On a recent Saturday afternoon, a radar operated by French United Nations peacekeepers picked up a pilotless Israeli reconnaissance drone crossing into south Lebanon. It was given no more attention than any of the dozens of other surveillance missions flown by the Israelis in Lebanese airspace each month.
But when the drone passed above Wadi Hojeir, a yawning valley with steep, brush-covered slopes, it abruptly vanished from the radar screen. The startled peacekeepers contacted the Lebanese army, and a search of the rugged valley was conducted in the early-evening gloom. Nothing was found.
No one can recall the last time that an Israeli drone malfunctioned over Lebanon and crashed, and there were no reports of antiaircraft fire. The Israelis have said nothing. Neither has Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and arch foe of Israel. The peacekeeping force is now abuzz with speculation that Hezbollah may have found a way of electronically disabling drones.
It is food for thought as tensions escalate once more between the West and Iran, Hezbollah’s ideological patron, over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency released last week claimed that Iran has been engaged in “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” It was the IAEA’s toughest report yet on Iran, and it was preceded by a flurry of articles in the Israeli press saying that the Israeli government was seriously considering a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Iran has delivered its own warnings. Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of the country’s armed forces, was quoted saying that “the smallest action by Israel [against Iran] and we will see its destruction.” He added that plans for retaliation were already in place.
Many analysts believe that those plans could include directing Hezbollah to unleash its military might against Israel, pummeling it with thousands of long-range rockets, placing the Jewish state’s heartland on the frontline for the first time since 1948.
Hezbollah and Israel last came to blows in July 2006, when the Lebanese militants fought the Israeli army to a surprise standstill in the valleys and hills of south Lebanon. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s charismatic leader, proclaimed a “divine victory” against Israel, but since then he has been careful not to provoke another round of fighting.
But the quiet has not stopped the two sides from making feverish preparations for another encounter, one that neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants but that both believe is probably inevitable.
The rate of recruitment into Hezbollah’s ranks has soared. New recruits are bused to secret training camps in the Bekaa Valley, where they endure lengthy marches over the craggy limestone mountains carrying backpacks weighed down with rocks. They learn fieldcraft and weapons handling, and some go on to receive advanced training in Iran. The military instruction is interspersed with religious and cultural lessons, teaching them the importance of jihad, martyrdom and obedience to Hezbollah’s religious figurehead, currently embodied by Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the supreme leader of Iran.
Hezbollah never divulges details of its ever-improving military capabilities, but reports claim that the organization has amassed as many as 50,000 rockets, including guided missiles that can strike targets in Tel Aviv. Hezbollah fighters have repeatedly hinted that they are being trained to slip across the border into Israel in the next war, a development to which Sheikh Nasrallah himself referred for the first time in a speech earlier this year.
Still, even as it has evolved into the most formidable nonstate military force in the world, Hezbollah faces its greatest array of challenges since emerging in the early 1980s.
It is in the spotlight of an international tribunal based in the Netherlands which has indicted four party members for their alleged role in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, an iconic Lebanese statesman. Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the killing of Mr. Hariri by a truck bomb.
Of far greater consequence for the group is the bloody upheaval in Syria, where protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have left some 3,500 dead since mid-March, according to the U.N. For Hezbollah and Iran, the collapse of the Assad regime would upset the strategic balance in the Middle East, rupturing an alliance between Damascus and Tehran that has endured for 30 years and only grown stronger in the past decade under the presidency of Mr. Assad.
Syria is an important conduit for the transfer of arms to Hezbollah, but more crucially it is Iran’s only solid ally in the Arab world, granting Tehran an influential toehold on Israel’s northern border and providing strategic depth for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s repeated declarations of support for Mr. Assad have eroded the party’s popularity not only among the majority Sunnis in Syria, who make up the bulk of the opposition, but also more generally in the Arab world as the regional “cold war” intensifies between Shiite Iran and mainly Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia.
Sheikh Louay Zouabi, a Syrian Salafist cleric who was in Lebanon recently to drum up support for the opposition, listed Iran followed by Hezbollah as his two main enemies. The Assad regime came in third place. “Assad is third because it is natural for him to want to kill me because I am trying to overthrow him,” he said. “But why do Iran and Hezbollah want me dead? What have I done to them?”
Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon has declined since the heady days of the 1990s, when the Lebanese, regardless of sect, broadly backed Hezbollah’s resistance campaign against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. The Israelis left 11 years ago, but Hezbollah refused to disarm, and today the fate of its weapons lies at the heart of Lebanon’s gaping political divide. Hezbollah insists that its robust military wing serves as a defense for Lebanon against possible Israeli aggression.
“Israel will not wage a new war against Lebanon—not because of its nobility, ethics, or commitments to international resolutions, but rather because it cannot guarantee its success,” Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, said recently.
But skeptics point to Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and accuse it of serving the deterrent needs of Tehran rather than the defensive interests of Lebanon.
The dilemma for Hezbollah is that launching a war against Israel in response to an attack on Iran will reap massive destruction on Lebanon and on Hezbollah’s core Shiite constituency—all for the sake of defending the nuclear ambitions of a country lying 650 miles to the east.
Hezbollah officials remain coy on the organization’s likely reaction to an attack on Iran. Much would depend on the scale of the strike and the political situation in the Middle East. Sheikh Nasrallah recently said that neither the U.S. nor Israel is in a position to launch a fresh war in the Middle East, describing media speculation about a possible attack on Iran as “intimidation.”
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s cadres concentrate on their relentless training and military planning, with a single-minded focus on the next conflict with Israel.
“Let them attack Iran. It will be great,” said a young, stocky Hezbollah fighter named Khodr. “It will mean that Israel is finished.”