What happened —and didn’t happen— at the Israel-Lebanon border?
By Sayed Hasan
On the night of Sunday, July 19th, airstrikes hit Damascus International Airport. Though Israel didn’t claim responsibility for them, sticking to their longtime “zone of denial” policy, no one doubts they were the perpetrators. On Monday, the Syrian Army announced 7 soldiers were injured. It could have been one strike among hundreds of others, soon forgotten because of the lack of Syrian retaliatory measure. But the day after, Hezbollah announced the martyrdom of one of its combatants, Ali Kamel Mohsen, killed during the Israeli raid. As an Israeli commentator on Arab affairs put it in a tweet, this announcement “certainly changes the picture”. In fact, it is an understatement: it turned a tactical success into a PR disaster for the Netanyahu government, and a nightmare for the Israeli’s Army Northern Command and settlers living close to the Lebanese border. Because as everyone knew, a Hezbollah retaliation was inevitable.
We cannot understand what is happening now if we don’t put it in its broader context. Hezbollah’s rules of engagement against Israel in Syria were spelled out in January 2015, after Israel targeted two of their vehicles in Syria’s Quneitra region, killing 6 Hezbollah fighters (including Jihad Moghniyeh, son of Hezbollah’s martyred commander Imad Moghniyeh), along with an Iranian IRGC colonel. Back then, Nasrallah didn’t make any speech until the retaliation, which came out 10 days later, on January 28, when Hezbollah destroyed 3 vehicles in an Israeli convoy patrolling the occupied Shebaa farms, killing 2 to 5 soldiers —the sources differ— and wounding seven others (Israel retaliated by symbolic strikes, harming no Lebanese life or property but killing a Spanish UN soldier). Here is what Nasrallah stated in a speech two days later:
“The Resistance operation happened in broad daylight (just before noon), at the highest state of alert of the Israeli enemy, who until now is incapable of understanding how it happened. […] Because they are cowards and not (real) men, and because “They will not fight you (even) together, except in fortified townships, or from behind walls” (Quran, 59, 14), they struck us treacherously and didn’t dare to claim responsibility for the attack. As for Hezbollah fighters, because they are (real) men who don’t fear death, they attacked them frontally, face to face, and we claimed responsibility for the attack immediately after it happened. […] My message today is the following: from now on, any Hezbollah cadre or commander, any young Hezbollah (combatant) who will be assassinated (in Lebanon or in Syria), we will blame Israel for it, and we will consider it our right to retaliate anywhere, anytime and in any way we see fit.”
This equation was put in practice and even broadened in August 2019, after Yasser Dhaher and Hassan Zbib, two Hezbollah combatants, were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Damascus suburbs, and an Israeli drone attack against Beirut’s southern suburb, a Hezbollah stronghold, was foiled. Here is what Nasrallah stated in an August 25th speech:
“We will retaliate from Lebanon, and not (necessarily) from the Shebaa farms! I declare to the Israeli soldiers at the border tonight: wait for us against the (separation) wall (standing) on one foot and a half (be ready to flee for your lives)! Wait for us on one foot and a half! Wait for us (because we’ll certainly come at you)! In one day, two days, three days, four days… Just wait for us!”
While Hezbollah used to attack Israel exclusively in the Shebaa farms, a Lebanese territory occupied by Israel, they now vowed to strike anywhere, a dramatic development which put tremendous pressure on the Israeli side, for whom any human loss is a national disaster. Drastic & unprecedented measures were taken to foil Hezbollah’s retaliation: Israeli forces didn’t “hole up” in their bases as Nasrallah had advised them to, but went as far as evacuating all their positions close to Lebanon, in a width of 5 to 7 kilometers, and along the whole length of the border line. All Israeli defenses were activated. Strict security measures were taken to evacuate some settlements and forbid the remaining settlers to perform most daily activities —video footage showed empty streets & closed shops, most people being holed up in their house all day long.
For 8 days, the mighty Israeli army appeared as the “spider web” it was, frightened and terrorized, its border barracks and outposts left deserted —as was shown by an RT crew who got inside—, its vehicles abandoned with dummy soldiers inside, with tanks scattered everywhere for days hoping to lure Hezbollah to attack an empty target (see all security measures Israel took detailed in Nasrallah’s speech back then).
Psychological warfare, perfectly mastered by Hezbollah, is a key element to understand what is happening —and not happening— right now, even before we speak of the retaliation itself. As Nasrallah put it in his 2019, September 2nd speech,
“We warned the enemy that he had to expect us (any time) from now on. This is a strength point of the Resistance. We could have remained silent, refrained from threatening (Israel of an imminent retaliation), not revealing our intentions, keeping quiet as we say, for 1, 2 or 3 days, then hit them by surprise. The military know that one of the most important aspects of a military operation is the element of surprise. But we have not done so, because our fight against the Zionist entity has a major psychological component, affecting the morale and soul of the enemy (which we strive to undermine). So we told them from the beginning to wait for us, because we were coming. In itself, it is an enormous challenge issued by the Resistance.[…] [This high alert of the enemy and the evacuation of the border outposts] are part of the punishment (we inflicted on Israel). Before we retaliated with our military operation, some people were (ironically) asking: where is your response? But (this terror situation on the Israeli side) was already a punishment and a retaliation. […] [The whole world saw the staggering difference between] our good Lebanese people (who) was normally moving in border areas, whether in villages or fields, and led a completely normal life, [while Israeli settlers were forbidden to approach “their” fields in occupied Palestine and where holed up in their houses].”
Thus, Israel seemed humiliated and defeated even before the retaliation came. It did happen on September 1st, when a moving Israeli military vehicle was destroyed in broad daylight by two anti-tank missiles near Avivim barracks, killing or wounding its occupants. While Israel had promised to hit Lebanon hard and return it to the Stone Age via all channels (diplomatic, media, etc.) in case of retaliation, the IDF didn’t hit back at all, merely firing “defensive phosphorous strikes aimed at building a smokescreen to protect themselves from further strikes”, as Nasrallah put it. Israeli TV channels showed the evacuation of a seemingly badly wounded soldier by helicopter, and his arrival at a Haifa hospital.
But Netanyahu claimed there was not as much as a scratch in the Israeli side, and that everything had been staged in order to convince Hezbollah they had avenged their martyrs and avoid any further escalation. While this seems like a PR stunt aimed at damage control (especially when we consider that at the same time, Israeli media reported that a soldier stationed in the North was severely injured by a bizarre game of stone-throwing, suggesting a ludicrous cover-up only made possible by the strict military censorship), Nasrallah didn’t rule it out, and stated in a September 10th speech:
“Everything that was done by the Israelis in recent days, for example the Israeli dummy soldiers (in their vehicles), this shows the weakness of the Israeli army. And when things have come to what they called “the deception operation”, in which they allegedly staged the evacuation of soldiers with fake injuries that they carried on stretchers, covered in fake blood, and would thus have deceived Hezbollah (into believing that his goal was reached, to prevent him from launching new strikes). Let us imagine that you really tricked us: all that would prove is, in few words, that your renowned legendary and invincible army has turned into a Hollywood army, which makes movies for the cinema, because it became helpless on the ground, incapable, weak, fearful and cowardly, withdrawing from the border to a width of 5 to 7 kilometers (for fear of the promised response by Hezbollah.”
It would be difficult to conclude that this 2019 round ended in anything but a crushing defeat for Israel, be it on the military, psychological or PR level. Though all of this is little known to the Western public, where the media is but an echo chamber of the Israeli Army’s propaganda (even RT, Sputnik and most alternative media often take their claims at face value), there is no doubt that it was strongly present in the mind of Israel’s political & military leaders when they heard of a Hezbollah operative killed in their latest strike on Syria ten days ago. Israeli media reported the high alert status of the Army in the North, where military drills were canceled, reinforcements sent and units & defenses put in high alert in the expectation of an imminent Hezbollah attack. The usual huff and puff about Israel’s forceful response in case of an attack was heard from Netanyahu & Gantz. But as Israel is in the eye of the storm because of the coronavirus crisis & current civil unrest and daily & violent protests against Netanyahu, another round against Hezbollah, Israel’s most dreaded enemy, is the last thing they’d want. That’s why Israel took the unprecedented step of sending an apology letter to Hezbollah via the UN representative in Lebanon, as was reported by Lebanese & Israeli media, and confirmed by Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem, though the latter wouldn’t speak of its contents, and only stated that Hezbollah didn’t and wouldn’t reply to it.
Commenting on this development, Senior Lebanese political analyst Anis Naqqash, closely linked to Hezbollah, stated the following in an interview to Al-Mayadeen on July 26:
Anis Naqqash: This letter is the greatest proof of Israel’s weakness and fear of Hezbollah’s response. (Recall that in the past) Israel slaughtered (civilians) by the hundreds, and did not apologize or send (explanatory) letters. Israel committed aggressions and occupied territories, and did not apologize or send (explanatory) letters. (But) today, fearing Hezbollah’s reaction, Israel sends an urgent letter via the UN as an apology, because they are afraid of the reaction.
First, the fact that Hezbollah did not make the contents of the letter public helps to make it irrelevant. If they had published it, they would have given the impression of wanting to make public what Israel said. Second, the fact that Hezbollah did not respond to the letter confuses Israel. Despite their apologies and asking for forgiveness, what is Hezbollah’s response? Absolute silence. This leaves Israel in a state of great disarray. (Hezbollah) has also confirmed (via its Deputy Secretary General) that Hezbollah will do what they have to do when the time comes, which also leaves more to fear (in Israel).
Therefore, today Israel is clearly in a state of continued confusion and fear, and the statements of Sheikh Naim (Qassem) today will not allow them to sleep peacefully, on the contrary, they are even more worried (after hearing him).
Journalist: Israel therefore stands on one foot and a half (Nasrallah’s formula to designate the fear and terror of Israeli soldiers, ready to flee at full speed at the slightest alarm) without even the Hezbollah Secretary General needing to speak (and warn them of an imminent response)?
Anis Naqqash: The last time he warned them, but this time they (already) know what to expect. It’s like an unruly pupil standing up and facing the wall on his own every time he does something silly. Today Israel stands up and faces the wall, and does so on one foot and a half, taking (drastic) precautions. No one can say if the response will come before the Eid-el-Kebir (on July 31st) or after, or even if the response will take the Eid festival into account or not. Everything is possible on the part of the Resistance.
Journalist: But isn’t the fact that Hezbollah has not made public the contents of the letter a sign of seriousness, respect and responsibility given that it is an official letter that has been delivered via the United Nations? Isn’t that an important sign (of maturity)?
Anis Naqqash: This can only be understood by comparison with what the Arab leaders and Presidents, and even the former leaders of the Palestinian resistance factions, used to do when they received such marks of attention from the (Israeli) enemy, or from the United States or Europe. The mere fact that one of these countries paid attention to them, made a mere gesture of consideration towards them, they were quick to show it to everyone (as a sign of pride), (boasting) that they had received a glance, a letter from such or such country, an apology, etc. Their opponents saw them as eager for any sign of recognition from the enemy.
As far as Hezbollah is concerned, it is quite the opposite. Hezbollah does not attach any importance to the enemy and its stances. Of course, they study them closely (one has to know its enemy very well), but they do not give them this importance; they don’t manifest this avidity (towards any sign of respect from the enemy). Hezbollah doesn’t rush to their people telling them, “Look, look, they’ve apologized to us!” The confidence of Hezbollah’s grassroots in the Resistance is much higher than that, and they know Israel is afraid of it regardless of what they can say in any letter. This is why Hezbollah does not attach importance to it and does not bother to respond to it, making it clear that for them, whether Israel sent the letter or not, it is the same thing and it will not change anything (about the inevitable response). We have to analyze this from the point of view of psychological warfare, of politics, in order to correctly assess the strategic capacities of the Resistance with regard to political, security and media battles. […]
While Israel’s “apologies” to Hezbollah are pathetic and can prevent in no way the inevitable retaliation, it must be emphasized that Israel certainly does everything it can to avoid hitting Hezbollah operatives when it strikes Syria —and therefore tries hard not to kill anyone at all—going so far as warning them before hitting one of their vehicles, as we can see in this video from last April.
Israel was therefore left with the crushing pressure of the unknown, especially that Hezbollah didn’t comment on what it would do or not do, Naim Qassem merely stating that the rules of engagement previously stated were still in force, and that the coming days would answer everyone’s questions. There were no doubts in Israel & Lebanon that an imminent Hezbollah retaliation was coming. The pressure & nervousness —and downright panic— at the border are probably the cause of the death of an Israeli soldier on July 22 when his car crashed in the Shebaa farms, near the Lebanese border. As a Koweiti put it on Twitter, “Hezbollah’s silence is sometimes more powerful and painful to the Zionist enemy than their missiles, because they live hours, days and weeks in a state of fear, terror and high nervousness. Silence is a destructive weapon of psychological warfare against the Israeli entity, both at the political and psychological levels.” Avigdor Lieberman, former Israeli Defense Minister, stated that “I am still worried because the North is paralyzed by the killing of one single Hezbollah member in Damascus. Unfortunately, Nasrallah proved that he does what he says, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
In this extremely tense situation, on July 27th, the Israeli Army, parroted by the Western media (both mainstream and alternative), stated that it had foiled a Hezbollah attempt to infiltrate the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, killing and wounding the operatives in the following skirmish while suffering no death or injuries itself. Later reports made no mention of Hezbollah casualties, alleging that their lives were willfully spared as a de-escalation measure. Here is the account of the “battle” by Haaretz’s military correspondent Amos Harel:
“While some of the details are still shrouded in fog, it’s clear that the IDF forces – soldiers from the Nahal Brigade, the elite Egoz unit and a tank crew – weren’t taken by surprise and were well prepared for their mission. An IDF lookout spotted the Hezbollah cell while it was still moving toward Har Dov (Shebaa Farms). When the cell had made it about 20 meters into Israel, in a hilly, wooded area where there’s no border fence, tanks and machine guns opened fire at it from a few hundred meters away.The Shi’ite militiamen quickly left the area.
There have been no reports of them taking casualties.
They entered Israel not that far from an IDF outpost and a road that serves troops in the area. (Har Dov is always closed to civilian traffic.) Their goal was presumably to carry out an attack – via sniper fire or bombs – on the IDF forces posted there. But given what has been reported about how the cell operated, the attempt does not seem to have been particularly sophisticated.
Thick vegetation makes it hard to hit an enemy moving cautiously even in broad daylight. The IDF has refused to say whether the soldiers were ordered to shoot to kill, or whether the plan was always to drive off the Hezbollah cell without causing casualties.
Nevertheless, there are fairly solid grounds for assuming that Israel deliberately decided on the latter course of action. Any such decision would have had to be made at the highest levels.
Had Hezbollah suffered losses in the incident, it might have felt compelled to mount an additional retaliation, and that could have escalated the situation along the border. Thus what looks like a tie with no casualties appears to be very convenient for both sides.”
This scenario makes Israel look good: according to this report, not only did they successfully foil an attack, but they did it with a concern for enemy human lives in order to avoid an escalation. Hezbollah’s “unsophisticated” attack, for a change, is supposed to make its outcome more plausible, and more acceptable to the Party of God, who can go along with it, claim he retaliated somewhat and climb down the ladder. Thus, this alleged round would give a military & PR victory for Israel, while allowing Hezbollah to save face, and Netanyahu & Gantz wasted no time in collecting their medal and warning Nasrallah that he was “playing with fire”, and that any further Hezbollah operations against Israel “would be a mistake and would be followed by a harsh military response”. Interestingly, both Netanyahu and Gantz left directly after reading their short statement, without taking any questions from the journalists. One wonders why they wouldn’t enjoy their “victory”.
In reality, this story is very unlikely, as the Israeli media themselves were quick to point out. In an article titled ‘Was Mount Dov incident another Hollywood show for Hezbollah?’, the Jerusalem Post recalled the Avivim mascarade and asked:
“In this day and age, everything is filmed. So where is the footage of the infiltrators crossing into Israel? Where is the drone footage of the area at the time of the incident?”
The IDF stated that they had footage of the incident and were considering releasing it, but haven’t done so far, which adds to the skepticism. Even Naftali Bennett, former Defense Minister, seemed to indirectly deny that any skirmish happenned, stating to Israel’s Channel 13 that in the region of the incident, one can get the impression that something is moving while there is nothing at all.
As for Hezbollah, they denied that any skirmish had taken place in the following statement:
“It appears that the state of terror in which the Zionist occupation army and its settlers on the Lebanese border find themselves, the high alert status and the extreme concern over the Resistance’s reaction to the enemy crime which led to the martyrdom of our mujahid brother Ali Kamel Mohsen, as well as the enemy’s complete inability to know the intentions of the Resistance, all these factors made the enemy extremely nervous on the ground and in the media, and he behaves as someone afraid of his own shadow.
Everything that the enemy media claim about Israel thwarting an infiltration operation from Lebanese territory into occupied Palestine, as well as their claims that there were martyrs and wounded on the Resistance side as a result of the bombardments which took place near the occupation sites in the Shebaa farms, is absolutely not true. This is just a futile attempt to forge illusory & bogus victories.
The Islamic Resistance affirms that there has been no clash or shooting on its part in the events of the day so far. Rather, it was one single part, meaning the frightened, anxious and nervous (Israeli) enemy, who fired all the shots.
Our response to the martyrdom of our mujahedin brother Ali Kamel Mohsen, who found martyrdom in the Zionist aggression on the outskirts of Damascus International Airport, will inevitably come, and the Zionists have only to await punishment for their crimes.
Moreover, the strikes which took place today on the (Lebanese) village of Al-Habaria and hit a civilian’s house will not go unpunished.
The next few days will soon deliver their verdict (our response to all of this is imminent).
Victory comes only from Almighty God.
Islamic Resistance in Lebanon”
Even if it was a matter of Hezbollah’s word against Israel’s, given their respective PR record, it would be safe to trust Hezbollah’s account. In fact, the Israelis themselves believe Nasrallah more than their own leaders, as was shown by polls held in Israel, Hezbollah’s huge credibility being one of its great achievements —as Norman Finkelstein stated, “Israeli leaders carefully scrutinize Nasrallah’s every word”. Anyway, Israel has gained nothing from what is most likely a new PR stunt. Whether the incident started as a mistake of Israeli troops firing at inexistent Hezbollah combatants conjured by their panicked imagination (IDF soldiers are world-class cowards), or whether it was all staged from the beginning in order to claim a fake victory before the inevitable, real retaliation, it is safe to believe that no Hezbollah attack happened, and that Israel further humiliated & discredited itself with this umpteenth lie.
However, it would be a mistake to think that all this show was futile. First, Hezbollah stated for the first time that the retaliation was coming indeed, though it was pretty much a given anyway. Second, they now have two reasons to strike back: their combatant killed in Damascus, and the attack against a civilian house, which puts all the Israeli settlers in the line of fire. Thus, Israel went from a bad situation to an even worse one. Back in August 2019, Nasrallah had already stated that the failed drone attack against Beirut’s southern suburb meant that from now on, the settlers would be seen as fair game:
« I declare to all the inhabitants of northern Israel and everywhere in occupied Palestine: do not live (normally), do not be in peace, do not feel safe, and do not think for one second that Hezbollah will accept such a scenario (where he would suffer such attacks in his neighborhoods without retaliating against settlers). »
Hezbollah still refrained from attacking settlements back then, focusing on military targets, but the latest escalation, even if it was likely accidental, could very well change their mind.
The only remaining question is when and where Hezbollah’s retaliation will come, and how will it unfold? As surprise is a major component of Hezbollah’s strategy, it would be vain to speculate, even if one can think that Hezbollah will take its time, in order to keep the enemy on tenterhooks. But Nasrallah gave us an interesting hint in his ‘Hollywood Army’ Speech:
“O Hollywood army, the lesson we draw from this experience, if indeed it is real (it remains to be proven true that you tricked us), is that the next time, you invite us not be content to hit one vehicle or one place, but several vehicles and several positions, so as not to be fooled by new Hollywood movies. (This comedy simulating injuries so that we’d stop hitting you) is a demonstration of weakness and helplessness (and not a sign of strength or intelligence).”
Also, many wonder if Hezbollah’s inevitable retaliation can lead to a war. It is most unlikely, and this idea has been dismissed by Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General, though he stated that they were always ready for war. But the daily threats from Netanyahu or Gantz should fool no one: Israel’s bite has never been a match for its bark, and their threats towards Hezbollah always turned out to be a damp squib. Netanyahu boasted of having won an imaginary round only because he knew that he had already lost the real one at all levels —military, psychological, PR—, and that when the deterrence & rules of engagement between Hezbollah and Israel change, it is only at the latter’s expense.
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