By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem*
What are the reasons for Israeli silence regarding the battle to liberate the mountains of Arsal and the West Qalamoun? How does Israel view the growing military capabilities of Hezbollah and its enhanced combat profile in Syria?
Israel’s noteworthy silence over the battle of the Arsal mountains, was marked at all levels – political, military and media levels.
The battle, which is nearing its end, has been characterized by the achievement of great and speedy victories over a short time with minimal human losses.
Perhaps Israel’s silence is due to the preoccupation of the Netanyahu government, along with its army and security, and its media, with the crisis of the Aqsa Mosque on one hand, and the incident at the Israeli embassy in the Jordanian capital Amman with the death of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli guard, on the other hand.
Nonetheless, even with this preoccupation horities with the priorities of the situation in the occupied Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and dealing with the diplomatic problem with Jordan, it is certain that the Israeli security and military services are monitoring the Arsal mountains battle and its results. They are no doubt also concerned with its security and military lessons, in terms of the development of Hezbollah’s military and its capacities and enhancing its military experience in Syria.
The Israeli Website, Nzivnet, has published a report saying that Hezbollah has been fighting n the Arsal hills for four days, heavy battles, which means Hezbollah is functioning as a trained army operating heavy machinery – armoured vehicles, artillery, mortars among other. Moreover, “the force of Ridwan – the force assigned to occupy the Galilee in the next war with Israel – carries out complex commandos such as control of isolated places and caves.”
The Israeli Website, Nzivnet, added: “Today, Hezbollah claims that they liberated more than 90 percent of the land, and even declared their control over most of the strategic areas in the mountains, and even declared that the battle was nearing its end.”
The Israeli website pointed out that “Hezbollah has prepared a complex military operation in Lebanon, and applied it from beginning to end, almost without any outside help .. There is a film showing the fighting that took place over the first four days in Arsal. During the film, Hezbollah can be seen working as a trained army and operating heavy machinery such as armored vehicles, armored personnel carriers, artillery, mortars, anti-tank missiles, hand grenades, anti-tank missiles, snipers and others. ”
The same report pointed out that Hezbollah does not appear in the film as a guerrilla organization, as it was in the 1990s and the beginning of the third millennium. “In the film you can see the flags of Hezbollah and Lebanon flying together replacing the flag of al-Qaeda on the top of a hill called Wadi al-Khail. This is the image of Hezbollah’s victory over terrorism. Not in Aleppo nor in Daraa. In Arsal, at home. Hezbollah has returned to fight at home, and it sends us signals as well, and no one can stop them,” the Israeli report added.
Israeli concern about Hezbollah’s capabilities
There is no doubt that there has been a significant development in Hezbollah military capabilities, as noted by military experts and political analysts, in terms of the accuracy of the information collected by the party about the “Takfiri” armed groups in the hills, prior to the military operation, whether through human or technological intelligence. It was also noted in this battle, Hezbollah’s skill at planning for the operation and the professional coordination between its units and the Syrian army, as well as with the Lebanese army.
Hezbollah was also very effective in the psychological and propaganda war it waged against the armed groups represented by the Nusra Front or the Hay’at Tahris Al-Sham as it called itself recently, which resulted in the moral defeat of the fighters, which in turn prompted the escape of some and the surrender of others.
Perhaps the most prominent development is the success of Hezbollah at in reducing internal Lebanese tension and neutralizing many of the March 14 parties that were steadfastly opposed to any military operation to liberate Arsal hills – under sectarian and “sovereign” pretexts.
Returning to Israeli concerns about Hezbollah’s growing military capabilities and the skills of its cadres and fighters in Syria, we recall how the Israeli government, army, intelligence and media, were following Hezbollah’s battle for the liberation of Qusayr in Syria in 2013, as well as other battles the group faced in Syria from Damascus to Homs, Aleppo, Palmyra and Deir al-Zour.
The Israeli fear of Hezbollah’s presence in southern Syria and its threat to Israeli towns, because of its proximity to the occupied Syrian Golan and the Galilee settlements in occupied Palestine, is no longer a secret. It makes the Israeli calculations that the next battle with Hezbollah will not be confined only to the border with Lebanon, but perhaps the main battle with Israel is from Syria, from Quneitra, Qusayr, Qalamoun and other Syrian regions.
In early June 2017, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a military report that revealed the extent of Israeli concern over the latest developments in the battles along the Iraqi-Syrian border, which it believes strengthened Hezbollah’s logistical and military strength in the region. These developments will allow for the establishment of a strategic ground corridor that will enable Hezbollah to use the corridor to transport equipment, weapons, troops and various supplies from Iran through Iraq and Syria.
Haaretz quoted the Director General of Israel’s intelligence minister, Hagai Tzuriel, saying: “The border between Syria and Iraq is the most important place in the region now and there will be the spectrum of the regional situation.”
The Israelis estimate that if the Syrian army controls the border areas opposite Jordan, coupled with the possibility of the return of the Syrian army to its positions in the occupied Golan Heights, these developments will be enough to change the paths in the region in the coming years.
Israeli fears of resistance missiles
It is in this context that Israel is continually intimidated by the dangers of strategic weapons shipments being transported from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah, especially long-range and precision missiles. This is in addition to the recent Israeli warning against the dangers of the establishment of a precision-rocket factory in Lebanon.
Gadi Eizenkot, head of the Israeli army’s military staff, and other Israeli officials have repeatedly said in the past two years that Hezbollah is the biggest threat to Israel, and despite its preoccupation with the Syrian war. They point to the development of its long-range and highly accurate missile arsenal, especially the offensive capacities against the armed Takfiri groups in Syria.
during a conference on the 11 anniversary of the “Second Lebanon War” of July 2006, Eizenkot announced that Hezbollah and the Northern Front remain the top priorities of the Israeli army, despite the economic and moral problems it faces, and the loss of two great leaders (Imad Mughnieh, Mustafa Baddreddine) over the past seven years. He added that Hezbollah has “gained experience in the field of fighting in which it participates(in Syria), and the Israeli army does not overlook this.”
*Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, head of Beirut Center for Middle East Studies.