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.
Nasrallah’s objectives most likely lie elsewhere. Since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal (“the first Arab victory in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” as Nasrallah often notes), Hezbollah has faced mounting pressure, from the West but also at home, to lay down its arms and become a purely political organization–a fate the party dreads, since it prides itself on being a vanguard of Islamic resistance to American and Israeli ambitions in the Middle East. This pressure dramatically intensified with UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (2004), which called for the disbanding of all Lebanese militias, and with the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon last year. By conducting a raid that was likely to provoke a brutal Israeli reprisal, Nasrallah may have gambled that the fury of the Lebanese would soon turn from Hezbollah to the Jewish state, thereby providing a justification for “the national resistance” as Lebanon’s only deterrent against Israel. So far, Israel (with the full support of the Bush Administration) has played right into his hands, inflicting more than 300 casualties, nearly all of them civilians, and pounding the civilian infrastructure, eliciting sympathy for Hezbollah even among some Lebanese Christians. By striking at Israel’s Army during its most destructive campaign in Palestine since 2002’s “Operation Defensive Shield,” Nasrallah must have known that he would earn praise throughout the Muslim world for coming to the aid of Palestinians abandoned by the region’s authoritarian governments, a number of which have pointedly chastised Nasrallah’s “adventurism.” And by bloodying Israel’s nose, Hezbollah could once again bolster its aura in the wider Arab world as a redoubtable “resistance” force, a model it seeks to promote regionally, especially in Palestine, where Nasrallah is a folk hero, and in Iraq, where Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the radical Shiite Mahdi Army, has proclaimed himself a follower of Hezbollah and has threatened to renew attacks against US forces in solidarity with the Lebanese.
Operation Truthful Promise was also, in part, a service rendered to Hezbollah’s patrons in Damascus and Tehran, whether or not Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were consulted beforehand. The Syrian President warned former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in their last meeting before Hariri’s assassination, that if he pushed for Syria’s withdrawal Assad would “break” Lebanon. With Hezbollah’s raid, Assad may have found a way to get Israel to break Lebanon for him–a wish that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz were more than happy to fulfill. Damascus may be facing renewed threats, but Assad can now bask in Nasrallah’s glow without directly engaging the Israeli military, which, as he knows, is divided on whether to depose him (since the only realistic alternative to the secular Baath regime is the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood); Lebanese anger has been redirected from Syria back to Israel; Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora looks on helplessly as the Israelis strafe his country; and the West has been warned that Lebanon will remain fractured, volatile and incapable of controlling its borders unless Syria’s interests (particularly in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights) are taken into account. President Ahmadinejad, for his part, can thank Nasrallah for diverting attention from the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, and for burnishing the Islamic republic’s reputation as a staunch defender of Palestinian rights–and, not least, of Muslim Jerusalem–in a region whose other (largely Sunni Arab) governments have compromised with the enemy. And the spectacular display of Hezbollah’s Iranian-made weaponry, which have reached further into Israel than even the Israelis feared, and of the group’s sophistication in deploying them, have reminded Israel and the United States of the “surprises” (Nasrallah’s word) in store in the event of an attack on Iran.
Nasrallah is under no illusions that his small guerrilla movement can defeat the Israeli Army. But he can lose militarily and still score a political victory, particularly if the Israelis continue visiting suffering on Lebanon, whose government, as they well know, is powerless to control Hezbollah. Nasrallah, whom the Israelis attempted to assassinate on July 19 with a twenty-three-ton bomb attack on an alleged Hezbollah bunker, is doubtless aware that he may share the fate of his predecessor, Abbas Musawi, who was killed in an Israeli helicopter gunship attack in 1992. But Hezbollah outlived Musawi and grew exponentially, thanks in part to its followers’ passion for martyrdom. To some, Nasrallah’s raid may look like a death wish. But it is almost impossible to defeat someone who has no fear of death.