In January 2004 Sheik Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, presided over a major prisoner exchange with Israel, in which the Lebanese guerrilla movement and political party secured the release of more than 400 Arab prisoners in return for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman and alleged spy, Elhanan Tannenbaum, whom Hezbollah had kidnapped. Moments before the exchange was sealed, Ariel Sharon withheld three Lebanese detainees, one of whom, Samir Kuntar, had killed a family of three in the Israeli town of Nahariya in 1979. Nasrallah, having failed to release Kuntar and the two other men, declared that Hezbollah would “reserve the right” to capture Israeli soldiers until the men were freed.
On July 12 Nasrallah launched the most daring assault of his tenure as Hezbollah’s leader: the capture of two Israeli soldiers in a raid that left eight other Israeli soldiers dead. He called the attack “Operation Truthful Promise.”
Nasrallah is not a man who minces words. Still, questions linger as to the timing and location of Operation Truthful Promise, which detonated Israel’s most ruthless assault on Lebanon since the 1982 invasion. Although Hezbollah’s operation was apparently planned five months in advance, it occurred amid the Israeli siege in Gaza, which followed the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian guerrillas and was inevitably interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the Gazans, particularly the Hamas leadership, dozens of whose members were recently abducted by Israel. What is more, Hezbollah did not strike in the occupied Shebaa Farms, a sliver of land in the Golan Heights, as it usually does, but inside Israel, a violation of international law that Israel–despite its own numerous violations of Lebanese territorial sovereignty–could invoke as a casus belli. In other words, Hezbollah undertook an audacious act of brinksmanship that was bound, if not designed, to escalate tensions with Israel.
It is, of course, possible that Nasrallah regards the Jewish state as a paper tiger, and did not expect it to seize upon Hezbollah’s raid as a pretext to pulverize his movement and to scrap the “rules of the game” that have governed the low-intensity conflict that Hezbollah and Israel have waged along the border since the latter’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. But this is to underestimate Nasrallah, a shrewd, calculating man who, as a careful reader of history, is fully aware of how Israel has responded in the past to cross-border attacks. Indeed, when I spoke to him at his (now leveled) headquarters in Beirut in October 2003, Nasrallah–sitting near a photograph of his son Hadi, who was killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers in 1997–seemed in no mood to ignite a war that would bring Israeli troops back to Lebanon. “When you get something by paying such a precious price, you are more keen on safeguarding it,” he told me. “We will not accept anyone coming and squandering it. We are the sons of this soil, the sons of this country. We have no other place to go.”
If Nasrallah knew that Operation Truthful Promise might provide the Israelis with an excuse to invade Lebanon, something that could–and, briefly, did–make Hezbollah the target of Lebanese rage (even, evidently, among some of his Shiite followers), what does he hope to achieve and what is his endgame? Why risk the future of his movement, which has a significant bloc in Lebanon’s Parliament, a seat in the Cabinet and a vast network of social services and enterprises (the party is Lebanon’s second-largest employer)? The devastation of Lebanon, and of Hezbollah strongholds formerly occupied by Israel, would seem a rather high price to pay for a few prisoners, particularly if Hezbollah ends up sharing the blame for the destruction of the country’s tourism industry, the oxygen of its economy.