Israeli officials wary as Hezbollah cracks down in Lebanon

The unrest means the Shia movement is focusing less on Lebanon's southern border, but that may not last long


There are mixed implications for Israel from the ongoing unrest in Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protests over the economic situation that culminated on Tuesday with the resignation of prime minister Saad Hariri.

In the short term, the pressure on the main political parties is problematic for Israel’s main enemy in Lebanon – Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which as a political party is a member of the now-outgoing government.

Hezbollah’s leadership is being accused by protestors of a major part of the responsibility for Lebanon’s decades of corruption and financial mismanagement. This is a reversal of roles for the Shia movement, which for most of its existence was accustomed to the image of a revolutionary group outside the corrupt establishment.

The violent attempts of Hezbollah activists in recent days to disperse protests in some Lebanese cities is a sign of how they feel under pressure by events.

Another threat to Hezbollah’s dominance in the protests is the diverse backgrounds of the protestors — including Christians, Sunnis, Shia and Druze — which challenges the classical Lebanese political framework based on the divisions between the country’s religious and ethnic groups.

The last thing Hezbollah wants is for young members of the Shia community to join a new grassroots movement that connects them with other young Lebanese in joint protest against the older leaders.

For now, it seems that Hezbollah is too preoccupied with the local political situation to engage in another round of confrontation with Israel.

The last took place two months ago, when the IDF carried out air strikes in Syria and Lebanon on joint teams of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives who planned to launch armed drones on Israeli targets.

That ended on September 1, when Hezbollah launched a missile that hit an Israeli army vehicle and wounded two soldiers.

But Israel’s military analysts believe that as far as Iran is concerned, things are far from over. Israel has carried out a series of attacks in recent months on Iranian assets and proxies not only in Syria, but as far afield as Iraq. The assessment is that Iran is now very likely to try strike back at an opportune moment.

What has made Israel even more apprehensive is the brazenness of the attack carried out by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on September 14, using attack drones and cruise missiles, on major Saudi oil processing plants and the fact that the Trump administration has not responded to this and other Iranian actions in the Gulf.

This is why IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi said publicly last Thursday that the situation on Israel’s borders “is tense and fragile and might deteriorate to conflict”, and warned the government that there is an immediate need for billions more shekels to develop and procure new defence systems.

It is also why the word Trump has almost disappeared from the speeches of Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.

The US president, who not long ago featured in Likud’s election posters, is now seen as a disappointment, if not a liability, with Iran continuing its entrenchment in Syria and deploying missiles as well to Yemen and Iraq.

And that is the main worry for Israel in Lebanon: the protests there are challenging Hezbollah but if the situation continues to deteriorate, Hezbollah will have more scope to take control of additional areas close to Israel’s borders.

From Lebanon, to Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Israel is now surrounded by failed states that serve as launching-pads for Iranian rockets.

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