From the Mediterranean Sea, Israeli warplanes swooped into Lebanon on February 23. In battle formation, under the shroud of night, they careered to a rugged region known for its smugglers and drugs, and, since the opening of the civil war in Syria, as a conduit for weapons. There, on an isolated road, the pilots ambushed two convoys, slinking midst the hills on a mission to deliver weapons to Hezbollah. The freight destroyed, the jets retired to Israel, across the border.
The New York Time‘s Bureau Chief in Beirut, Ann Bernard, argued Hezbollah would have to respond if the assault proved to be on Lebanon’s territory. Hezbollah claimed it was, vowing revenge. Soon, an Israeli jeep on scout along the Lebanese frontier rolled over an explosive device. Three soldiers were hospitalized for shock, and while the papers denounced the “hand of Hezbollah,” Lebanese media claimed it was the work of al-Qaeda. No militants claimed responsibility. A second bomb ravaged an Israeli jeep on the outskirts of Syria and the Golan, a highly contested region under Israeli control, injuring 4. Again, the militants said nothing. This is the third time in a year Israel has prevented armaments from reaching the group. Yet Hezbollah has never brazenly responded; unusual when bravado against Israel is highly prized, and less than a year before the civil war, in March 2010, Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah laid before the Lebanese parliament his movement’s strategy: a “balance of terror,” a Hezbollah so powerful, Israel would be too timid to act.
“We are working to make Lebanon a country that is invulnerable,” he told Hezbollah’s outlet, al-Manar. “Where the enemy is incapable of issuing threats against us.” It was an era when Hezbollah menaced against any attack it would bombard Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city. “Let all you Israelis know, if you strike the airport in Beirut, we’ll strike Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, if you strike our harbors, we’ll strike their harbors,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah roared before an audience that February. “Know that if we bomb Tel Aviv, we’ll make holes out of it.” Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s brashness is gone. They cannot afford to provoke anyone. They are too busy fighting in Syria at the behest of its president, Bashar al-Assad.
Too Deep in the Fighting
The uprising against Assad erupted as street protests in 2011, and has since boiled into total war, with the country shattered into feuding statelets, 150,000 dead, 700,000 destroyed homes and 9 million displaced. 42% of the population has fled. 11 days before Israel’s incursion, Hezbollah stormed Yabrud, a city in the rust-brown mountains that cleaves Lebanon from Syria. Known for its nearby caves, Yabrud was a rebel redoubt of several hundred fighters, enabling the opposition to stock firearms from abroad; hide in the hills to assault Damascus, not far to the South. Hezbollah sought to sever these lines, and stanch the flow of equipment, or foodstuffs from Yabrud to the guerillas in the caverns. They encircled the city. All exits were blocked, as the militants pounded Yabrud with laser-guided missiles, artillery, and Assad’s air force strafed it.
With only 5,000 fighters in the country, Hezbollah’s occupiers are spread thin, open to attack, albeit better armed and financed. And when Israel struck, the fighting at Yarbud was fierce: 207 rebels and 120 Hezbollah combatants had already been erased. Yabrud has since fallen, but with such losses, perhaps Hezbollah cannot challenge Israel and the rebels at once.
Killers, Not Infantrymen
Despite the mystique surrounding Hezbollah, they are not ferocious warriors. Hezbollah dominates Lebanon because it is outfitted by Iran, which shares its Shiite religion, and backed by Syria. It has the most money, most weapons. Of Lebanon’s militia’s, only Hezbollah is legal and allowed to carry guns. But they do not fight as soldiers. In 2006, Hezbollah killed three patrolmen within Israel, near the border, and ghoulishly stole their bodies, refusing to reveal then, and for years to follow, if the victims were deceased or alive. Its operatives are jailed in Cyprus for plotting onslaughts on tourists and under investigation for murders in Bulgaria, the assassination of a former Prime Minister in Lebanon, and slaying hundreds in Argentina in the 1990’s, when it bombed Jewish community centers there.