- Increased activity by Iran and its proxies – Hezbollah and the Assad regime – on the Golan Heights has escalated tensions on Israel’s northern borders.
- Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to expand their presence in Syria and open up a new front from which to attack Israel. This activity imperils what has been one of Israel’s quietest border areas over the last 40 years.
- Israel does not want an escalation, but it cannot accept a situation in which Iran and Hezbollah are entrenched along, and launch attacks from, its border with Syria.
- There are concerns that hostilities could spiral into a full-blown war in the near term. The onus is on Iran and its proxies to dial down tensions and cease their military provocations.
What is Hezbollah?
Although it is an active player in Lebanese politics (it currently holds 9% of parliamentary seats, including two cabinet posts), Hezbollah uses political activities and social services to advance its violent, theocratic agenda. In 2002, Hezbollah was listed as a banned terrorist entity in Canada. According to Public Safety Canada, Hezbollah is one of the most technically capable terrorist groups in the world, driven by three principle objectives:
- The conquest of Jerusalem
- The destruction of Israel
- The establishment of an Iranian-style Shia Islamic state in Lebanon
Hezbollah was formed in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war with Iranian guidance and support. It is ideologically committed to Iran’s Islamic revolution, works in close coordination with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and relies on Iran for funding, training and weapons.
Hezbollah was responsible for a number of heinous terrorist attacks during the Lebanese civil war, including the suicide bombing of US and French peacekeepers in Beirut, and the hijacking of TWA flight 847. Hezbollah has also perpetrated terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide, such as the 2012 bombing of a bus in Bulgaria carrying Israeli tourists, and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina that killed 85 people and injured hundreds more.
While all other Lebanese factions disarmed at the end of the civil war in 1990, Hezbollah refused to do so. Instead, it has increased its firepower to become the most powerful military force in Lebanon, focusing its efforts on attacking Israel and intimidating or eliminating political opposition in Lebanon, as seen in the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
In 2006, Hezbollah triggered a war with Israel by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing eight others in a cross-border raid, before firing more than 4,000 missiles at Israeli towns and cities. Israel’s forceful response resulted in a prolonged period of quiet along its border with Lebanon, despite Hezbollah’s ongoing violation of the 2006 ceasefire terms established by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 requiring its disarmament.
Today, Hezbollah is thought to possess approximately 100,000 missiles capable of hitting targets throughout Israel, and has built a sophisticated network of bunkers, fortifications, missile launch sites and weapons depots concentrated within civilian areas in south Lebanon.
Hezbollah is closely allied with the brutal Assad regime in Syria, where up to half of all Hezbollah forces have been fighting alongside Syrian troops and in concert with Iran. Hezbollah is reluctant to trigger an Israeli response on its positions in Lebanon, which would adversely affect its domestic legitimacy and political objectives. Instead, it is hoping to establish a new front of attack on Israel’s border with Syria, a cynical attempt to exploit the chaotic situation in that country.
What is the Current Situation?
On January 28th, Hezbollah fired a number of anti-tank missiles at Israeli military vehicles traveling on a road inside Israeli territory, killing two and wounding seven. This attack was the latest in an ongoing escalation of hostilities by Iran and Hezbollah. Over the last year, there have been a number of cross-border attacks from Syria perpetrated by Hezbollah, and a number of air strikes attributable to Israel aimed at disrupting the flow of advanced weaponry from Syria into Lebanon.
The latest episode began on January 15th, when Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened military intervention into Northern Israel during a strategically significant television interview. Three days later, an air strike on the Syrian Golan, attributed to Israel, killed several Hezbollah commanders and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general.
The presence of senior, elite Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders in close proximity to the Israeli border is an alarming indication of the extent to which Iran and Hezbollah are asserting themselves on the Golan Heights. This represents a major strategic challenge along what has been one of Israel’s quietest borders for more than 40 years. While there has been a return to relative calm following the January 28th attack, tensions remain high.
What is Next?
Israel has long sought to avoid entanglement in the Syrian civil war, while at the same time taking steps to ensure that Syria does not become a base for attacks or a transfer point for advanced weapons entering Lebanon. Israel’s core objective is to disrupt the flow of weapons to Hezbollah and to prevent the establishment of an Iranian/Hezbollah base for attacks on its border with Syria.
In contrast, Hezbollah is seeking to deter Israeli military action aimed at disrupting the flow of weapons from Iran and Syria, and to establish the capacity to attack Israel without suffering the consequences of Israeli retaliation in south Lebanon.
While all parties have indicated a desire to avoid a major war, Hezbollah and Iran have so far refused to scale back their provocative actions on the Syria-Israel border. Unless Hezbollah and Iran change course, it seems inevitable that tensions will once again escalate into violence, with the very real possibility of a full-blown war in the near term.