Israel backpedals, while Hezbollah grows bolder.
A Lebanese army soldier, at left, in Kfar Shouba in southern Lebanon looks on from his side of the border as Israeli soldiers stand opposite, in background, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on July 20, 2023
ALI DIA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s discussion on Sunday with senior IDF officials about Hezbollah provocations on the northern border was preceded by a flurry of press reports claiming that the IDF intelligence division had issued no less than four warnings about eroding Israeli deterrence. Military intelligence officials, we were told, have been warning Netanyahu about how the political crisis at home and fraying ties with the Americans were undermining deterrence of enemies like Hezbollah.
People might differ on how to read such assessments of the impact of Israel’s political crisis on the country’s deterrence posture. One could choose to read it as earnest analysis, or as political messaging whose point was to paint Netanyahu’s judicial reform as harming Israel’s security—a talking point of the prime minister’s opponents. However, in order to weigh the claim that fraying U.S.-Israeli ties are weakening Israel’s deterrence on the northern front, one would first need to examine the assumption that the United States and Israel share the same interests when it comes to Lebanon, and that this common front is being undermined by Israel’s reckless domestic politics. A sound assessment should begin by questioning the premise of U.S.-Israeli alignment in Lebanon—an alignment that demonstrably does not exist.
A year ago, leveraging a mock drone attack by the terror group Hezbollah against an Israeli offshore gas rig at the beginning of July, the Biden administration went to the caretaker Israeli government with an urgent demand: It must sign a maritime boundary delineation agreement with Lebanon within a couple of months, before the parliamentary elections in Israel, giving potentially valuable gas fields to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and signaling Israeli willingness to retreat in the face of Hezbollah’s aggressive threats and actions. This matter was a top priority of the president of the United States, the administration made public. Sure enough, the Biden team got its deal.
In the process, the Biden administration broadcast a new American posture in Lebanon. The U.S. now positioned itself between Israel and Hezbollah, taking on the role of protector of and advocate for Lebanon, which now figured in the imagination of U.S. policymakers and diplomats, if not in reality, as an independent country in need of buttressing. The maritime deal, a senior U.S. official explained last year, would serve as a security guarantee not just for Israel, but also for Lebanon—a territory now transformed in the language of U.S. diplomacy from an Iranian satrapy under the political and military control of the terror group Hezbollah to a sovereign state that might be the deserving recipient of nearly a billion dollars a year in U.S. aid.
As it turned out, the maritime deal did not, in fact, enhance Israel’s security, as U.S. negotiator Amos Hochstein and his echo chamber validators in the U.S. and Israeli press all claimed it would. In reality Israel’s security and deterrence has badly deteriorated on multiple fronts since the Biden administration came to office. The deal did enhance Hezbollah’s security, though, and consequently increased the group’s confidence to press its advantage against Israel.
Over the past few months, the terrorist group that rules Lebanon has conducted, in tandem with its auxiliary force the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), a series of border provocations and incursions into Israeli territory. Hezbollah’s moves were part of a larger, concerted campaign. As with the maritime border episode, Hezbollah is now locked in a dance with the Biden team to advance shared objectives and impose them on Israel.
Each time Hezbollah provokes, the U.S. reliably steps in to “mediate” between the terror group and Israel, with the goal of “stabilizing Lebanon.” Needless to say, the Israeli role is strictly to make concessions in the framework of a U.S.-brokered agreement, at the risk of displeasing its American patron. Hezbollah, meanwhile, knows that the structure of this Kabuki performance prohibits Israel from retaliating, making its provocations more or less risk-free—especially given the fact that the “Lebanese state” is a fiction.
In a speech marking the 17th anniversary of the 2006 war, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, explained exactly how the terror group’s dance with Team Obama-Biden and its emissaries works. Pointedly, his elucidation began with the maritime deal. The way Lebanon got everything it demanded, Nasrallah explained, was when “the resistance” threatened the Karish offshore platform, and when the official and popular supporting cast played their part. That’s when the Americans and Hochstein came and delivered the Israelis.
Having internalized that precedent, Hezbollah then decided it was time to press its advantage on land, where again, Nasrallah’s reading of the American posture had proven correct. The day before the terror leader’s speech, Amos Hochstein, the Biden administration’s special presidential coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security, who got the lame duck government of Yair Lapid to concede to all of Hezbollah’s demands in its last days in office, arrived in Israel to discuss tensions along the land border with Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s provocations on Israel’s northern border had begun months prior to Hochstein’s arrival. On June 21, Israeli media reported that Hezbollah operatives had entered Israeli territory several weeks earlier—the exact date was later said to have been April 8—and set up an outpost in the Mount Dov area, several meters inside Israel. Needless to say, this was months before the passage of Netanyahu’s judicial reform bill.
That Hezbollah’s actions took so long to surface in the Israeli press in part likely reflects the Israeli government’s reluctance to advertise its own weakness. Instead, the government vainly hoped that this sign of its impotence might be quietly resolved through diplomatic channels and UNIFIL. Israel filed a letter of complaint with the U.N. Security Council and then threatened to remove the tents by force after an unspecified deadline—a threat which, as more time passes, appears increasingly hollow.
Israel’s weak response to Hezbollah’s symbolic invasion of sovereign Israeli territory suggests a failure to recognize that Hezbollah’s cross-border encampment is, as Nasrallah explained, part of a systematic campaign. In turn, this failure appears to be embedded in an even larger refusal to comprehend America’s new posture in Lebanon. As a result, Israel is responding piecemeal to a coherent Hezbollah strategy aimed at forcing Israel to make additional concessions, this time on land, while using the new constraints forced on Israel by the new American posture to establish new operational dynamics at the border.
The oddity of this situation, then, is that both Israel and Hezbollah appear to be acting under the assumption that they have U.S. backing. In the case of Israel, however, this assumption is in part a mistake, and in part a bit of public posturing which has failed to convince their enemies to the north, who in fact know better.
Weeks before the story of the Hezbollah encampment came to light in Israel, the pro-Hezbollah press in Lebanon had already documented an episode in late May where Hezbollah had set up an additional outpost in the same region, in the outskirts of Kfar Shouba near the pond of Ba’athael (long a site of tensions involving Lebanese shepherds crossing into the area). Although Nasrallah would later claim that the second encampment was on the Lebanese side of the border, the ambiguity is deliberate. The episode in Kfar Shouba continued a few days later in June when so-called “locals” disrupted IDF fence construction and earthworks, which are aimed at fending off infiltration and livestock entering from the Lebanese side. A person identified as a local farmer who had blocked the IDF excavator in Kfar Shouba went on Hezbollah TV and declared that his actions were an example of Hezbollah’s whole-of-society doctrine, which it dubs the “army, people, resistance” triad.
A couple of days later, the LAF once again crossed the border fence into Israel. The LAF—whose salaries the Biden administration underwrites—posed for pro-Hezbollah TV cameras, and took positions pointing their weapons at IDF soldiers.
As with the farmer in Kfar Shouba, the choreographed LAF deployment was intended to showcase Hezbollah’s doctrine of synergy between the terror group, government institutions, and the citizenry. It underscored that Hezbollah was the spearhead of a position endorsed by the government and the country as a whole. The latter point was showcased further with trips to the outskirts of Kfar Shouba by members of the Lebanese parliament who expressed support for the liberation of “occupied Lebanese lands.” The LAF would participate in another such stunt alongside Hezbollah operatives in the area opposite Menara, west of Kiryat Shmona, where they crossed into Israeli territory to block IDF activity before being pushed back by the IDF.
The choice of the locations is not random. In 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon to the border line, known as the Blue Line, which was set by the U.N. based on historical maps. Aside from the northern part of the village of Ghajar, which the Blue Line cuts through, and leaving aside the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shouba hills, which are part of the Golan and which no one recognizes as Lebanese, there are a few points along the Blue Line that Lebanon contests.The Hezbollah stunts took place at some of these points along the security barrier in the area between Metula and Zar’it farther west. This is precisely the area where, in 2018, the IDF uncovered multiple Hezbollah cross-border tunnels.
In one instance near Metula in early July, Hezbollah operatives removed a security camera off the smart fence. In recent years, sabotaging surveillance equipment has been routine activity for Hezbollah, often assisted by the LAF. Hezbollah uses the cover of its so-called “environmental NGO” Green Without Borders both to plant trees that obstruct Israeli security cameras and to erect observation towers a few meters from the barrier. This past year, the group has erected 27 outposts along the Blue Line. Of course, Hezbollah also has its LAF auxiliary regularly disrupt the IDF from clearing the trees. In 2010, the LAF shot and killed an Israeli officer in the area west of Metula, as an IDF crew was removing trees.
To block Hezbollah operational plans of entering northern Israel in a future conflict, over the past several years the IDF has been building a concrete barrier and upgrading fortifications along the border with Lebanon, on the Israeli side. This effort has reached the Mount Dov region, opposite Kfar Shouba.
Some in Israel have assessed that Hezbollah’s current campaign is aimed at disrupting the building of this barrier and of the IDF’s security measures altogether. While that’s true, it falls well short of capturing the full picture. In fact, Nasrallah openly clarified the purpose of this choreography when he spoke of the complementary and cooperative roles of the group and the government to obtain territorial concessions from Israel, “as with the maritime deal.”
Hezbollah has been rather open about what it’s looking to achieve. First on the list is the village of Ghajar. The Blue Line cuts through the village located in the Golan, leaving the northern part of it in Lebanon. With Israel having committed to the Blue Line, the U.N. considers the northern section of Ghajar, that’s on the Lebanese side, occupied and the Security Council routinely urges Israel to complete its withdrawal from that part of the village.
In the period following Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 and leading up to the 2006 war, Ghajar and the Mount Dov area were targets of regular Hezbollah attacks, infiltration, and abduction attempts. Most notable was the November 2005 operation that simultaneously targeted an IDF post in nearby Mount Dov, around the spot where Hezbollah pitched its tent, and a post in Ghajar, in a failed attempt to abduct soldiers—in which they used motorcycles and ATV’s, much like what they featured in their recent military display in May and in the video they released in July simulating a cross-border attack by the Radwan special forces. Less than a year after the 2005 attack, a successful abduction operation near Zar’it sparked the July 2006 war. Clearly, Hezbollah is signaling a readiness to reestablish an updated version of the pre-2006 reality at the border.
Right before the maritime deal was signed last year, the local council of Ghajar began constructing a high fence with cameras and sensors along the northern part of the town. Israel then began allowing unrestricted movement and touristic activity in what had formerly been a closed military zone. What existed before the fence was a stretch of barbed wire that made the village a security vulnerability, in addition to being a location of drugs and weapons smuggling from Lebanon.
A picture taken from the southern Lebanese village of Wazzani shows the northern part of the border village of Ghajar recently walled by Israel, on July 21, 2023. Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry on July 11 said the country would file a complaint with the U.N. Security Council over Israel’s ‘annexation’ of the north of Ghajar. The so-called Blue Line cuts through Ghajar, formally placing its northern part in Lebanon and its southern part in the Israeli-occupied and annexed Golan Heights. / JOSEPH EID/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
The decision to build the new security fence has turned out to be a boobytrap for the current government. After waiting almost a year, Hezbollah decided to take advantage of this opening, and set in motion the same play it ran with the maritime deal. “What we did with the oil, gas and maritime border delineation, today also, through complementarity and cooperation between the state and the resistance and with support from the Lebanese people and the political forces in Lebanon, we can recover our occupied land in the town of Ghajar,” Nasrallah explained.
First, Hezbollah fired an antitank missile near the village and a few days later Hezbollah media published footage of Israeli military vehicles at the fence and declared it a “reoccupation” and “annexation” of the Lebanese part of Ghajar. Then it delegated the government to hand a proposal to the Americans: you need to force the Israelis to take down the fence and to withdraw from the northern part of Ghajar. Sure enough, the U.S. appears to have acted on cue as Hezbollah’s messenger.
The reason Hezbollah decided to focus on Ghajar is because it is the spot where it enjoys the strongest footing with the U.S. and the U.N., who have long been fielding proposals to Israel concerning the status of the northern part of the village. If the U.S. pressures Netanyahu to concede, that would be an easy victory for Hezbollah—achieved without the need even for negotiations. If Israel does not agree, but at the same time opts, with U.S. encouragement, not to remove the Hezbollah tents by force, that would also be a win for Hezbollah—an affirmation of the perception that Israel is deterred. The latter point was the central refrain of Nasrallah’s speech: Israel’s hesitation is the direct result of the deterrence that Hezbollah has imposed.
Building on this perception of deterrence, one Hezbollah objective in the Kfar Shouba hills and the Shebaa Farms pertains to deployment and operations. Over the past decade, Hezbollah has been using the Mount Dov region as a theater for retaliation against Israeli strikes in Syria (and, rarely, in Lebanon) that the group deems to be violate the rules of engagement and the deterrence equation. Now it intends to turn the eastern sector of the Shebaa Farms/Kfar Shouba hills into an arena of regular active and visible deployment, much like in border points to the west.
After gauging Israel’s reaction to its activities in June, and especially after Hochstein’s July visit, Hezbollah has doubled down on its activities outside of Kfar Shouba. On July 20, it brought an excavator, removed IDF concrete obstacles, and proceeded to level the ground in front of the border fence. The same intrepid local farmer featured in the previous episodes helpfully explained on Hezbollah TV that the plan was to create a road along the fence that links to the Ba’athael region, so as to “be at the nearest point to the fence with the Zionist enemy.”
Nasrallah added more detail in his speech. The area where Hezbollah set up the tents is Lebanese land, Nasrallah said, indicating he had no intention to take them down. We have the freedom to do and build whatever we wish there, he added. As he mockingly went through the various things Hezbollah might wish to construct there, he included “a tower” in the list. It remains to be seen if we will soon witness new Green Without Borders observation towers go up along the fence in the area, as is the case farther to the west.
To drive home the normalization of the overt presence of Hezbollah operatives along the entire length of the border line, the IDF filmed masked Hezbollah operatives in full gear patrolling openly along the fence near Moshav Dovev in the upper Galilee, and pointedly looking straight at the camera.
It’s worth placing the campaign at the border in the broader context of Hezbollah’s operations against Israel. If the tent was set up in early April, it was in March that Nasrallah set in motion the action by “locals” and the LAF obstructing Israeli “expansion beyond the Blue Line,” namely near Houla, west of Metula. March was also the month when Hezbollah sent a bomber from Lebanon deep into Israel in an attempted attack at the Megiddo Junction, as part of linking the Lebanese front with the Palestinian front backed by Iran. On April 6, Hezbollah orchestrated the launching of 34 rockets from Lebanon. Two days later, according to Israeli sources, the Hezbollah encampment was set up inside Israeli territory.
The signals Hezbollah is sending with its campaign in the Shebaa Farms/Kfar Shouba hills are of a return to a modified pre-2006 status quo in the area. What the 2006 war did was to upend the rules of engagement that had governed the battle with Hezbollah in the previous decade, especially after the 2000 withdrawal. The pre-2006 rules had allowed south Lebanon to be an arena for low intensity warfare with Israel without Hezbollah suffering major consequences.
Ever since the Biden administration came into office, Hezbollah has steadily raised the temperature in south Lebanon: From the rocket salvos of summer of 2021 through the mock drone attack on the Karish offshore rig in July 2022, to the Megiddo Junction bomber and the April 2023 increased rocket launchings, Hezbollah has been slowly normalizing the Lebanese front as an arena from which to poke at Israel, albeit at a much lower level than that of the pre-2006 period.