There are no written rules of engagement in the ongoing tussle between Israel and Hezbollah. And if there were, neither would stick by them for long. This has been an open war with both parties using every available resource and every trick in the book. But quite often both would accept mediation and, through third-party negotiations, they would agree to exchange prisoners and the remains of dead soldiers and fighters.
But last week’s assassination of leading Hezbollah military commander and mastermind of some of the most sophisticated and bloody operations in the history of paramilitary warfare may be remembered as a critical turning point in the showdown between Israel and the Lebanese resistance movement. The killing of Imad Mughniyeh in a car explosion in Damascus dealt a powerful blow to the organization’s military setup. It came at a time when both sides were busy with domestic challenges. But most importantly it took place outside Lebanon.
Only Israel — and the Americans — could have carried such a high-level operation that would have required enormous intelligence resources and logistical assets. Only they could benefit from his death. The two have been hunting down the 46-year-old Mughniyeh for years. His involvement in the bombing of the American Embassy and the US Marines base in Beirut in the 1980s is taken for granted. Israel blames him for the blast that destroyed its embassy in Argentina in 1992. His special relationship with the Iranians has been instrumental in providing Hezbollah with an extraordinary advantage in its military confrontation with Israel.
Taking out Mughniyeh was a crucial move in the US-Israeli effort to contain Hezbollah, but it was also a reckless one. The movement’s reaction was expectedly defiant and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s promise to take the battle outside Lebanon should not be underplayed. For years now, Hezbollah has been successful in building a watertight credibility among followers and sympathizers. It proved this in its 34-day-war with Israel in the summer of 2006 when its katyushas and other missiles reached as far as Haifa and forced Israel’s mighty army to stand down.
But in addition to the tactical misjudgment of Mughniyeh’s assassins, the killing provided much-needed political ammunition to Hezbollah’s leadership. If Israel was taking the war to new battlegrounds, the movement and its supporters were ready to meet the challenge. This was bad news to the March 14 coalition in Lebanon, which is already strained by the failure of the Arab League initiative to end the political deadlock in that country.
The July 2006 showdown between Israel and Hezbollah was seen as a proxy war involving Iran and Syria on the one hand, and the Jewish state and its American benefactor, on the other. In spite of Israel’s sustained and indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon, Hezbollah was able to defend the national territory and pound Israeli targets hard. Israel’s top military and political leaders were forced to resign. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert barely survived.
A stalemate kept both sides on their toes and a shaky truce remained intact. But while Hezbollah was celebrating victory, it was being cornered domestically. A coalition of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties was pushing hard to weaken the party’s military grip and loosen its political influence. In the ensuing months following the cease=fire, Hezbollah found itself fighting an unwinnable battle against the majority opposition. It responded by allying itself to Christian leader Michel Aoun and bringing the government and Parliament to a halt.
It was clear that the proxy war had moved from the military confrontation with Israel to the political arena involving Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Washington sided with the so-called majority and used its influence to keep Hezbollah and its allies at bay.
But the political row was dragging on without an end in sight. Meanwhile, Israel warned of an upcoming resumption of hostilities with Hezbollah, claiming that the pro-Iran party was beefing up its fire power and bringing in more sophisticated weaponry. It is believed that Mughniyeh was instrumental in the rebuilding of the party’s military power.
The party claims that last Tuesday’s assassination carried the mark of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who at one point in his career was a top commando officer. Barak is no stranger to Lebanon and he is reputed to have personally gunned down top Palestinian leaders in the 1970s.
Whether Mughniyeh’s death was carried out through Barak or not is now irrelevant. The killing has taken Hezbollah off guard and is now considered as a serious breach of uneasy truce with Israel. It is a matter of time before the party responds and it has proven that it has the ability and infrastructure to do so. Its retaliation will ignite a new cycle of violence and may lead to a new war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Such a development will most likely stifle efforts to bring about a political resolution to the Lebanese quandary. Mughniyeh’s death will be used by Damascus and Tehran to serve various political ends, especially as the two capitals recalculate their positions in light of what is happening in the region.
The coming few weeks will be decisive for all the parties. Hezbollah will retaliate for the killing of a top and respected commander. A fresh cycle of violence may soon be unleashed and its effects may reverberate throughout the region for some time. Whoever carried out the killing of Mughniyeh may get far more than it has bargained for. But most critically Lebanon will find itself once again at a dangerous crossroad and the odds that things will go wrong in that beleaguered country are quickly staking up.