By Ali Hashem for Al-monitor – The situation in south Lebanon was calm, but with a touch of nervousness in the air the morning of Jan. 28, when six missiles broke the silence. Everyone had been waiting for this moment to arrive. Ten days of waiting had come to an end for Israel, as Hezbollah exacted revenge for the Jan. 18 missile strike near Quneitra, in the Golan Heights, in which commanders and an Iranian general were killed.
Thus, south Lebanon became a war zone, the whole area shaking as shells rained down on the valleys and the surrounding mountains. It was a one-sided war, as Hezbollah had already completed its mission: a strike on two Israeli military vehicles, killing at least two soldiers and wounding seven. People on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border are left wondering where events were headed.
A shell fired by Israel hit a UN base at al-Abbasieh, a mere kilometer from the border with Israel, killing a Spanish soldier. The Spanish contingent in the area evacuated their base for a few hours. Lebanese soldiers prevented Al-Monitor from getting very close, but the damage caused by the Israeli bombardment was visible.
A Lebanese officer told Al-Monitor that the situation was serious, saying, “We are observing it and will see how things are going to develop, but at this moment it is not easy to predict if there’ll be an escalation.” He added, “We believe both parties have no interest in taking things further.”
The UN peacekeeping force and the Lebanese army were more observers than players, as has been the case in the area for years. They have no power or authority to impose on the warring parties. The most they can do is count the shells falling on either side of the border and violations of the Blue Line and follow them up with expressions of concern.
Hezbollah selected Shebaa Farms, an area regarded by the Lebanese government as occupied, as the location to respond to Israel’s earlier attack. This meant the exchange of fire could be kept within a conflict zone. In addition, the group chose a target similar to the one struck in the Israelis’ original assault, which hit a military convoy.
It was clear that the Shiite group had decided to throw the ball back into the Israeli court. From the Islamists’ perspective, the attack was needed to restore the deterrence power Hezbollah has maintained since its war with Israel in 2006. Hezbollah, which holds itself up as a popular movement, has for years prized this achievement and cannot at any price tolerate its falling by the wayside. The group’s popularity and acceptance had already taken a hit in the Arab world because of its involvement in the Syrian crisis.
No Hezbollah fighters were seen in the area of the attack. It was as if they were invisible, even though they had to be somewhere in the vicinity, watching the situation unfold. It is the group’s habit of being there-but-not-there, somehow materializing for operations and then vaporizing. Only the banners bearing the images and words of their leaders and martyrs reveal their existence.
As the day came to an end, tensions began to ease. It became obvious that a war would not erupt. Hezbollah’s supporters decided it was therefore time to celebrate, approaching the Fatima gate on the border, chanting pro-Hezbollah slogans and waving flags.
Hezbollah supporter Mohammed told Al-Monitor that this was a day of victory, saying, “We know that when the resistance promises, they own up to their promises. Today’s operation sent a message to all the enemies that Hezbollah is able to fight in Syria and still keep us safe here.” He added that Hezbollah Secretary-General “Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is going to talk on Friday, and we know he’s going to say some big things that’ll make us happy and the enemies afraid.”
Another man, Ali, standing to the side and looking on blankly, said, “They are happy, and I understand them, but I’m concerned. I don’t think we need a new war here. It’s true the resistance has the weapons to fight, but this is not enough.”
* Ali Hashem is a columnist for Al-Monitor. He is an Arab journalist serving as Al Mayadeen news network’s chief correspondent. Until March 2012, he was Al Jazeera’s war correspondent, and prior to that he was a senior journalist at the BBC. He has written for several Arab newspapers, including the Lebanese daily As Safir, the Egyptian dailies Al-Masry al-Youm and Aldostor, and the Jordanian daily Alghad. He has also contributed to The Guardian. On Twitter: @alihashem_tv