Pressure Needed From Regional Players To Rein In Hizballah
By Julie Stahl Jerusalem Bureau Chief
January 23, 2003
Jerusalem ( - While attentions in the Middle East have focused on the looming crisis in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli elections, Hizballah still poses a great threat to northern Israel and could attack when the Iraqi crisis comes to a head, a reserve Israeli military intelligence officer said this week. Washington is concerned about keeping a lid on the Palestinian violence as well as keeping Israel's northern border quiet ahead of an expected U.S.-led offensive against Iraq. But Hizballah will be deterred from attacking northern Israel only if Iran, Syria and Lebanon - none of which have friendly relations with Israel - pressure the militant organization.   Hizballah, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, is based in southern Lebanon and backed by Syria and Iran - with whom it shares the same militant revolutionary Shiite Islamic theology.
The militant Islamic organization has both the will and the capability to attack Israel, and it can be prevented from doing so only if its state patrons come under enough regional and international pressure to force the organization to be quiet, reserve Col. Dr. Eran Lerman told a briefing for diplomats and journalists at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs this week. There is no negotiating with Hizballah, Lerman said. The terrorist organization has at its very foundations "Islamic revolution in its purist form," which is actually more revolutionary, dressed in Shiite Islamic garb, he said. From its point of view, Hizballah is the only revolutionary "success story, " having been able to drive the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon.
Never mind that isn't actually why Israel left southern Lebanon after 18 years of maintaining a security zone there, Lerman said; that is the way Hizballah has spun the story to the Arab world. "[Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah definitely is not going to trade his self-image of being the one successful revolutionary movement that has driven the Zionists out, without an agreement, without anything," he said.   The ability to spin the unilateral Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 to their advantage also "has had a direct impact on the minds of the Palestinian leadership...who decided not just to launch a new "intifadah" but to militarize it... That was a decision directly colored by the message of Hizballah," Lerman said.
Nasrallah has also made it clear that Hizballah "will never, never agree to live side by side with the filthy bacterial growth Israel, the cancerous entity...and there's a divine promise to see this cancerous growth destroyed and this is the mission. When they are talking about Jerusalem, they mean Jerusalem," he said. Hizballah is also very well armed with hundreds of 107mm rockets that can be launched from anywhere and dozens of short-range missiles that are capable of doing extensive damage and harm to most of northern Israel. Although Hizballah has carried out a number of deadly cross-border attacks since May 2000 and frequently fires rockets at Israeli positions along the border, it has not used its full capabilities.
But according to Lerman, Hizballah is not afraid of Israel's military might as such, but is constrained by other regional factors, that is, pressure from Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Even though Hizballah has the largest single bloc as a political party in the Lebanese parliament, it does not have the overall backing of the Lebanese people. The Lebanese are more interested in building their nation and economy than in waging a revolutionary war against Israel, Lerman said.
"The Hizballah is aware that this sufferance is tenuous and if they actually go beyond a certain line and provoke a massive Israeli reaction that disrupts and destroys everything [Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri has been trying to build over the last few years, they might suffer the consequences," he said. Israel has warned that it holds Lebanon and Syria responsible for Hizballah attacks and will retaliate accordingly. It has done so several times in the past. Syria is held somewhat at bay by conventional deterrence, Lerman said. "That has acted also to modify and restrain Hizballah on a day-to-day basis."  Iran and Hizballah also have turned some of their attention towards enabling the Palestinians to carry out terror attacks within the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel.
"Essentially the Iranian establishment is more focused now on providing and pushing forward the terrorist organizations in the Palestinian arena, with Hizballah more or less as backers, sometimes suppliers," Lerman said. Hizballah has a long history of international terror attacks, including the deaths of hundreds of Americans - long before the U.S was spurred into its war on terrorism by the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.
In 1983, Hizballah was blamed for the bombings of the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Marine Corps and French army compounds in Beirut, which left at least 260 Americans and 60 French dead. "Hassan Nasrallah and his right-hand-man Imad Munir were in the business of killing and maiming Americans, quite frankly, when bin Laden was still taking CIA money to kill Russians in Afghanistan, and this is an open account, unsettled as yet," Lerman said.
Hizballah and Iran also have been linked to fund raising in Canada, Australia and North Carolina as well as two major terror attacks on the Jewish Agency and Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the 1990s that left hundreds dead and wounded. But the "bigger question" ultimately, Lerman said, is whether Hizballah's position in Lebanon can be changed and "whether there will be a change in Iranian patterns of behavior following the resolution of the Iraqi crisis." "Ultimately I would expect them [Hizballah] to be targeted," Lerman said.
"For this to happen, first of all, Syrian attitudes will need to change...As for Iran, this is of course the $64,000 question about the future of the region," he said. For that to happen it will require a firm message from Washington to Tehran, warning Iran of what it should not do unless it wants to become the next target in the war on terrorism. In a speech last year, President Bush lumped Iran together with Iraq and North Korea as part of the "axis of evil."
"I don't think it's impossible to prevent Hizballah from going off," Lerman said. It can be subdued temporarily, he said. "But it will require a very firm message from all Israelis and I think we've heard this message very clearly from all sides of the political divide and from elements beyond Israel, the Americans and importantly enough other Arabs.