Analysis: The missile is the message

Hizbullah's attacks show desperate need for relevance, says analyst.

hizbullah watching 298 (photo credit: AP)
hizbullah watching 298
(photo credit: AP)
The clearest way to understand the meaning behind the most recent flareup along the border with Lebanon, senior analyst Dr. Eli Karmon suggested, is to look at the messages that are being sent, who is sending them, and for whom they are intended. On Sunday, said Karmon, of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Hizbullah managed to send two very different messages to two very different groups. Consider Islamic Jihad's statement, he said, released on an Islamist Web site following a day of clashes that wounded two IDF soldiers and up to 15 Hizbullah militants: "Three days ago Zionist intelligence services murdered the military commander of Islamic Jihad, along with his brother, in Sidon, Lebanon," it read, "without being aware that this would be reflected in the rapid fall of missiles of resistance." Clearly, Karmon said, allegations that Israel was behind Friday's assassination of Nidal Majdoub - accurate or not - made for a workable premise to attack Israel. It's also clear, he continued, that Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon has placed a new burden of legitimacy on Hizbullah, one that requires it to justify its goals, to say nothing of its continued existence in the country. The fact that the Islamic Jihad official's killing took place on Lebanese soil has given Hizbullah a chance to show that it can do a better job of protecting Lebanese interests than the Lebanese army. It also gives it a powerful reason to avoid disarming, even tough it is required by UN Resolution 1559 and desired by prominent anti-Syrian factions in the government. As things stand, Hizbullah's position in Lebanon is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, Karmon said, as the Lebanese government simply isn't strong enough to challenge Hizbullah or the other entrenched Syrian institutions that remain in the country. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora indicated as much in his own response to the attacks when, rather than referring to Hizbullah or Islamic Jihad's reasons, he blamed a relatively neutral political scapegoat: border disputes. "It is important to emphasize that the continued Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory in the Shaba Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills is the reason behind the continued deterioration of the situation," Saniora said. Following this strategy means he avoids the difficult task of challenging Hizbullah's legitimacy while he provides political cover for himself. The other message behind the attacks is directed toward Israel and concerns the strategic relationship between Hizbullah and Iran, Karmon said. Hizbullah's status as a proxy is a valuable tool for Iran, one that allows it a bargaining chip in the event that international pressure gets too high. "Iran sees in Hizbullah a proxy to attack American interests," Karmon said, since the United States and Israel are seen as essentially the same. "Iran's weapon is to use Hizbullah either before pressure is put on them, in order to deter the United States - or else afterwards, once there are aggressive policies or actions by the Security Council, Hizbullah can be used to strike back." There was no mention of Iran's situation by Hizbullah or Islamic Jihad in their statements, but the message is implicitly clear that Israel remains a valid and available target. What remains to be seen, Karmon added, is how these two issues - the question of Hizbullah's legitimacy in Lebanon and its proxy relationship to Iran - will play out in Hizbullah's behavior. For the time being, he said, Hizbullah may be content to stick with limited provocations. These kinds of actions keep it politically secure in Lebanon and carry relatively little risk, since Israel has until recently been unwilling to escalate the conflict on its northern border. However, a downturn in international relations with Iran - through the enactment of sanctions or other measures by the Security Council - might force Iran's hand, and it might subsequently order Hizbullah to launch more serious attacks, Karmon ventured. In any event, he said, it's clear that Hizbullah has been thinking very carefully about how to send the clearest possible message. It has accomplished the difficult task of speaking two separate and equally intimidating messages from both sides of its mouth.