Hezbollah’s latest threats: More rhetoric than action
Suddenly, and without notice, the familiar sounds of escalation have burst from both sides of the Lebanese- Israeli border. Are we witnessing a new explosive scene on Lebanese territory and across Israeli borders between Iran and its proxy Hezbollah on one side and Israel on the other?
It has been almost 11 years that peace and stability have been broken in the two safest zones in the Middle East — southern Lebanon and Galilee — but in early February US President Donald Trump made statements suggesting there is a new US policy aimed at limiting Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
For its part, Hezbollah is quite aware of the sensitivity of the international game in the region. Knowing that the United States had closed an eye to its involvement on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah carefully avoided even the slightest hint that it was targeting US interests in Lebanon and the region. Its verbal diatribes were directed against Israel. When Reuters quoted a Hezbollah source saying it is warning Trump, the Hezbollah information unit quickly denied the allegation.
Hezbollah’s warnings to Israel, voiced by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, were also carefully chosen. Nasrallah always started with “If Israel attacks Lebanon, Hezbollah will retaliate”, then said Hezbollah had a few surprises for the Israeli Army and that Israeli intelligence about the party’s fighting capacities was weak.
In truth, though, the intended target of Nasrallah’s arrows was the region’s Arab coalition, in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It seems that the party reversed its position regarding the consensus in Lebanon to revive the country’s relations with the region’s Arab states. Hezbollah’s verbal escalation against Israel and the Arab states was, however, not followed by any action against Israel. Instead, the party continues to ferry fighters to battle zones in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Hezbollah has made fighting Israel its raison d’être. Responding to Nasrallah’s surprises, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that in case of a war all institutions of the Lebanese state would be targeted. He did not mention Hezbollah by name, but Israel’s strategy is to make Hezbollah unpopular in Lebanon. Hezbollah knows very well that given Lebanon’s dire financial and economic conditions, it would not be easy to garner popular support in Lebanon and the Arab world as it did in the war of 2006.
Observers have interpreted Hezbollah’s media campaign as a manoeuvre to pre-empt any Israeli field campaign against it at Trump’s behest. Others see in it as a message from Iran reminding that it has a crucial role in ensuring stability along the Israeli-Lebanese border. If its interests and influence in the Arab region are threatened by the United States, Iran is willing to take suicidal initiatives along Israel’s northern borders.
In Lebanon, two reactions and positions have emerged. The first was voiced by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who is preparing for his party’s participation in upcoming parliamentary elections. His objective is to ensure a Christian majority for his party and he needs Hezbollah’s political and logistic support. It is not surprising that he has sided with preserving Hezbollah’s fighting power because the Lebanese Army is not ready for a war with Israel.
The second position was expressed by the Lebanese government, which lambasted Nasrallah’s positions regarding Arab countries. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri qualified them as detrimental to Lebanon’s relations with its Arab neighbours. In a speech commemorating Rafik Hariri’s assassination, Saad Hariri said he would continue pushing for removing all illegal armed forces in the country in favour of the legitimate military and security institutions.
In Lebanon, it looks as though Iran’s interests have the upper hand over those of the Lebanese people. The latest storm kicked up by Hezbollah can only be understood as part of a posturing display by Iran in reaction to perceived American threats. The Trump administration seems determined to stand up to Iran’s influence and role in Yemen. The presence of US Navy warships in the Gulf is a clear message that Iran seems to have picked up.
Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric was absent a year ago. Waiving Hezbollah’s flag, hosting a pro-Palestine conference in Tehran and threatening to hit Israel’s Dimona nuclear facilities, in addition to the flood of insults to Arab regimes, are more talk than actions. Not a single bullet will be fired against the Israelis.