Hezbollah's private war
By Zvi Bar'el (Haaratz 8.10.2000)
In the aftermath of the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah has now set three objectives for its renewed struggle against Israel: the return of Havat Shiva to Lebanon, the release of all Lebanese prisoners imprisoned in Israel, and the furnishing of assistance to the Palestinians (not the PA) in their campaign to liberate their lands.

Hezbollah had to put its demand concerning the 10 square kilometer Havat Shiva area on hold when Syria accepted the UN's judgment that Israel had withdrawn fully from southern Lebanon. By accepting this UN ruling, Syria agreed that Resolution 425 (concerning withdrawal from Lebanon) does not apply to Havat Shiva; disputes about the area, the Syrians held, would be resolved in negotiations with them held under the terms of Resolution 242 (concerning withdrawal from occupied territories). Hezbollah, which had vowed not to act in contravention of decisions reached by the Lebanese government, was forced to hold its Havat Shiva objectives in abeyance when the Lebanese government assented to Syria's dictates on the matter. Hezbollah ceased its military activity in the area.

Instead of Havat Shiva, the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli facilities turned into the main focus of Hezbollah's military planning. Hezbollah's normally strict compartmentalization of information (a secret-keeping tactic which had in the past stopped Israel from learning about the organization's military plans in advance) lapsed in this instance. Israel received intelligence information about Hezbollah's plans to kidnap IDF soldiers in order to use them as bargaining leverage in a bid to effect the release of the Lebanese prisoners.

Planning for the kidnapping appears to have deviated from Hezbollah's habit of deploying small, compartmentalized cells of operatives. Hezbollah appears to have informed a relatively large military contingent about the plan - and these forces, in turn, carried out the camouflage activities around the IDF's Zarit outpost, along with the military attack against the Har Dov outposts. Using these operations as a smokescreen, the Hezbollah group was able to carry off the kidnapping. Due to the large scale of this kidnap action, and the ploys which accompanied it, the IDF received information about Hezbollah's designs, and disseminated warnings to the public about the possibility of kidnap attempts against soldiers.

What price will Hezbollah try to exact from its success? It could choose to be satisfied with a demand for a swap - the kidnapped soldiers in exchange for Lebanese prisoners held in Israel. Or, it could try to pull Lebanon and Israel into another military confrontation, a conflict which would resurrect Hezbollah's role as a fighting force. Or, Hezbollah might decide to demand that Palestinian prisoners be released by Israel along with Lebanese ones, thereby damaging Arafat's stature (Hezbollah has long loathed the PA Chairman).

Under any of these scenarios, negotiations will be protracted, and Hezbollah is likely to wage a private diplomatic struggle, without the help of Syria, or the Lebanese government. In view of public debates concerning the future of Syria's presence in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been very cautious when it comes to intervening in Lebanese matters. And Lebanon is ruled by a transitional government which could choose to regard the kidnapping affair as a private matter to be resolved between Hezbollah and Israel.

Released from pressure applied by Damascus or Beirut, Hezbollah could notch a number of successes - or it could raise the stakes in talks and insert new demands, knowing that Germany, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States are likely to get involved in the talks.

Well-versed in negotiation dynamics with Israel, Hezbollah's Sheikh Nasrallah refrained yesterday from setting a price to be paid in return for the three soldiers. He didn't even say whether he demands the release of Lebanese prisoners only, or whether he's including the release of Palestinians. Maneuvering to ensure that Hezbollah, and not Syria or the Lebanese government, conduct negotiations with Israel, Nasrallah is waiting for various international officials to come knocking at his door. Nasrallah has managed to open up a private diplomatic front, one which now buffers his organization against any IDF reprisal actions, against Israeli military strikes that could eradicate the success marked by the Party of God this weekend.