August 1, 2023 | Tablet
In Lebanon, Israel and America Are on Opposite Sides
Israel backpedals, while Hezbollah grows bolder
August 1, 2023 | Tablet
In Lebanon, Israel and America Are on Opposite Sides
Israel backpedals, while Hezbollah grows bolder
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.
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.
“The bottom line here is still that whatever deterrence Israel had established with the 2006 war has now largely eroded.”
The bottom line here is still that whatever deterrence Israel had established with the 2006 war has now largely eroded. As Nasrallah underscored in his speech, Hezbollah does not believe Israel is willing to upend the new-old rules of engagement with another major war, certainly not over a tent. What’s more, he has seen, most clearly with the maritime deal, that the Americans oppose Israeli escalation in Lebanon and are actively constraining the Israelis. That is explicitly the way the maritime deal was designed to work. Team Biden was clear about how it viewed the maritime deal: It guaranteed Lebanon’s security and economic prosperity and precluded action that could destabilize it. In other words, it extended a protective umbrella to Lebanon and therefore to Hezbollah, by openly opposing Israeli kinetic action in Lebanon.
Sure enough, Nasrallah linked the American role and Israel’s deterrence in his remarks: “The situation is different now … That’s why the Israelis did not dare to make a kinetic move against the tent. Why? … Because the Israelis understand [that Hezbollah would retaliate]. And because they understand, they brought in mediation.” In other words, Nasrallah recognized that the function of American mediation is to constrain Israel’s actions in Lebanon while delivering wins that supposedly enhance the country’s “stability” by rewarding the terror group.
At the time of the maritime deal last year, most observers, if they even noted it at all, dismissed the notion that Hezbollah could piggyback on the maritime deal and leverage it on land, or that the two issues were intertwined. However, Nasrallah highlighted an additional linkage between the current campaign on the land border and Hochstein’s maritime deal. In laying out Lebanon’s territorial claims in the sector west of Ghajar, Nasrallah made sure to include Point B1 at Naqoura on the coast, as the terminus point of the Lebanese land border. During the maritime negotiations, the Lebanese insisted on Point B1 as the starting point on land from which the line at sea would begin.
Meanwhile, the Lapid caretaker government and its validators touted as a “key” win the maritime agreement’s supposed recognition of Israel’s so-called “buoy line” which extends out to sea from Rosh Hanikra. An anonymous Lapid government official fed reporters the following spin at the time: “The line of buoys is an important Israeli security line, that was never approved by any outside actor … This will allow Israel to treat it as its northern territorial border.”
In fact, the agreement does no such thing and leaves the situation unchanged, “without prejudice” to Lebanon’s claim to the area, which, the agreement says “remains undelimited.” The text further states: “the maritime boundary landward of the easternmost point of the [Maritime Boundary Line] is expected to be delimited in the context of, or in a timely manner after, the Parties’ demarcation of the land boundary.” (Emphasis added.)
As a matter of fact, coupling the maritime border with their claims on land was the Lebanese demand from the outset on which they conditioned their participation in the maritime negotiations. The State Department under Mike Pompeo, in one of its mind-boggling displays of bad judgment, conceded and included a paragraph in the Framework Agreement about the U.S. “looking forward” to separate talks on “unresolved issues related to the Blue Line.” In other words, the current situation on the land border is baked into the maritime deal—and that’s how the Lebanese are treating it.
Echoing what Nasrallah would announce the day after, Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally and U.S. interlocutor, bundled all of Lebanon’s claims on land and told his Western partners that “what is required of the international community is to oblige Israel … to withdraw from the northern part of the village of Ghajar, the Shebaa Farms, the Kfar Shouba hills, and point B1.” An article in the pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper, which coincided with Hochstein’s visit to Israel and was echoed elsewhere in the Lebanese press, claimed that “Western countries informed Lebanon that Israel was willing to enter into talks about land border demarcation, despite previously opposing it, and to limit the discussion to the  points of dispute [along the Blue Line].” The article then claimed, citing anonymous diplomatic sources, that “the American administration sees in this development an opportunity to complete the land border demarcation which it has been in a rush to achieve ever since it finished the maritime delineation.”
Are these claims true? Who knows. What can be said with some certainty, however, is that the Biden administration has every incentive to try and lock Israel into such processes, as a continuation of the maritime agreement and the overall policy of “de-escalation” it is predicated on. The net result of such a course of action would be a win for Hezbollah: It escalated, Israel balked, the Americans stepped in the middle and discouraged the Israelis from taking forceful action, and instead encouraged them to enter into another process to entertain Hezbollah’s claims. Moreover, Nasrallah never once said anything about taking down the tents, even should Israel withdraw from Ghajar.
Of course, Hezbollah’s demands hardly stop in Ghajar and the 13 points along the Blue Line. Hezbollah is also looking to use the Blue Line to secure additional objectives in the Golan region. “What is the value of the tents? The value of the tents is that they have put the spotlight again on the whole situation on the border,” Nasrallah clarified. “You have seen what the value of the tent is, the value of the tent now is to open this discussion wide. We are a group with a goal.”
Ever since the U.N. and the U.S. began peddling initiatives to resolve the status of northern Ghajar, the Lebanese have been open about that process being the springboard to addressing the status of the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba hills—the Lebanese claim to which is a fiction invented at the time of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
Curiously, al-Akhbar framed Israel’s fence construction in Mount Dov as an attempt “to take advantage of the American recognition, during the Trump presidency, of Israel’s total sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” The current U.S. position does not recognize the Lebanese claim to the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shouba hills. It regards them as part of the Golan Heights. However, Hezbollah is well aware of Team Obama’s support for UNSCR 2334 and its adoption of the 1967 lines, a policy which the Biden administration has followed faithfully in the context of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
Obama administration officials, most of whom are now in the Biden administration, were never supportive of the recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan. If Hezbollah can manage to induce a comment or introduce the slightest modification in the American position on the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba hills, that would be another significant win.
How Netanyahu will decide to proceed remains to be seen. More than three weeks after Hochstein’s visit, and after months of protestation and appeals through third parties, Israel has largely gone silent on the issue of the tents. Even as it advertised its military preparedness for any scenario, following the security cabinet meeting on Sunday, the IDF continued to send signals of its preference for de-escalation and for avoiding any confrontation with Hezbollah, and that the encampment situation will be resolved “at a place and time of our choosing.”
It is unclear now whether Netanyahu will make good on the threat to use force, with the understanding of the likelihood of conflict with Hezbollah, however limited, or whether he will play along with Team Biden’s initiatives and wind up trapped in a new process in which Washington acts as Hezbollah’s lawyer, like it did with the maritime deal.
What Israel must realize is that the U.S. is not aligned with it on Lebanon. Washington’s policy in Lebanon makes it an amplifier, not a constrainer, of Hezbollah. Israel cannot rely on silly soundbites like demanding the LAF or UNIFIL take action or asking the U.S. to pressure the Lebanese government. All these soundbites advertise is a dated understanding of Lebanon’s reality, and of the actual U.S. posture. The American impulse is to keep Israel off of Lebanon and to promote the latter’s protection and prosperity—as a Hezbollah state.
However the Israeli government decides to deal with the tents—to take them out by force, or simply to do nothing—it therefore needs to stay far away from any U.S. initiative that further enshrines the precedent of the maritime deal that has positioned Washington as a broker between Israel and Hezbollah, and not as Israel’s ally.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.