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Is Hezbollah luring Israel to open a second front, in Lebanon?

Lebanese Hezbollah is threatening to open a second front in the north if Israeli forces carry out a land attack on Gaza

No intelligence is perfect, more importantly no intelligence agency is. Even the finest intelligence agencies have, throughout history, delivered faulty assessments.

For Mossad, Israel’s finest Intelligence service—superior in training, dedicated to the core, and technologically superior than all its major global counterpart—events that unfolded on October 7 will cast a dent on its record of excellence. Following administrative/investigative procedures, it will identify causes that camouflaged its intelligence apparatus in the months to come. Despite expertise/experience in intelligence gathering in and around Gaza, critical knowledge on Hamas knowhow, its record of shadowing Hamas’s leadership for decades, how did it miss critical indicators pointing to a deadly attack? Mossad may have contemplated the threat from Hamas as possible but manageable. It is highly likely for the agency to put its resources on safeguarding potential threats emanating from larger players, Iran and Hezbollah. The agency may not have abandoned threat perception from Hamas in principle, may have relocated some resources to cover Gaza, but were clearly ineffective and easily overwhelmed, resulting in October 7, Israel’s very own 9/11.

In intelligence, post-action analysis is not just limited to identifying failures internally. Rather, it includes identifying the adversary’s capability to deliver a major blow. In this case, Hamas’ perfection wasn’t achieved in merely camouflaging its activities or through deception. Instead, it lay in its ability to alter modus operandi, beyond anticipation. To camouflage its activities and conduct an operation of this magnitude, while maintaining tactical surprise, Hamas would have restructured its intelligence perhaps under an expert group, under certain supervision/guidance, strengthening its operational wing and integrating intelligence with tactics. There is only one militia capable of supporting/advising in operational/organizational restructuring, which Hamas has recently mended relationship with Iran’s Hezbollah.

Engaged in an intelligence war with Israel for four decades, this Lebanese group continued to restructure and recalibrate its operations (over the years) learning critical lessons, as it reflected, modernized training, or rendering advice to  other sympathetic Shi’a militia factions in Beirut. Hamas’ actions of October 7 were sheer ruthless, savage, sophisticated and audacious which many intelligence institutions including the West could have only anticipated from Hezbollah.

As Israeli Defence Forces employ tactical encirclement of Gaza, it is possible for Hamas and Hezbollah to anticipate Israel’s first moves, such as taking over the city of Gaza. If that is true, Israeli Defence Forces are not operating under tactical surprise. This means Hamas was expecting a ground invasion and perhaps an all-out war or curated it in the first place. With a war looming over the South, is Hezbollah preparing to open another front in the North? It is not the first for Hezbollah to spark a conflict between Hamas and Israel. That said, policy makers in Tel Aviv must not forfeit strategic calculus during their engagement against Hamas—getting contained in a limited war that could potentially engulf into a regional conflict. As Israel reinforces its troops in the south, it must demonstrate strategic deterrence in the north, sidelining Hezbollah and its ambitions until Gaza is secured.

Mending ties

It will not be incorrect to say that Hamas and Hezbollah have prospered under Iranian support. While fostering Hezbollah’s capabilities in early 1990s, Tehran aimed to expand influence in the Palestinian hinterlands, when Hamas was making an impression within the hearts and minds of local Palestinians, after the first Intifada. The two proxies may part ways on sect-based differences, both are loyalist to the cause of Israeli destruction, aggressive, and radical fundamentalist—fulfilling key parameters for Tehran to groom as a proxy. Thus, beginning a saga of Tehran’s ideological, military and financial support to both proxies, that has strengthened today.

The 1990s can be termed as a period of close coordination, with leadership from Hamas and Hezbollah forging ties under Iranian ‘symbols of resistance’. Both sides began to host leadership delegations, with Hezbollah hosting Hamas in Beirut; trained Hamas fighters in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, providing technical aid and heavy ordinances during the outset of Second Intifada. The period of 2009 to 2010 can be referred to as ‘brothers in resistance’, a greater level of partnership between the two proxies.

In the first half of 2011 their relationship began to show strains, as Syria erupted into a civil war: Hamas chose Sunni Salafi factions, whereas Hezbollah supported Assad, a Tehran loyalist. As the Syrian Civil War drew down, the ‘alliance of resistance’ once again recovered, gaining momentum under the leadership of Yahya al-Sinwar, a Tehran backed influencer, taking over Hamas leadership in the first half of 2017. Since then, the relationship has strengthened over the years, making Lebanon the key region for active coordination, joint training and leadership engagements. By 2019, Hamas leadership was coordinating with Hezbollah through a satellite office in Beirut, with several leaders relocating over the first few months. This resulted in Hezbollah, formulating a joint operations command in 2021 staffing intelligence and military commanders from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to coordinate/train and jointly advise Hezbollah and Hamas on future activities against Israel.

Hezbollah’s taking the fight to Israel

Hamas has much to learn from Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s militia have engaged in roughly all wars in the region, with members actively contributing in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, not to forfeit its long shadow war against the Israeli intelligence services. For Hamas, Hezbollah’s valuable expertise resonates from intelligence, counterintelligence, tactical/kinetic military operations, and small wars/limited conflict. The fact that Hamas’ kinetic operation of October 7, may have been prepped in the same joint operations command in Beirut under Hezbollah and IRGC supervision, is highly probable.

Despite providing tactical and operational/strategic advice/training to Hamas militia, it is highly likely for Hezbollah to act restraint after the October 7 attack. This is reflected from the speech made by Hashim Safi al Din (rather an act of confession) where he relayed cooperation and solidarity with Hamas without indicating or pointing towards Hezbollah’s contribution in planning the same attack. Whether this was a conscious move or a direction by Tehran, it is too soon to tell! That said, before October 7, Hamas and Hezbollah have jointly conducted cross border skirmishes, with Hezbollah sending a message of resolve towards the Palestinian cause, not to remain a spectator from the sidelines.

What could have stopped Hezbollah from taking the fight to Israel?  

According to a Beirut expert on proxy wars, Hezbollah has contributed in roughly all major regional conflicts and expunged serious resources, which needs to be reinforced. This does not limit to countless volunteer fighters, but serious financial support, and major stockpiles including heavy ordinances. The cost of supporting injured fighters and providing cash as revenues for countless martyrs, is emptying Hezbollah’s treasury. This comes at a time when Lebanese government is experiencing paralysis, with the government divided and most political leadership resenting Hezbollah’s stance to create a power vacuum. For Hassan Nasrallah, the immediate task is not to provoke any more political elites and drag Lebanon to a war, which most of the Lebanese do not wish to entangle. Is an Israel-Hamas war worth expending military hardware and militia force, in a war that does not challenge its existence directly? If it does decide to expunge critical resources and manpower and elevates the war into a regional conflict, will it deter Israel in the event of an Israel-Iran war?

Strategic miscalculation equals strategic retreat

That said, Nasrallah’s caution shouldn’t be misread for strategic silence. Israeli strategic gamble in Gaza could elevate/escalate heightened tension, resulting in a proportional response from both Hezbollah & Hamas jointly. Such strategic mis-calculations have resulted in similar escalated violence in 2006, with Hezbollah’s raiding party entering into Israel to abduct Israeli border guards, resulting in an Israeli armed assault.

Strategic miscalculations have occurred in roughly all known conflicts till date, and Israel-Hamas War is not untouched by it. The key for Hezbollah is to bog down Israeli Defence forces in a guerrilla styled urban combat, with an intent to mount severe casualty, forcing IDF to announce a tactical retreat. This would give necessary momentum for Hamas to call for all available allies for reinforcement—putting pressure on Hezbollah and Shi’a militia alike to join the ranks.

A unique opportunity

Hezbollah, like all Tehran based proxies, is minutely monitoring Israel offensive and defensive postures, predicting kinetic capabilities leading to the invasion of Gaza or predicting force mobilization into Lebanon. Hezbollah may not have predicted a slow Israeli response to deter October 7. Israeli Defence forces delay in mobilization and intelligence institution disarray, has provided once in a lifetime opportunity for Hezbollah to open a second front in southern Lebanon. For Nasrallah, that is the raison d’etre for Hezbollah.

Also Read: All eyes on Hezbollah as Israel-Hamas war threatens to engulf the Middle East