do the trick.