With Hezbollah in charge, the destruction of Beirut was matter of time

What did Lebanon expect? What did the citizens of a country sadly known for years of civil war and internal strife think would happen, after they let their country be taken hostage by terrorists?

The Beirut Port after Tuesday’s explosion that killed at least 157 and wounded more than 5,000 (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Beirut Port after Tuesday’s explosion that killed at least 157 and wounded more than 5,000
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the afternoon of July 12, 2006, Amir Peretz, Israel’s defense minister, convened the IDF General Staff. Earlier that day, two IDF reservists on a standard patrol up North had been abducted by Hezbollah and skirmishes were breaking out along the tenuous Lebanese border. Israel needed to come up with an aggressive response. 

Peretz’s military secretary at the time, Gen. Eitan Dangot, placed some maps on the large wooden table in the conference room on the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry and began discussing options. One of them was an operation known by a secret code word – Density

Operation Density had been years in the making and was based on intelligence collected over a long time by the Mossad and Military Intelligence. What it included were the exact locations of close to 100 long-range Iranian artillery rockets, what were supposed to be Hezbollah’s secret weapon in a future war with Israel. Almost all of them were stored in the private homes of top Hezbollah operatives. 

Some of the generals were against attacking the homes. The casualty toll, they warned, would be disproportionate, and that taking out so many targets would immediately escalate the conflict and lead Hezbollah to aggressively retaliate.

For Peretz, none of this made sense. If Israel knew where these advanced rockets were located, how could it wait? He approved the operation. “If someone goes to sleep with a rocket in their bedroom, they shouldn’t be surprised to wake up with a missile on their head,” he told the military officers.

Carried out in the early hours of July 13, The mission was a massive success, one of the few during a bloody war that would last 34 days and end with a state-appointed commission of inquiry. But that night, in the span of 34 minutes, dozens of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets bombed 90 targets with amazing precision. All of the sophisticated long-range rockets supplied by Iran and hidden by Hezbollah had been destroyed.
I WAS reminded of that mission and Peretz’s quip after watching the destruction in Beirut on Tuesday, reportedly caused by the explosion of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate at the Port of Beirut.

At least 157 killed, more than 5,000 wounded, hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed – the Lebanese already suffering under the toll of a grave economic crisis and the continued spread of the coronavirus are now hurting even more. A terrible tragedy indeed.

But one can’t help but ask: What did Lebanon expect? What did the citizens of a country sadly known for years of civil war and internal strife think would happen, after they let their country be taken hostage by the terrorist Hezbollah organization?

Even if this specific explosion was not caused by Hezbollah – which remains to be seen – it’s no secret that the group stores weapons and missiles across the country: underneath soccer fields, in hangers at Hariri Airport, and even at the main port where diplomatic officials said that Hezbollah operates its own terminal – a place it can unload containers filled with missiles and explosives without needing to go through customs or other inspections.

These weapons often stay at the port for weeks before they are moved. Is it possible some of that equipment was damaged in Tuesday’s blast? No one is saying.

The writing has long been on the wall, with Israeli leaders openly saying for years that such devastation was likely to happen in Lebanon. They weren’t talking about an explosion like at the port, but rather in the context of a future war where Hezbollah would instigate against Israel, and the IDF would have to retaliate with unprecedented force to stem the rocket fire that is expected to reach 1,500-2,000 missiles a day.

This would mean bombing the airport, the soccer fields, the port, private homes, office buildings, schools and more. Israel, of course, would take all steps to minimize collateral damage. But in a war anticipated one day against the Iranian-backed terrorist group, the constraints we usually see in Gaza operations would have to be lifted. With so many rockets hitting Israel – all across the country – the IDF will have no choice but to act with a ferocity never before seen.

The question for Israel now is can this unfortunate disaster be used to change the balance of power in Lebanon, and encourage/inspire the Lebanese people to turn against Hezbollah and remove it from power.

Dangot – who after working with Peretz later became Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories – believes that Israel now has a unique window of opportunity to transfer to Lebanon the core of its covert operations to undermine Iran in Syria. The explosion in Beirut, he believes, has the potential to significantly restrain Hezbollah, and make it think long and hard before embarking on a military adventure against Israel that would only bring more destruction to the impoverished country.  

“Israel has diplomatic and military tools,” he explained. “If you work with the United States to put pressure on Lebanon; work with Russia, which also wants to stop the Iranian adventure in Syria; work to create an international economic recovery plan for the country while intensifying the sanctions against Hezbollah and Iran; and operate militarily under the radar using operations with low signature – you can get results.”

For this to happen, Israel will have to change its state of mind and be prepared to take risks, which IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi seems to be advising against today. One illustration of this is the way the IDF has pretty much paralyzed itself for the last two weeks in the North because of a threat that Hezbollah was about to attack the country. A threat. That is all it took.
All you have to do to understand what has happened over the last two weeks is drive along the Lebanese border. The IDF state of alert there is unprecedented in scope and size not seen since the Second Lebanon War 14 years ago, with the number of troops, intelligence collection capabilities and firepower allocated to the northern front in the event of an escalation.

Of course, Israel has to be ready to defend itself and should take all precautions to prevent an attack against civilians or soldiers. But does it serve the country’s national interests when Hezbollah sees how the military reacts to what so far is just a threat? Does this boost the country’s deterrence, or in the long run undermine it?

Over the last 14 years, Hezbollah has amassed an unprecedented stockpile of rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel with amazing precision, and warheads the size of which have never been seen before. In the face of that threat, Israel needs to always project strength and resilience. That is how you win. 
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If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck goes the old abductive reasoning. The same can be said about Israeli elections. If it looks like we are heading to an election, if politicians show up at places they usually do not attend unless they want an election, and then when they get there talk like they are preparing for one – yep, we’re probably going to an election.

If anyone had doubts: first was the continuing fight between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday over the state budget, which needs to be passed by August 25.

Netanyahu continues to dig in his heels and insist on a one-year budget, which is really just a budget for four months. Gantz is insisting on a two-year budget, firstly because that is what Netanyahu agreed to in the coalition agreement that they both signed a few months ago, and secondly, because it is the only real chance he has left to become prime minister.

On Tuesday, the prime minister visited a shwarma joint in Ramle and videotaped it, making a point of showing Netanyahu paying for his own food with cash. This kind of visit, at this point in time, can only be viewed as a campaign stop. Nothing more.

Finally, there was Netanyahu’s speech on Wednesday at the Knesset, where he launched an attack against the Left, the opposition, the protesters outside his home (whom his son calls aliens) and made it even clearer that a new Election Day – it’s been, what, 159 days since the last one? – is the direction this country is headed.

There is near unanimity in the political establishment that Netanyahu has decided to take Israelis to the voting booth. Even if Gantz decides to suddenly cave and agree to a one-year budget, Netanyahu – many of his fellow politicians believe – will find some other excuse to ensure that the Knesset disperses at the end of the month.

The reason is simple: Netanyahu has one thing on his mind and one thing only. No, it’s not Iran, Hezbollah or the coronavirus, but rather how to avoid his trial, which Judge Rivka Feldman decided will start in January with three hearings a week, from morning until late evening. That is the last place Netanyahu wants to find himself, and he has one last chance to try and avoid it: an election that ends with 61 seats on the Right, legislation of a retroactive immunity bill, and his trial being put on ice for the duration of his premiership.

Of the three judges in Netanyahu’s case, Feldman concerns him the most. She was the minority opinion in the verdict against former defense minister and IDF general Itzik Mordechai when he was convicted of sexual harassment in March 2001. While Mordechai received a suspended sentence, Feldman believed he needed to do real jail time. “A senior official,’’ she wrote then, “needs to serve as a role model.”

Netanyahu seems to think that one last election is worth the risk because if he fails to get 61 seats, he still won’t lose. No one, according to polls, has the ability to form an alternative government without him. So, he will simply take the country from one election to another, dragging the nation through the mud, through his trial, and from one ballot box to the next.

This does not mean a new election is set in stone. If Israelis have learned anything over the last two years, it is that when it comes to politics, anything can happen. Two elections, three elections, and even a unity government between two people who despise one another.

But Netanyahu seems determined, and there is no reason to think he won’t take Israel to its fourth election within two years – even if it is not in the country’s best interest. In his list of priorities, there is only one that stands at the top right now: survival.