Dispatch

Hezbollah Readies for Next War Against Israel

Despite a pause in hostilities, militia fighters and experts believe the two sides could stumble into their first all-out conflict since 2006.

A group of Hezbollah infantry fighters take a break near the group's military base in Hermel, Lebanon, on Aug. 31
A group of Hezbollah infantry fighters take a break near the group's military base in Hermel, Lebanon, on Aug. 31

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon—Hilal stretched his legs in a plastic chair on the veranda outside his house, close to a Hezbollah military base in Hermel, Lebanon. Even in late summer, the night air here has a crisp edge to it, and stars dot the sky above the rust-red hills that separate the country from neighboring Syria.

But despite his posture, Hilal, who like other Hezbollah fighters interviewed by Foreign Policy asked that his name be changed, was anything but relaxed. An ivory-handled revolver shimmered on his hip. He pointed to where the hills crest into the horizon not far from his home.

“Can you see all those mountains?” he asked. “All of this area is full of missiles. They are all under preparation. Every day, we bring in and deploy them. We have received instructions not to wait for orders [to fire]. At any minute, or any bullet, the guys will not wait.”

Hilal, a missile operator, is one of several Hezbollah fighters in eastern Bekaa Valley who told Foreign Policy during a recent reporting trip that they are preparing for the possibility of the first major outbreak of war with Israel in 13 years. This follows the recent decision by a newly aggressive Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to breach an unspoken agreement not to hit Hezbollah in its home country. On Aug. 25, the day after Israel killed two Hezbollah members in a strike against targets in Syria alleged by the Israeli government to be sites where Iran-linked forces were preparing a so-called killer drone attack against the Jewish state, that red line was crossed when an Israeli drone exploded near the Hezbollah media office in Dahieh, a sprawling neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut largely controlled by the group. 

And on Tuesday, in a statement to media accompanied by satellite images, Israel accused Hezbollah of setting up precision missile factories in a village not far from Hilal’s house.

Just after the explosion in Lebanon, Israel also reportedly killed a commander of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq. The following day, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported an Israeli drone had struck a base used by a Hezbollah-allied Palestinian militia in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the second drone strike inside Lebanon in two days. These quadruple provocations seemed to signal a new calculus in Israel’s long shadow war against Iran and the military forces it supports across the Middle East.

“This represents part of an escalating pattern of strikes by the Israelis against [Iranian] targets and activities both in Syria, Iraq, and obviously in Lebanon,” said Seth Jones, the director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. 

On Sunday, Hezbollah struck back, firing several antitank missiles at an Israeli military base and vehicles in northern Israel. The group claimed that several Israeli soldiers had been killed or wounded in the attack, but Israel vehemently denied any casualties and responded by shelling the area in southern Lebanon where the attack originated. Subsequent footage released by a Hezbollah-affiliated television station showed that if there had been no Israeli casualties from the strike, it was likely not due to any military prowess by Israel but “a lot of luck,” as IDF officers put it in statements to Israeli media.

Despite what seems a momentary pause in the tit-for-tat attacks, the vicissitudes of fortune could also determine whether tensions escalate further. Heiko Wimmen, the project director for Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that works to prevent global conflicts, said that while one possible outcome will be a return to the status quo, any miscalculation could spark a war.

“It’s this game of chicken, so if you blink you lose face,” Wimmen said. “If you lose face, maybe it can be repaired, but if you blink too often, then maybe you actually do lose something. If you don’t blink until the very last moment, then you are not able to avoid conflict. You don’t want it, perhaps, but then at some point things can’t be controlled.”

This is precisely the scenario Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, is concerned will lead to another full-on conflict. “The next war will be devastating for both sides and that’s why both sides want to avoid it,” Yadlin said. “[However], even without planning for a full-scale war, we can find ourselves there.”

Until now, much of Hezbollah’s strength has been focused on fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another Iran ally, in the Syrian civil war. But with that conflict winding down, Hezbollah fighters suggest they’re more than ready to renew their old hostilities with the hated Israelis—even if it happens by accident.

“We are constantly in a state of war,” said Hilal, putting out his cigarette. “We’ve been in a state of war since 2006. In that time, we have been preparing, and they are preparing as well.”

In this part of Bekaa, where Hezbollah has a large presence, the distinctive yellow flags of the Iran-backed militant group and political party, known as the Party of God, line most streets, along with smiling posters of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s much-revered leader. This region is where Hezbollah keeps much of its most sophisticated weaponry, a staggering arsenal of missiles the group has carefully and meticulously amassed in anticipation of another conflict with Israel, which borders Lebanon to the south. 

Estimated to number anywhere between 40,000 to 150,000, Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles are said to outmatch the weapons capabilities of most sovereign countries. They are part of the reason the group has successfully evolved from a loosely organized collective of Shiite Muslim militias that coalesced in Lebanon during the 1980s with Iran’s help following one of several Israeli invasions to the single most powerful and well-armed nonstate military actor in the world. Through a combination of military might and political savvy, Hezbollah has also managed to secure a majority in Lebanon’s government, where it influences much of the country’s domestic policy.

But now, politics may be taking a back seat to a renewed militancy that carries worrying echoes of July 2006—the last time hostilities between the group and its enemy country flared into open conflict, which killed approximately 1,300 Lebanese and caused just under 150 Israeli deaths. 

The 2006 Lebanon war is not widely viewed as having been a victory for Israel, which was essentially forced to withdraw from the south of the country in response to the success of Hezbollah’s guerrilla tactics as well as thousands of missiles fired across the border by the Shiite group. Hezbollah has ceaselessly touted its victory in the years since while continuing to build up its stockpile of missiles. After the Syrian civil war began eight years ago, much of this arsenal was transported to Lebanon across Syria. 

Israel, in an attempt to interfere with this buildup, has struck Hezbollah weapons convoys and military positions in Syria dozens of times in recent years, but now Netanyahu appears to be willing to escalate to neighboring Lebanon. Nasrallah vowed to retaliate against Israel for these provocations in a dramatic speech following the Dahieh strike, and he made good on that promise on Sunday, touching off the most serious exchange of fire since January 2015, when Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers with an antitank missile following the deaths of several of the group’s leaders in an Israeli strike on Syria.

In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s Sunday retaliation, Netanyahu, who also serves as Israel’s defense minister, said the country will wait for Hezbollah’s next move before taking further action. “We will decide on the next steps pending developments,” he said in a statement.

Nasrallah responded with a speech on Monday stating that the flare-up was over, but announced a “new phase” of the conflict had begun, in which Hezbollah would allow fighters in the field to target Israeli drones flying over Lebanon. Tensions seemed to momentarily calm—until Tuesday’s announcement regarding Hezbollah’s alleged precision missile factories in the Bekaa signaled that more confrontations may be in store.

Netanyahu’s apparent restraint following Hezbollah’s rocket attack is a striking departure from Israel’s series of actions over the previous week. News coverage of the drone strike in Dahieh, sourced from intelligence officials, reported that Israel was targeting a precision-guided missile manufacturing operation there, but according to six sources in Hezbollah who spoke to Foreign Policy, the Israeli drone attack was a failed assassination attempt against one or more high-level Hezbollah leaders. 

In Dahieh, Ali, the leader of a Hezbollah special forces unit active in Syria, described what he knew about the strike, ignoring the hastily prepared plate of food in front of him.

“There were two purposes [with the drone attack],” Ali said. “The first was to test the waters, but [the Israelis] were trying to get someone very important in Hezbollah, I know that for a fact.” He scoffed at reports that Israel’s purpose with the strike had been to target a precision missile manufacturing site. “Well, we could watch Tom and Jerry and say it is a true story,” he said. “We are under fire; the Israelis hit us in our home, in Dahieh. Now, we will retaliate.

“We would love to be martyrs and find God,” he added with a tight, grim smile. “When we die, we believe we will be assessed by our actions, and if we were good, we will live forever. There is a difference between the Israelis waiting and fearing death, and us, who run toward it.”

Several other Hezbollah sources also described the Israeli attack as a failed assassination attempt. “Why are the Israelis lying now, saying they were hitting a high-precision missile factory?” asked a local Hezbollah official at his home in a town near the Israeli border. “They tried to target a high-level meeting, and if [their target] was killed, the war would have started immediately.

But Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, another Washington-based think tank, said Israel has become increasingly worried about Hezbollah’s development of precision missiles over the past few years, and that concern fits with the claim of targeting such a facility in Dahieh.

“[Hezbollah] has been moving a lot of the precision missile factories to Lebanon,” Ghaddar said. “Israel doesn’t want to start a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. It’s something that they’re also are trying to avoid … but Hezbollah keeps moving GPS kits to Lebanon and working on these facilities, so [the Israelis] have expanded their Syria strategy to Iraq. … In Lebanon, they only did this one attack, and it was against a truck carrying a lot of these kits and material.” 

According to Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, regardless of Israel’s purpose in striking Dahieh, for Hezbollah the drone attack represented a serious breach of the rules of engagement. 

“As far as Hezbollah is concerned, Israel has been getting away with too much for too long,” Slim said. “At some point, they had to make a decision to respond. … I think they feel that if they don’t raise the costs for Israel for these actions, that Israel will not stop and will feel undeterred to expand even more and cause more harm to their interests.” Slim added: “Until now, [Hezbollah] has been thinking always about the benefit of retaliation versus the cost of retaliation. And previously, the benefits were much lower than the cost, given all that they were engaged in, especially in Syria. But with the war in Syria winding down, I think that calculus has shifted.”

U.S. policy regarding Hezbollah—which the government deems a terrorist group—might also be playing a role in this shifting calculus. Harsh sanctions against the Lebanese banking system imposed by the Trump administration have reportedly been hurting the group’s finances, possibly backing it into a corner from which it is more likely to escalate the conflict. According to Hilal, the missile operator in the Bekaa Valley, a line of thinking among Hezbollah rank-and-file is that if a war breaks out, its patron Iran—despite also facing extreme sanctions—will dig a little deeper into its pockets for the group.

“When the war flares up, the situation changes for our benefit,” Hilal said. “Money will come from everywhere, from all our allies.”

But other Hezbollah fighters reject the idea that U.S. sanctions are affecting the group’s military decisions. “The Americans think that Hezbollah is not doing so well financially, but Hezbollah is doing fine,” said Hisham, the leader of a Hezbollah tank battalion, who shared combat footage from Syria with Foreign Policy before scrolling to photos of a garden at his house in the mountains, proudly showing off his hand-carved outdoor table and the fresh fruit and vegetables he grows. 

“Iran will always tend to us, the same way I tend to my garden,” he said, chuckling.

Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies believes that while U.S. sanctions have taken their toll on Hezbollah, the likelihood that they have severely limited the group’s capabilities is slim. “In the short run, I don’t think the sanctions have had a notable impact on [Hezbollah’s] ability to operate,” he said. “I think a war actually would almost certainly lead to an increase of sanctions and could hurt their position rather than anything else.”

In fact, other than continuing to sanction the group, it is not quite clear where the United States would stand in the event of outright war between Israel and Hezbollah. It’s certain that the United States would be concerned with the prospect of open conflict between Israel, a close ally, and Iran, which has been at the center of increasingly hostile rhetoric by the Trump administration in recent months as tensions periodically flare in the Persian Gulf.

“There is a relationship between the U.S. and Israeli military and intelligence services, so the U.S. will almost certainly provide some assistance to the Israelis, including on target sets,” Jones said. But he added that both the administration and Capitol Hill will push hard to resolve any conflict. “I suspect that there’s going to be growing pressure from the U.S. both on Capitol Hill and some in the White House, possibly including the president, who thus far has shown that he’s not really interested in war, particularly with Iran.” 

U.S. President Donald Trump’s aversion to a wider conflict has not gone unnoticed by Hezbollah members. At another house near the group’s base in Hermel, a group of Hezbollah infantry fighters on a break sipped tea and smoked nargileh, their faces covered by masks, machine guns at their sides.  One bearded fighter with intricate tattoos winding up his arm spoke very good English and did most of the talking.

“The Americans will play their role under the table,” the fighter said. “Trump is an idiot. Nobody knows what he will do. America will stand behind Israel, but I don’t think he will interfere in Lebanon, because Iran would intervene, and he doesn’t want war with Iran.”

And following Hezbollah’s missile attack against the Israeli military site on Sunday and Israel’s relatively subdued response to it, there is a chance this round of hostilities has now ceased, although Tuesday’s announcement by Israel regarding precision-missile manufacturing operations in the Bekaa is a sign that the conflict is far from resolved. According to the local Hezbollah official in south Lebanon, he anticipates the situation settling down for the moment. 

“The Hezbollah attack will be equivalent to the Israeli attack,” said the official, speaking with his 5-year-old daughter perched on his lap. “Hezbollah will do a calculated strike. … It is not to our benefit to go to war with the Israelis now, but we are preparing for the worst. There is no single soldier in Hezbollah who is not in his military position at the moment.” 

If there is a war, analysts say it is highly unlikely the conflict would be contained to Lebanon—given the presence of Iranian proxy groups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—raising the stakes even higher for everybody involved. 

“If you compare this to the last conflict, this one is almost certainly likely to be more destructive and broader in scope,” Jones said. “I find it hard to believe that this would be limited to Israel and Lebanon. … This is a much more dangerous situation than I think we’ve ever seen along the Israeli-Lebanese border.”

On their tea break in Hermel, the group of Hezbollah fighters agreed with this assessment.

“This war won’t just be between Israel and Hezbollah,” said the English-speaking fighter. “Lebanon and Syria will be the red zone, but there are the Houthi in Yemen, the Hashd al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Forces] in Iraq. This war will definitely spread, but [the Israelis] wouldn’t be doing what they are doing if they didn’t want a reaction. They wouldn’t be droning Dahieh if they didn’t want a war. They want one, and we are ready for it. … We are used to suffering here, but we will make them suffer now.”

One boyish fighter with light brown curls peeking out from under his face mask chimed in.  

“[The Israelis] haven’t fought a real war since 2006,” he said. “We fight in Syria every day. We have training, experience. The Israelis have trained, but they have no heart for war.”

Anna Ahronheim contributed reporting.

Sulome Anderson is a journalist based between Beirut and New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @SulomeAnderson.

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