A few days ago, before the runway at Rafik Hariri International Airport was pockmarked with craters, and shells started raining down the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah boldly announced its abduction of two Israeli soldiers.
Trumpeting the news, Hezbollah's official Al Intiqad newspaper quoted, at length, Bassam al-Kuntar, the brother of a notorious Lebanese prisoner held by Israel.
When asked what he thought of a possible Israeli response, al-Kuntar downplayed its significance, saying, "I think that the Islamic Resistance is well-prepared to respond....The south [of Lebanon] is like no other Arab location because it has struggling heroes on its land, who know how to create a balance of horror."
Meanwhile, that same day, the online journal Elaph quoted Hassan Hoballah, a Hezbollah member of Lebanon's parliament, as predicting thatthat Israel would stop short of a strong retaliation, since, in his words, Israel “is well aware that any use of force will be offset by the use of force [in turn], and it will not be for its benefit."
Clearly, a wrong call.
But was all this just brave-face bluster? Or did the usually shrewd Hezbollah seriously underestimate Israel's likely response to the IDF abductions?
A six year long build-up
After Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah and IDF fighters engaged in six years of tit-for-tat fire along the UN-monitored "Blue Line."
The reasons for these calculated and measured flare-ups were varied, according to the political winds of a given week, though Hezbollah justified all of its militant campaigns via the premise that Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon remained incomplete, citing the still-occupied Shebaa Farms as the reason for continuing the "resistance" against Israel.
During this six-year campaign of lukewarm conflict, both Hezbollah and Israel played according to the vague (but much-touted) "rules of the game," which were purportedly in place to prevent the type of events on view this week.
According to those rules, Hezbollah set up what it called "fishing traps" for IDF soldiers. If IDF soldiers could be baited into entering a border village on the wrong side of the "Blue Line," they were fair game. In return for such combat discretion, Israel only ever responded by hitting Hezbollah outposts and the occasional electric plant with rocket fire — staying well away from population centers.
But entering into Israel to capture soldiers — as happened on Wednesday — was a new twist altogether (though one Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah had long threatened).
A bold move
Alluding to the audacity of this new measure, Lebanon's independent As Safir daily gave Sateh Noureddine's July 13 editorial a one-word headline: "Stunt."
"The resistance was always like a dangerous adventure that is not based on any realistic calculations and that does not recognize any balances of power," Noureddine wrote. "But [the resistance] usually … helped harvest the political results with the least possible amount of losses.”
Noureddine went on to acknowledge that support for the bold move by Hezbollah could not be assumed. “It will be difficult for the Lebanese public opinion to unanimously endorse this bold strike against the Israeli enemy.”
In another diagnosis of Hezbollah's behavior published in London's Al Hayat on Thursday, Nadim Hasbani said that the group was suffering from "victory disease" — namely, believing itself to be up to any military challenge after having compelled Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon back in 2000.
Comparing Hezbollah's attitude to that of the Syrians in Lebanon, as well as that of the current U.S. campaign in Iraq, Hasbani said the consequences of such an attitude are "well known" - artfully neglecting to enumerate those consequences.
Hasbani said this "victory disease" was the likely cause of Hezbollah's choice not to give up its weapons in a peaceful, domestic negotiation with other Lebanese parties earlier this year.
Looking forward to how Hezbollah might be joined to the Lebanese army, a commonly proposed solution to the problem of the group's armed wing, Hasbani wrote: "Hezbollah provides specific military abilities that have proved extremely efficient in offering a type of deterrence force for Lebanon and against Israel, but under an unacceptable Islamist cover."
Despite those criticisms, however, Hasbani's solution to the problem of how to disarm Hezbollah only goes to show that — whatever the group's future may be — Lebanon and Israel are likely to be locked in a deadly embrace for some time to come.
"[Hezbollah's] asymmetric warfare methods and guerilla techniques — sophisticated roadside bombings, infiltration commandos, abduction of invading soldiers, easy to handle and mobile missiles, spy networks, elaborated psychological warfare — are not used by the Lebanese national army," Hasbani wrote, "but they should be."