Hezbollah fighters stand guard on a building roof top to protect their supporters during a protest to show their solidarity with the Palestinians, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
The U.S. is ramping up pressure on Israel to end the Israel-Hamas war. But is our country ready for the next phase?
I am not speaking about the inevitable reappearance of Hamas terrorist cells in Gaza or an escalation of Hamas’s activities in the West Bank, but about Israel’s war with Iranian proxy Hezbollah in the north.
The war in the south is just one phase of the battle of annihilation, jihad against Israel, orchestrated by Tehran.
President Biden may have been able to restrain Israel from a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah in exchange for latitude in its operations in Gaza, but the time for dealing with Hezbollah will be at hand in early 2024. It is in our interest to prepare and strategize with Israel before that war erupts.
No matter how much the Biden administration wants Israel to return to the status quo in the North before Oct. 7, Israelis across the political spectrum are resolute against returning to a reality of a terrorist entity, stronger than Hamas, sitting just meters away from its civilian population.
Israel’s national security advisor, Tzachi Hanegbi, said that “the threat of a Lebanese terror group capable of an Oct. 7-style massacre of civilians cannot be tolerated.” Israel has been “making clear to the Americans that we are not interested in war [in the north], but we will have no alternative but to impose a new reality” if Hezbollah remains a threat.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, has never wavered from his desire to wipe out Israel. “The only solution is to destroy it without allowing it to surrender…the elimination of Israel is not only a Palestinian interest. It is the interest of the entire Muslim world.”
After the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the UN Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1701, demanding that Hezbollah disarm and move north of the Litani River, approximately 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of the Lebanese-Israeli border. Even the Chinese and Russians voted for the resolution. But unfortunately, the impotent UN forces sent to implement it never fulfilled their mandate.
There are 10,000 UN soldiers in southern Lebanon. They have not stopped the transfer of even one precision-guided missile to Hezbollah from Iran. They have also allowed Hezbollah complete independence to build a terrorist army.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Israelis living near the Lebanese border are in constant fear of Hezbollah, which could perpetrate an even greater massacre and hostage-taking than Hamas. Sixty thousand Israelis have already been evacuated and are unwilling to return to their homes with Hezbollah within eyesight.
I have visited the sophisticated Hezbollah tunnels — one of them more than 20 stories underground, exiting inside Israel next to border communities. Hezbollah likely has many tunnels that remain undetected because, like their strategic ally Hamas, they have learned to end tunnels just before the border fence. This would allow them to facilitate the entry of hundreds of terrorists into Israel within minutes, a surprise attack from multiple locations causing widespread terror on a far greater scale than what occurred on Oct. 7.
Most Americans are unaware that there has been an active war going on in Israel’s north every day since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre. In the first month, over 1,000 rockets, missiles and drones were fired at Israel from the north. However, because it is overshadowed by the full-scale war in the south, the media and the U.S. government are describing it as a tit-for-tat exchange, under control for the time being.
When Biden sent an additional carrier group to the region, that signaled a compelling warning to Tehran to rein in Hezbollah. Still, sooner or later, however, that carrier group will move on to other troubled areas, and instability will reign.
To believe that Israel can return to the days before Oct. 7 is a dangerous miscalculation. Israelis in the north, just like those in the south, cannot return if a terrorist entity is on the other side of the border. Unlike in the West Bank, the borders with Lebanon and Gaza are internationally recognized boundaries.
Hezbollah follows the orders of Iran’s supreme leader, according to their Twelver Shiite religious interpretation of the Guardianship of the Jurist. This makes Nasrallah a soldier in the Islamic Republic’s army to control the Middle East. Iran is patient and could wait years before activating Hezbollah as its 150,000 missiles are Iran’s insurance policy to discourage Israel from pre-emptively attacking the nuclear facilities in Iran.
According to Sarit Zehavi and Yaacov Lappin of Alma Education and Research Center, “Hezbollah’s Radwan unit has been a persistent threat to Israel’s northern communities…The (Hamas) attack implemented tactics in the south similar to those planned by Hezbollah’s Radwan for the Galilee…The Radwan unit’s expertise in guerilla warfare and its strategic use of attack tunnels along the Israeli border have been central to Hezbollah’s previous plans for incursions into Israeli territory…Hezbollah remains determined to invade Israeli territory.”
It is unrealistic for the U.S. to tell Israel to displace its civilian population on its northern border permanently. No nation would accept that demand, and in the Middle East, if you look weak, you invite terror attacks.
Now is the time for Israel and America to strategize about how Israel can regain control of its northern frontier and displace Hezbollah from the border. The easiest way is for the world to pressure Hezbollah to accept UNSC Res. 1701. Unfortunately, that is a remote possibility. The more realistic choice is a military action by Israel to displace Hezbollah north of the Litani River, which the U.N. promised 17 years ago but never delivered.
This could turn into a regional war, but if the U.S. supported Israel in degrading Hezbollah, Iran would be humiliated, America’s standing as a reliable ally would be enhanced worldwide, and the Iranian people would be encouraged to try again to overthrow their heinous regime. There are plenty of what-ifs and risks, but it could be the best chance for stability in the Middle East, a peaceable Iran, and a healthy respect for America.
Israel does not want to fight a two-front war, but with the campaign to rid Gaza of Hamas likely to be over in a few months, conflict is likely in the north.
This article originally appeared in The Hill on Dec. 13, 2023
Eric Mandel is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network and the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report.