The hottest confrontation between Hizbullah and Israel since Israel’s retreat from most of South Lebanon in May last year began shortly after noon on July 1 when two Israeli warplanes fired two air-to-surface missiles at a Syrian radar-station near the village of Sar’in al-Tahta in Lebanon’s eastern Beqa’a Valley. Three Syrian troops, and a Lebanese soldier standing guard at a nearby position, were wounded in the attack, which destroyed the radar station.
This is the second time Israel has targeted Syrian positions in Lebanon in reprisal for Hizbullah operations since Ariel Sharon became Israeli prime minister March. Israel said that the raid was in retaliation for a Hizbullah operation two days earlier in the occupied Sheba’a Farms. On June 29, Hizbullah fired missiles at an Israeli patrol and a tank in the area, leaving one soldier wounded. An Israeli government statement said that the Syrian radar-station was targeted because Damascus was responsible for Hizbullah’s operations. “This criminal activity by Hizbullah takes place under the authorization of Syria, whose army has a presence in Lebanon,” the statement claimed.
Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary-general, who at the time of the air strike was addressing a rally in the nearby village of Buday, warned: “Israel is playing with fire. We will not stand idly by and will react in an appropriate manner.” He added that the Israelis’ air strike against the Syrians “will not do them any good.” Indeed it did not; Hizbullah’s response came quickly. Within an hour Hizbullah sent barrages of rockets and mortar shells on Israeli military positions in the Sheba’a Farms area. Israeli artillery fired back, wounding 60-year-old farmer Qassem ‘Atwi. The positions targeted by Hizbullah included a listening post perched on a 1,714-meter-high mountain-peak at the northern edge of the Sheba’a Farms area. The post, believed to be one of Israel’s most important radar positions, sustained heavy damage. Shaykh Nabil Qawooq, Hizbullah’s southern commander, disclosed later that the shelling knocked out the radar and surveillance facility, which used to cover five countries: Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and some outlying parts of Iraq.
It is noteworthy that Hizbullah’s bombardment elicited a low-level response from Israel. It refrained from expanding the scope of retaliation, sending a message to the Lebanese government through the American embassy in Beirut to indicate that it had no intention of launching another air strike in retaliation for Hizbullah’s bombardment in the Sheba’a Farms. So the incident has provided another confirmation of the fact that in war initiative and daring pay off. In this case, Sharon’s repeated threats against Hizbullah, as well as Syria and Lebanon, came to no more than hot air.
Sharon’s strategy of striking at Syrian positions in Lebanon, which is rooted in his proclivity for military adventurism, is meant to scare Damascus into playing the role of policeman on behalf of Israel by exerting pressure on Hizbullah to stop its activities in the Sheba’a area. The new strategy was inaugurated on April 16 with an Israeli raid against a Syrian radar-station in the mountainous Lebanese area of Dahr al-Baydar that killed three Syrian soldiers. The raid came after a Hizbullah operation resulted in the death of one Israeli soldier in the Sheba’a Farms area.
Hizbullah has pledged to continue its armed struggle until Israel vacates the Sheba’a Farms area, a 20-square-kilometre sliver of mountainous land at the Lebanese-Syrian border that Israel has occupied since the June 1967 war. Although the area was at the time under Syrian military control, both Syria and Lebanon agree that the land is Lebanese. But according to the so-called “Blue Line” drawn by the United Nations to confirm Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the Sheba’a Farms area falls within the scope of the area of operations of the UN Disengagement Observer Force patrolling the occupied Golan Heights. As such the UN supports the Israeli position that the future of the area should be determined in negotiations with Damascus over the Golan Heights. However, Hizbullah regards the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as incomplete until Israel relinquishes the fourteen farms.
The main conclusion to be drawn from the recent confrontation is that Hizbullah is in complete control of its conflict with Israel. Israel’s decision to desist from further retaliation is as a victory for Hizbullah. Hizbullah’s swift and massive response exposed Sharon’s bellicose rhetoric as a bluff. Hizbullah’s successful strategy has always rested on a clear understanding of its own strengths and the enemy’s weaknesses. Because of its limited resources, Hizbullah’s military operations aim to wear the Israelis down psychologically.
Moreover, Hizbullah’s daring response to the Israeli air strike has made irrelevant the remorseless logic of Israel’s standard retaliatory policy. Israel has long been trying to impose on the Arabs a conflict equation that frees it to expand its military operations and include even civilian targets under the pretext of retaliation for attacks against its forces. But Hizbullah would have none of it. During its 22-year occupation of the south, Israel attempted to exert pressure on the resistance by striking at civilians and infrastructure inside Lebanon. Yet with its offensive “carry-the-war-to-the-enemy” military doctrine, whereby Israeli settlements were targeted in retaliation for Israeli bombing of civilian targets, Hizbullah neutralized Israel’s reprisal strategy. By responding to the attack against the Syrian radar station, Hizbullah indicated once again its continued refusal to surrender the battlefield initiative to the enemy. “The fact that Syrian positions are taken as targets by the Israeli army will not affect our determination to pursue the resistance until the liberation of the Sheba’a Farms sector,” Nasrallah told the Lebanese daily As-Safir (July 4, 2001).
This was echoed by Shaykh Qawooq, who warned that “if the enemy wants to enlarge the area of aggression, then it has to expect that the resistance will carry out its right in extending the area of retaliation.” In fact, Hizbullah’s swift reaction sets up a new situation: one in which it will henceforth launch an attack against Israel for every attack against forces in Lebanon. According to Qawooq: “Any raid on Lebanese territory, whatever its target, merits a response from the resistance.”
For his part, Shaykh Na’im Qassim, deputy secretary-general of Hizbullah, threatened to strike Israeli targets beyond the Sheba’a Farms area if Israel initiates a military confrontation. “If Israel extends the scope of its operations and intensifies them, the response will go beyond the borders of the Sheba’a Farms to eventually reach northern Palestine,” Qassim was quoted as saying in an interview to the French-language weekly Magazine (July 6, 2001). In fact, sources close to Hizbullah confirm that, at the time of the latest exchange of fire with the Israelis, the group was ready for any eventuality, including strikes outside the Sheba’a Farms sector if Israel retaliated against targets beyond the area.
Hizbullah’s recent operation also overshadows a domestic debate over the utility of military operations in the Sheba’a Farms area. This debate has begun in the Lebanon since the liberation of the south. The implications of this debate are all the more perilous because it is meshed with traditional Lebanese sectarian politics and a recent background of civil strife. An array of sceptics, including prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblat and Maronite religious and political leaders, have been advancing a constellation of specious arguments such as that diplomacy, not military resistance, will liberate the Sheba’a Farms, or that resistance operations undermine the government’s efforts to rejuvenate the country’s economy.
The recent confrontation between Hizbullah and Israel has once again exposed such arguments as relics of a despondent past, excuses for inaction. But above all Hizbullah’s initiative and daring highlight the fact that in the confrontation with Israel its enemies have nothing to fear but fear itself.