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Hezbollahland: US indecision may leave Israel unprotected in new Middle East war

The reluctance of the U.S. Congress to approve a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine and Israel only delays the inevitable: a looming conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Israelis are actively preparing, evacuating 80,000 people from the country’s northern regions, deploying reservists along the Lebanese border, and ramping up intelligence operations in Lebanon. However, a shortage of crucial weaponry means the Jewish state is less than fully equipped to embark on a full-scale war. The shortfall does not only apply to offensive capabilities, significantly depleted in Gaza, but also defensive resources.

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Content
  • Welcome to Hezbollahland

  • A faction worth dealing with

  • Hezbollah's riches

  • Iran's shield

Welcome to Hezbollahland

Traveling through Lebanon often feels like a scene from a Vietnam War movie. Numerous checkpoints dot the roads. One might even encounter vintage American armored personnel carriers or jeeps from the 1960s and 70s. The soldiers manning these checkpoints wield American weaponry reminiscent of that bygone era. Even their olive uniforms evoke images from films like Full Metal Jacket or Platoon. And then there are the dollars — Lebanese soldiers seem to cherish them as much as their American counterparts do. For a mere twenty-dollar bill, they're willing to overlook entry restrictions into the southernmost region of Lebanon — a stretch of land running from the ancient city of Tyre to the Israeli border that is typically off-limits to foreigners.

For a mere twenty-dollar bill, they're willing to overlook entry restrictions into the southernmost region of Lebanon

The affable officer accepts the twenty-dollar bill, neatly folds it, tucks it into his breast pocket, and casually mentions that beyond his checkpoint, Lebanon, as one knows it, ceases to exist. What lies ahead is a realm where the authority of the government in Beirut holds only nominal sway. Here there is no Lebanese army or police presence. Instead of abiding by state laws, the area operates under rules set by a group that is universally labeled a terrorist organization in the civilized world.

“Welcome to Hezbollahland,” the officer remarks with a wry smile as he hands back the passport, barely giving it a glance. “Take care over there, avoid conflicts, and for heaven's sake, don't snap any photos, or they might mistake you for a spy.”

The landscapes of this region are breathtaking: vast expanses of forested hills and mountains, interspersed with the remnants of ancient castles and monasteries. Just a few decades ago, this was a thriving community of Christians. But now, such believers are few and far between.

From 1985 to 2000, the area was under Israeli occupation. The Israelis ventured into southern Lebanon to shield themselves from attacks by Palestinian fighters who had sought refuge in what is now known as Hezbollahland, as the officer jokingly dubbed it. Local Christians allied themselves with the Israeli forces. However, when the occupation ended in 2000, several thousand fighters from pro-Israeli armed groups — appointed by the occupiers as local administrators — gathered up their families and departed along with the Israelis. Others from the local Christian population either relocated farther north or emigrated to the West.

Southern Lebanon, Israeli border
Southern Lebanon, Israeli border
Reuters

The areas left behind were promptly occupied by Hezbollah — a Shiite group closely aligned with Iran that boasts its own faction in the Lebanese parliament and supplies cabinet ministers to the government. It was Hezbollah units, not the Lebanese army, that assumed positions along the border with the Jewish state, which remains unrecognized by the authorities in Beirut.

A faction worth dealing with

The Lebanese army has long been plagued by weakness and corruption, primarily due to the influence of neighboring Syria. For almost three decades — from April 1976 to May 2005 — Lebanon found itself under the direct military and political control of Damascus. This period could accurately be termed an occupation, one that overlapped with the Israeli presence in the south.

The Syrians, entering Lebanon during the tumult of civil war, had little interest in bolstering any of the myriad conflicting factions — save for their steadfast ally, Hezbollah. By the early 2000s, popular jokes ranked the national army as the third most powerful fighting force within the country, behind the Syrian occupiers and Hezbollah itself (this despite the fact that the group was supposedly defunct at the time).

By the early 2000s, popular jokes ranked the national army as the third most powerful fighting force within the country

According to the 1989 peace agreement that marked the end of the civil war, all factions were to disarm. However, this accord also aimed at liberating the southern region from Israeli military presence. Consequently, under Syrian influence, the Lebanese government chose to designate Hezbollah as the primary militant force aligned against Beirut’s southern neighbor.

As a result, Hezbollah remained intact, retaining its military structure, weaponry, and support from both the national government and Syria. And, of course, it continued to benefit from its relationship with Iran, which was behind the creation of Hezbollah and remained its main supplier of financing, weaponry, and ideology.

In 2008, the Lebanese government, acting independently of Damascus, sought to curb Hezbollah's dominance by dismissing several corrupt officials associated with the group and shutting down unlicensed media outlets under its control. In response, Hezbollah incited riots in Beirut, seizing parts of the city and compelling opponents not only to abandon their plans, but also to make concessions that granted Hezbollah officials the authority to veto government decisions.

Thus, Hezbollah not only solidified its position as the country's principal military force, but also emerged as a key player in the country’s political landscape. Its significant political clout and formidable military might enable it to control substantial swathes of the nation's territory and effectively block state encroachment into its southern stronghold.

Hezbollah has long solidified its position as a key player in the political landscape of Lebanon

Hezbollah's riches

Lebanon's armed forces boast around a hundred thousand personnel. Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, claims to command a similar number of fighters, even if it is likely that, in reality, the figure likely does not exceed fifty thousand. Still, sheer manpower alone is not enough to secure victory in battle. Equally critical are weaponry, supplies, and the morale of the troops, and in these regards, Hezbollah surpasses the national army by a considerable margin.

Lebanon, a country that has repeatedly faced financial crises in recent decades, largely relies on the international community to prop up its military. The support it receives does merely consist of outdated equipment and weapons donated by Western nations — at times, the government in Beirut struggles even to provide food for its soldiers and officers, prompting the country to seek humanitarian aid from around the globe. The officer who accepted twenty dollars as a gratuity for allowing passage into the restricted zone effectively doubled his weekly salary — that is, if delays did not prevent him from receiving his official paycheck altogether. Military personnel in Lebanon frequently desert simply in order to feed their families.

At times, Lebanon struggles even to provide food for its soldiers and officers

Hezbollah faces no financial constraints whatsoever. Annually, the group has at its disposal hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars. This funding comes from direct Iranian sponsorship, revenues earned from illicit business schemes, and entirely legal contributions from Lebanese Shiites and their counterparts abroad. Additionally, there have been reports of funds flowing into Hezbollah's accounts from North Korea, Nicaragua, and even South American drug cartels. While Hezbollah officials deny receiving money from these sources, the militants certainly do not lack the means to fulfill their mission.

When it comes to artillery, both conventional and rocket, Hezbollah possesses more than many developed countries. For years, Iran has been supplying its Lebanese clients with increasingly advanced rockets and drones. Massive underground storage facilities dot the cities and villages of Hezbollah-controlled territory, while disguised rocket launch sites and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) stations are strategically positioned closer to the Israeli border. Altogether, Hezbollah may have up to 150,000 rockets and UAVs — all of them aimed at Israel.

Iranian-made M-46 artillery pieces are among the weaponry in Hezbollah's arsenal
Iranian-made M-46 artillery pieces are among the weaponry in Hezbollah's arsenal
AP

However, Hezbollah's activity is primarily confined to launching drones — typically several dozen per day — and engaging in attacks on Israeli border patrols. These attacks, along with the Israeli retaliatory strikes they engender, cause casualties on both sides, including among civilians. As a result, thousands of Israeli and Lebanese residents have been evacuated from the border areas.

And the situation has room to deteriorate. Hezbollah’s almost daily rhetoric threatens to destroy the Jewish state, and even if the group lacks the capacity to do so, it is certainly capable of escalating the ongoing conflict. It seems that the main sponsor of the militants — Iran — is not yet ready to unleash their full potential for violence.

Iran's shield

Iran has supplied Hezbollah with weapons, funds, and political support for a strategic purpose. With tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli cities, Hezbollah serves as Iran's primary security buffer. This well-equipped, highly motivated, reliably obedient group positioned directly on the Israeli border acts as Iran's protective shield.

All major global and regional actors understand the implications: if Iran faces external aggression from Western nations, it will let these rockets and drones fly on Israel, the primary ally of Europe and the U.S. in the region. However, acting on this threat now would effectively forfeit Iran's primary tool of international leverage, potentially provoking intervention from Western nations that would have nothing left to lose by coming to Israel's direct aid. It is a reality grasped by all players in this deadly game — Iranians, Israelis, and Americans alike.

Thus, Iran will likely continue to restrain Hezbollah until it secures its own nuclear arsenal, which is expected to become the cornerstone of its national security strategy.

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Israeli officials are well aware that Iran is on the brink of possessing nuclear weapons and are hesitant to test what “red line” might induce Tehran to unleash Hezbollah. Of course, Israeli military planners wouldn't mind destroying the Lebanese group's positions and stockpiles before its leadership decides on a full-scale attack. However, at the moment, Israel lacks the capacity to wage a full-scale war on Hezbollah.

The ongoing operation in Gaza, which has lasted almost six months, has significantly depleted the Israeli Defense Forces' arsenal. For a new incursion into southern Lebanon, Israel would need to bolster its stockpiles of artillery, air defense systems, ammunition, and a host of other weaponry and equipment. Although formal appeals to the U.S. for a substantial package of military aid have been made, so far the Americans have only delivered a few relatively small batches of arms — necessary for continuing operations in the Gaza sector, but insufficient for expanding the war northward.

A bill that would provide significantly greater assistance remains stuck on Capitol Hill, and although it is the intransigence of Republican Congressional leaders that has prevented the package from coming up for a vote, the Biden administration is also likely keen to avoid another major crisis that could drag the U.S. into a military conflict during a presidential election year.

In short, the situation is far from ideal for Israel. It is always better to engage in conflict on one’s own terms rather than on the opponent's. The Israeli government likely believes that now is an opportune moment to open a new front and is pressing the Americans accordingly. However, the military and political landscape is constantly shifting, and there's a risk that the perfect moment to strike Hezbollah might pass. In the meantime, it appears the U.S. will remain reluctant to aid allies fighting conflicts with the potential to escalate at a politically inopportune time for leaders in Washington.

Of course, the potential outbreak of a new Middle Eastern war does not depend solely upon American desires. Hezbollah could initiate such a conflict if it deems the moment for decisive action has come. With time, the Israeli military industrial complex — along with help from the country’s international partners in Washington and beyond — has the capacity to replenish IDF arsenals to a level sufficient for going on the offensive. It remains to be seen which side ultimately takes the initiative — and when.

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