An elusive stalemate: Israel and Hezbollah along the tri-border

By Sebastian Maier:

Hezbollah soldiers. Photo copyright: Associated Press (published under fair use policy for intellectual non-commercial purposes)

When the Israeli Air Force on 12 January 2015 allegedly carried out a sortie against a Hezbollah military convoy in the south western Syrian district of Quneitra, news spread quickly that among the victims was a prominent figure of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force special unit, General Allah Dadi. The purported Israeli air strike on the al-Amal Farms also killed Jihad Mughniyeh, son of the late Hezbollah intelligence commander Imad Mughniyeh, who in February 2008 died in a car bomb in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Merely two weeks after, Hezbollah lived up to expectations and retaliated by ambushing Israeli military vehicles, killing two and wounding seven soldiers close to the Israeli-occupied Sheba’a Farms on the Golan Heights.

In the grand scheme of things, the reported airstrike and Hezbollah’s act of reprisal are hardly surprising. Quite the contrary, in order to understand these events, one has to look to the inception and evolvement of what has become a well-entrenched animosity taking place across one of the Middle East’s most precarious theatres: the Syria-Lebanon-Israel tri-border area.

The prelude: Hezbollah’s early years

When Israel in 1978 first staged a military incursion into southern Lebanon, few considered it a harbinger of what was to come. With the outbreak of the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli occupation, and Hafez al-Assad’s efforts to establish a Ba’athist Pax Syriana on its neighbouring country’s soil, Lebanon’s sectarian fractures became deeply entrenched.

While the Israelis pushed northbound into the outskirts of Beirut with the support of the South Lebanon Army (its Christian proxy), the emerging Islamic Republic of Iran came to the fore and seized an opportunity to spread Iran’s influence in the region. Iran deployed 1,500 Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon, with the strategically crucial Beqa’a Valley as their final destination. In doing so, Tehran turned this fertile land into a Shia militant hotbed, ultimately paving the way for the birth of its Lebanese surrogate, ‘the Party of God’, or Hezbollah.

With this consolidated supply route over Shia territory, ranging from Tehran through Damascus into Southern Lebanon, the foundation had been laid for Hezbollah. In the coming years it relied on this route to violently resist the Israeli occupation while pursuing its integration into Lebanese politics.[1] As a consequence, after a 15 year-long low-level war of attrition, in 2000 Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak called for the unilateral withdrawal of troops from what had become a protracted battlefield in Southern Lebanon. It was no longer the cordon sanitaire the Israelis had originally set out to create. Playing into Hezbollah’s hands, this manoeuvre subsequently fuelled the perception that the politicians in Israel were trying to sell an obvious surrender as a strategy.

Lessons of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War

The years after the withdrawal do not represent a period of peaceful coexistence along the Lebanese border. Occasional skirmishes prevailed on the meadows of the Sheba’a Farms. Then on 12 July 2006, Hezbollah mounted a cross-border raid leading to the killing of 8 Israeli soldiers and the abduction of two reservists. This was supposed to represent a stepping stone towards securing the release of Druze Samir al-Quntar, the Lebanese former Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) member, who was imprisoned by Israel for his involvement in the 1979 Nahariya kidnapping attack. The raid by Hezbollah sparked the outbreak of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.

Other factors that led to the War were Israel’s determination to change the rules of the strategic deadlock along the border, and Hezbollah’s increasing influence on Hamas, who in June 2006 had abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. What’s more, there were rumours that Hezbollah were on the brink of achieving first-strike capabilities.[2]

With the Israeli military campaign one week old, Ehud Barak admitted that the Israeli occupation in Lebanon may have led to the creation of Hezbollah:

‘When we entered Lebanon, there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.’[3]

Soon it became clear that Israel’s military had lost its deterrent edge against an enemy who could blend irregular warfare with the weaponry and capabilities that were generally the preserve of regular armies.

As a result, in the later stages of the hostilities, Israel tried to alter the perception of Hezbollah at the receiving end by applying an iron fist policy of massive retaliation. On 22 July 2006 the Israeli Air flattened the Shia Dahiya suburb, a Hezbollah stronghold, in Beirut’s southern outskirts. Ever since, the term ‘Dahiya’ has been used to describe a strategic watershed experience for the Israeli military. The draconic air campaign was intended to be a disproportional punishment in order to restore credibility and to induce ‘a calm built on fear, not on political settlement.’[4]

Israel map

Hezbollah, however, endured the pounding by absorbing the damage, and continued their operational resistance. Indeed, it even managed to drag Israel back into waging a ground incursion into Southern Lebanon, a battlefield with negative connotations hard-wired into Israel’s military history.[5] To that end, Israel’s firepower, and Hezbollah’s ability to exploit Israel’s ‘Lebanese mud-syndrome’[6] cleared the way for a realignment of their animosity.

Both sides managed to seriously damage each other, which explains the relative quietude and restraint along the Israeli-Lebanese border ever since. Israel’s calculus stems from a pragmatic realization that only an escalatory response can achieve the temporary absence of violence along its borders. Hezbollah, for its part, internalized the art of blending into civilian areas and concealing its operating squads in order to hide and disperse. It decreased its own vulnerability but raised the probability of Lebanese civilians coming into the firing line.

Another front opens up: Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria

In April 2013, the Arab Spring now a distant memory, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah made a public vow of fidelity to Assad. This came only a few days after visiting Tehran.[7] He made no secret of the fact that his fighters had gone to support the Shia-sect Alawite regime. Nasrallah, in an attempt to rally domestic support across sectarian lines, justified the deployment of his troops over the border by declaring that Hezbollah would only fight Sunni extremists, who would otherwise threaten Lebanese Shia and Christians.

The true reason for helping Assad is different: besides Tehran, Damascus still counts Hezbollah’s amongst its most important allies. If Assad were to fall, Hezbollah’s resilience in its struggle against Israel would be at stake, as would its strategic foothold in the Levant. For Assad, the involvement of Hezbollah’s troops in Syria is vital in containing a variety of anti-regime forces and the surge of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

The consequence of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is that the group is very busy. Another escalation with Israel and it may be forced to engage on two fronts simultaneously. This would divert and overstretch its military capabilities, and could even push Lebanon to the brink of collapse. This is exacerbated by the massive influx of Syrian refugees, who have become a huge social burden for the country.

Nasrallah, the former hero of the Arab masses, has thus embarked on a dangerous path. Celebrated for his achievement in forcing Israel’s pullout in 2000 and resisting a military incursion 6 years later, he has now risked further deepening the region’s broader Sunni-Shia divide. In addition, despite possessing an impressive rocket arsenal, it appears unlikely that Hezbollah could survive another round of Israeli escalation as long as it is caught up in the Syrian quagmire.[8]

Israel is attempting to navigate through an increasingly troublesome landscape on its northern front, and so for now it seems to be determined to adhere to a containment policy against Hezbollah. In 2013, when the risk of violence increased in the Shia Crescent, Israel sent a clear message by carrying out air strikes targeting military transport in the outskirts of Damascus, which Israel claimed to be supplying Hezbollah.

Finally, the events in January 2015 can be considered the latest reminder of a strategic stalemate along the border. The law of talion, ‘an eye for a tooth’[9], which represented the Israeli strategy during the hostilities in 2006, set the pattern for the conflict. Israel and Hezbollah now tacitly adhere to an even-tempered rationale. In the foreseeable future it will be tit-for-tat, rather than all-out war, that will characterise the ever volatile tri-border area.

Sebastian Maier graduated in January 2015 from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, with an MA in Intelligence & International Security. He lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


[1] Saad Ghorayeb, A., Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion (Pluto Press London UK, 2001), pp.112,113.

[2] Norton, A.R., Hezbollah- A Shorty History (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007), pp.133,134.

[3] Ibid. p.33.

[4] Rapoport, M., Flaws in Israel’s ‘punish and deter’ strategy, Middle East Eye, 10 July, 2014.

[5] Even before Hezbollah’s inception hostile actions against Israel had been carried out from Southern Lebanese soil, e.g. by armed terrorists, including 1000 Libyan and 500 Syrian volunteers. In: Gilbert, M., The Arab-Israeli Conflict- Its history in Maps ( London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984), p.77.

[6] Lieberman, E., Reconceptualizing Deterrence: Nudging Toward Rationality in Middle Eastern rivalries (Abingdon, Routledge, 2013), p.197.

[7] The Daily Star, Lebanon, Nasrallah met Khamenei in Iran, to make speech May 9, April 22, 2013.

[8] Levitt, M., Hezbollah’s Syrian Quagmire, PRISM, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 2014.

[9] Byman, D. L., An Eye for a Tooth: The Trouble with Israeli Deterrence,, 23 July, 2014.

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