Will Hizballah intervene in the Gaza conflict?

A mock Katyusha rocket-launcher pointed towards Israel sits next to a main highway in southern Lebanon. (Matthew Cassel)

While Israel fervently attempts to terrorize the Palestinians into submission in Gaza, many observers have started to wonder why Hizballah has refrained from stepping in militarily to assist its brothers-in-arms, Hamas. Such musings fail to take account of the constraints on Hizballah’s room for action, as well as the circumstances under which Hizballah would ignore such constraints. The question that should be posed is not so much if Hizballah will act, but when.

As things currently stand, Hizballah is not in a position to directly help Hamas militarily by opening a new front with Israel. In the first place, Hizballah and its supporters have only recently recovered from the devastating impact of Israel’s war against them in July 2006. A Hizballah offensive against northern Israel would surely be met with “disproportionate” force on Israel’s part, which Israel has been threatening as much for several months now. Mass destruction and devastation aside, Hizballah would once again be faced with intense domestic pressures to disarm, and possibly, more externally manufactured, locally-executed conspiracies hatched against it that could drag it into the kind of civil warfare that the movement found itself in during May 2008.

Armed action by Hizballah would not only hurt the movement but would also harm Hamas whose status as a nationalist resistance movement, capable of defending its own people, would be greatly undermined and its raison d’etre called into question. Furthermore, since Hamas has thus far managed to withstand the Israeli onslaught on its own without suffering any significant damage to its organizational hierarchy or military infrastructure, Hizballah does not regard an intervention on its part as an exigent need.

The preconditions for Hizballah’s active engagement in the conflict are two. First, if Hamas is left bleeding to death on the battlefield, either due to the decapitation of its leadership ranks or if its military infrastructure suffers a significant blow, drastically impairing its military performance and leading to its eventual collapse, Hizballah would likely step in. Second, if the organization is forced to accept a conditional ceasefire along the lines of the current French-Egyptian proposal that meets all of Israel’s key demands while weakening Hamas militarily and politically, Hizballah would feel compelled to come to its rescue.

For Hizballah, the need to act under such circumstances would override all the attendant costs that come with such action — a calculation which takes as its basis Hizballah’s moral responsibility towards the Palestinians and the shared strategic fate between the two resistance movements. As expressed by Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on 16 July 2008: “[the resistance] is one project and the resistance movement is one movement and has one course, one destiny, one goal, despite its different parties, factions, beliefs, sects and intellectual and political trends … Resistance movements in this region, especially in Lebanon and Palestine, complement one another and are contiguous groups …”

Hizballah’s view of the conflict in Gaza

This moral and strategic imperative to act is also based on Hizballah’s understanding of the current war as but one episode of an open-ended and comprehensive war waged by the US-Israeli-“moderate” Arab axis against the jabhit al-mumana’a (political and military resistance front) which includes Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas. According to this narrative, the events unfolding are simply an extension of the July War of 2006, as evinced by Israel’s admission that one motive behind its current onslaught is to restore the deterrence capability and image it lost in July 2006. Further bolstering this view is the virtually identical stand moderate Arab regimes have taken on Gaza as the one taken in July 2006. In fact, the perception of the Arab role has shifted from one of “silence” and concealed “collaboration” with Israel in the July War, to open “cooperation” and “partnership” with the Zionist state in its war against Gaza. So blatant has Arab, and especially Egyptian, government support for Israel’s military campaigns become, that even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (known for his sympathies to the US and Israel) chided Arab regimes on 29 December for “not doing enough” to help the Palestinians in Gaza, while Israeli officials and media continue to knowingly embarrass their moderate Arab allies by flaunting their newly out-of-the closet relationship.

Considering the extent of Arab cooperation with Israel in its latest military (mis)adventure and in view of the ferocity of the latter, the current Gaza episode is deemed a particularly dangerous moment in the regional conflict insofar as it represents not merely a war against Hamas, but against the Palestinian cause, or as Nasrallah described it on 29 December, “the fate of Palestine.” Given that the Palestinian cause is embodied by Hamas and defines the political identity of its regional allies, this conflict is one in which the ideological and strategic stakes for all members of the resistance front are extremely high. Nasrallah admitted as much in his 28 December speech: “what is happening in Gaza will have repercussions not only for Gaza alone or Palestine, but for the entire umma [a term used to refer to the Arab nation in a secular nationalist context and for the world community of Muslims]. We must continue work and not be satisfied with an activity here, a demonstration there … we must exert every effort to defend our people.”

Hizballah’s regional strategy in the Gaza conflict

For Hizballah, the Israeli offensive against Gaza must have been foreseeable given Israel’s repeated violations of its ceasefire agreement with Hamas over the past several months and the latter’s refusal to renew it at least a month before it expired. It is more than likely that Hizballah has been preparing for this eventuality alongside Hamas for some time now. In a sign of such coordination, on 15 December Nasrallah used a televised speech to mobilize popular support for an “open ended” campaign to lift the siege on Gaza that was to be launched on 19 December, several days before the Israeli assault began. It is no coincidence that the Hizballah leader chose to make this announcement one day after Hamas’ political head, Khaled Meshal, formally declared the movement’s ceasefire with Israel over on 14 December.

Over and above this political coordination, Hizballah must have helped Hamas ready itself for such an Israeli operation by providing weapons and training, as well as through joint military planning. Hizballah officials’ strong confidence in Hamas’ military performance appears to stem from an intimate knowledge of the organization’s capabilities. This conclusion reveals itself in the assertion made by the head of Hizballah’s parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, who claimed on 2 January that “the enemy will be surprised by the range of rockets found in the resistance’s arsenal in Gaza.” This argument is further bolstered by Nasrallah’s admission in March 2002 that the three Hizballah officials whom Jordan had captured as they were trying to smuggle weapons into the West Bank, did in fact belong to the movement, as well as his declaration at the time that “to supply arms to the Palestinians is a duty … it is shameful to consider such an act as a crime.”

Hamas’ fighting style also seems to bear the hallmarks of the military tactics Hizballah used during the July War such as its use of underground bunkers and tunnel networks, as well as adopting similar rocket tactics, all of which suggest Hizballah’s extensive training of Hamas’ military forces. Nasrallah came close to admitting as much when he claimed on 31 December that “the resistance in Gaza benefitted more from these lessons [from the July War] than the Israelis.” More than simply receiving military training, Hamas’s military strategy appears to conform to the “new school of fighting” founded by Hizballah’s assassinated military leader, Imad Mughniyeh (himself rumored to have personally trained and equipped several Palestinian groups over the years), which combines conventional and non-conventional, guerilla warfare that functions not only to liberate occupied territory, but to defend it from aggression.

Hizballah’s strategy vis-a-vis Egypt

Not only did Hizballah coordinate its activity on the Gaza crisis with Hamas, but also with Iran. One such indication of this coordination was the fact that the Iranian campaign against Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing was launched several days in advance of the one kicked off by Nasrallah, prompting Cairo to recall its diplomatic envoy from Tehran. On 12 December, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts with strong ties to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Imam Khamenei, disparaged Arab regimes in language reminiscent of Khomeini’s revolutionary discourse of the 1980s: “Forget about silence. They are cooperating with Israel.” Referring to Egypt by name, in light of its cooperation with Israel on the Gaza siege, Khatami asked: “where has your Islam gone, where has your humanity gone?” In a similar vein, in his 28 December speech Nasrallah denied the existence of an Arab “silence,” insisting that it was an Arab “partnership” with Israel. Like Khatami, Nasrallah also singled out Egypt by name, warning it that if did not open the crossing then it too would be “partners to the crime, partners to the murders and partners to the Palestinian tragedy.” To that end, the Hizballah leader called on “millions” of Egyptians to brave government repression and take to the streets to express their outrage, similarly urging the Egyptian armed forces to apply pressure on the regime to open the crossing.

While many have dismissed Nasrallah’s verbal barrage on the Mubarak regime as little more than a diversionary or compensatory tactic designed to divert attention from or compensate for Hizballah’s inaction, such a view fails to appreciate the unprecedented nature of this attack, as well as the wider strategy underpinning it. Not since the 1980s has Hizballah adopted such an inflammatory discourse against an Arab regime, or even singled out any one for attack. Not even during the July War, when Arab complicity with Israel was at its peak, did Nasrallah call on the Arab masses to exert pressure on their governments, nor did Hizballah’s relations with those regimes take a turn for the worse thereafter. At the time, Hizballah clearly did not want to burn its bridges with Arab regimes or provide them with ammunition to invoke the Shiite scarecrow and stoke Sunni-Shiite tensions. In Gaza though, Hizballah has not found any such room for diplomacy and self-restraint. In his 7 January speech, Nasrallah warned that although Hizballah did not make enemies of those who had betrayed it during the July War, “we will make those who collaborate against Gaza and its people our enemies.”

Hizballah’s policy shift and its coordination with Iran on this matter signal a joint Iranian-Hizballah strategy of exposing the Mubarak regime’s collusion with Israel and pressuring it to lift its siege of Gaza. These goals also fulfill the grander objective of shaking the foundations of the Egyptian-Israeli alliance which, in turn, would serve to weaken Israel’s regional position. A strategy of this kind is deemed necessary given Egypt’s “public embrace” of Israel, as one Israeli journalist put it (Haaretz, 9 January). In contrast to the July War when Egypt and other moderate regimes confined their collaborative role to blaming Hizballah for Israel’s aggression, this time round Egypt has not even bothered to feign neutrality while secretly trying to benefit from Israel’s campaign against Hamas. In this war, Egypt cannot even play the role of conspiring mediator because it is in fact, a party to the conflict. Egypt’s foreknowledge of Israel’s operation — some would even argue, its demand that Israel launch such an operation — is now common knowledge, as is the false sense of security it lulled Hamas into prior to the Israeli assault.

But the most palpable indication of Egypt’s shared war aims with Israel is in its siege of Gaza and its ardent refusal to lift it. Hizballah and its allies view the opening of the Rafah crossing as being key to the outcome of the conflict. As Nasrallah explained on 28 December: “today the Egyptian stand is the cornerstone of what is going on in Gaza. If the crossing is opened, and water, food, medicine, and money, and even arms reach our people in Gaza, the epic victory in Lebanon will be repeated.” Hizballah’s wartime experiences demonstrate this fact only too well. Syria’s opening of its border crossing with Lebanon, permitting the movement of weapons, goods and refugees, was pivotal to Hizballah’s military success in 2006. In the case of Rafah, the opening of the border crossing is deemed even more indispensable for the Palestinians considering that it is not merely a supply line for Hamas, but a lifeline for Gaza’s population who are besieged from all sides.

While Nasrallah’s strategy has failed to persuade Mubarak to open the crossing, it did serve to greatly embarrass his domestic and regional standing and reduce his regime’s role to a purely defensive one, preoccupied with formulating lamentable counter-arguments to the Hizballah chief’s accusations, and rallying its moderate allies to its defense. Furthermore, to cover up for its moral bankruptcy the Egyptian regime has now formulated a ceasefire initiative in the vain hope that it can somehow restore its lost regional role. For the Palestinians though (not to mention the vast majority of Egyptians and Arabs), no action on Egypt’s part can compensate for the opening of the Rafah border crossing. Moreover, the initiative itself serves Israel’s interests and military objectives, as well as as those of Mahmoud Abbas, in so far as it merely seeks to reinstate the Fatah-Israel agreement of 2005 which called for the supervision of the border by Fatah security men and European monitors. Although Hizballah has yet to comment on the initiative, Hamas has expressed “major reservations” about it, while Iran has rejected it outright. It can be therefore surmised that Hizballah’s and Iran’s forthcoming strategy will be to ensure that Hamas is not pressured to accept the Egyptian proposal, which would weaken it politically and militarily. Hizballah and its allies will strongly back Hamas’ refusal to become the Islamist equivalent of Fatah.

Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah speaks to thousands of supporters on the one year anniversary of the 2006 war. (Matthew Cassel)

Hizballah’s readiness to intervene militarily

While some commentators have suggested that a rift has emerged within Hizballah over the circumstances under which it should assist Hamas militarily, such assumptions seem implausible. As mentioned earlier, Israel’s offensive against Gaza could not have taken Hizballah by surprise and it is therefore highly unlikely that the party’s leadership was caught off guard and has suddenly found itself subject to internal pressures to take immediate action. As one of the pillars of Hizballah’s ideology and strategic vision, defending Hamas and the Palestinians from Israel, is by necessity an issue which enjoys a party consensus.

Moreover, the party leadership has not publicly committed itself to a policy of restraint, nor is it likely that it has done so behind the scenes as some Lebanese officials in the rival March 14 camp have been claiming. When Lebanese parliament majority leader Saad Hariri announced earlier this month that he had received assurances from Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, while the latter visited Beirut that Hizballah would not respond to the Israeli assault on Gaza, Nasrallah lambasted him for granting “free assurances” to Israel. In fact, upon contacting a reliable source at the Iranian embassy in Lebanon, this author was informed that no such assurances were given to Hariri on Jalili’s part.

The reason then for Hizballah’s constructive ambiguity, whereby it neither confirms nor denies its intent to join the conflict, is clear: although its resistance has so far remained on the sidelines of the conflict, it is highly improbable that it would continue to do so if Hamas were on the verge of collapse. Based on the centrality of the Palestinian cause to Hizballah and its strategic role in confronting the US-Israeli project, it cannot allow Hamas to be crushed militarily on the battlefield or politically, by means of a humiliating ceasefire arrangement that would weaken the movement. It is in this context that we should read Hizballah’s recent pledges to “never abandon” the Palestinian cause. In another indication of the resistance movement’s readiness to militarily support Hamas, Nasrallah made an underreported request to his followers in one of his addresses on 29 December marking the Muslim holy day of Ashura: “I hope that you who gather in this place … will always be ready to respond to any call, position and decision.” While this can be construed to mean that Hizballah’s followers were merely being asked to support its right to defend itself in case of an Israeli attack on Lebanon, it could be argued that Hizballah hardly needs to ask the party faithful who have more than proven their loyalty to the resistance movement to support its right to self-defense. Besides, Hizballah does not formulate positions or decisions on self-defense, which is considered not merely a non-negotiable right but a duty that is incumbent upon it.

Scenarios of intervention

Although an armed intervention on Hizbullah’s part would incur the wrath of Israel, rallying popular Shiite support for such a strategy would not prove too difficult if Hizballah depicted it not so much as opening a new front but as legitimate self-defense. Israel has provided the resistance movement with more than enough provocations of which it can avail itself and thereby use to ignite a war with the Zionist state. Aside from Israel’s continued occupation of the Shebaa Farms and Ghajar, which the Lebanese government has thus far been unable to liberate through diplomatic means, Israel routinely abducts Lebanese civilians from the Lebanese side of the Blue Line, most recently in December 2008.

More frequently still, Israeli planes violate Lebanese airspace on a daily basis in violation of UN Resolution 1701. In fact, Hizballah issued a statement in July 2008 decrying the incursions as “provocative, unacceptable and condemned,” urging the Lebanese government and relevant UN bodies to take necessary measures to end the violations. On 31 July 2008, Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, considered close to the movement, also reported that Hizballah was planning to take “practical measures” in response to the violations. Around the same time, several reports emerged in Arab media of the planned deployment of anti-aircraft missile launchers in the Lebanese mountains for the purpose of shooting down Israeli planes. But irrespective of the veracity of such reports, Hizballah would not even have to down any jets to protest the overflights, but could settle for firing anti-aircraft guns that “accidently” fall on northern Israeli settlements as it has done in the past.

Retaliating for Israel’s assassination of Mughniyeh would also enable Hizballah to spark a war with Israel. That Hizballah will respond to the assassination is almost a certainty considering his political and military significance to the movement and recalling Nasrallah’s 14 February declaration to engage in an “open war” with Israel, as well as the oath he made on 22 February to avenge his death: “Oh Hajj Imad, I swear by God that your blood will not go in vain.” Perhaps Hizballah has reserved its right to respond for such a time when it would serve a much wider strategic purpose than mere tit-for-tat. What better purpose than to save the Palestinian cause from possible collapse?

Whichever scenario unfolds, Hizballah would still have to explain the timing of any defensive measure it takes. The movement would be fully justified in presenting its attack as a preemptive one and could legitimately argue that it lies next in the line of fire by an emboldened Israel that had succeeded in finishing off Hamas politically or militarily. As warned by Nasrallah on 28 December and again on 7 January, the possibility of an impending Israeli attack on Lebanon remained a very real one which Hizballah was more than ready to confront. As a matter of fact, Israel’s threats against Lebanon did not commence with the war on Gaza but have been a persistent feature of its official discourse for well over a year now.

Hizballah’s readiness for war

Hizballah began to respond to those threats not only with counter-threats but with a new discourse emphasizing the eradication of Israel as a Zionist state by means of “destroying its army.” The linkage between Israel’s survival as a state and its deterrence capability was not a new one for Hizballah, but as Nasrallah explained on 22 February 2008, the notion of destroying its “remaining deterrence” once and for all was. On Hizballah’s first July War anniversary on 14 August 2007, Nasrallah stunned his supporters and Israel alike when he “promised” a “big surprise” in any upcoming war with Israel “that could change the course of the war and the fate of the region,” and which would enable Hizballah to score “a historic and decisive victory.” Not only would Hizballah decisively eliminate Israel’s remaining deterrence, but it would do so quickly: “Any new war will be swift and the victory shall be fast” Nasrallah stated on 24 August 2008.

While many have conjectured that Nasrallah’s threats suggest Hizballah’s acquisition of advanced weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles, an equally valid conclusion (and one that doesn’t rule out the former) would be that it has developed a new method or strategy of warfare involving a much larger number of fighters than has been used in the past. As declared by Nasrallah on 14 February 2008: “In any coming war, not just one Imad Mughniyeh will be waiting for you, and not just a few thousand fighters. Imad Mughniyeh has left behind him tens of thousands of trained, equipped and ready-for-martyrdom fighters.” These fighters would display “an unprecedented method of fighting” which Israel had supposedly “never seen since its establishment,” Nasrallah stated on 24 August 2008.

Regardless of Hizballah’s readiness for war, and its potential to destroy Israel’s military deterrence, what is certain is that for the movement and many of its supporters and allies, destroying the Zionist regime in Israel is no longer confined to the ideological realm but has entered the realm of strategic interests as well. Regional security requires that the perpetual threat that Israel poses to its neighbors be neutralized once and for all. While such logic may seem like a throw back to the 1950s and 1960s, the new thinking shares more in common with the American notion of “regime change” and one-state solution proposals rather than with “throwing the Jews into the sea.” If the war against Gaza has achieved anything, it is that it has succeeded in drumming this logic in the Arab and Muslim political consciousness.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a Lebanese political scientist, scholar and analyst who teaches at Lebanese American University, and author of book Hizbullah: Politics and Religion. She is currently working on a book on Iran’s regional alliances with Hizballah, Hamas and Syria for IB Taurus which is due to be published in 2010.

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