Lebanon: What are the intentions of a bolder, stronger Hezbollah?

In the mind of Hassan, a veteran Hezbollah fighter and missile specialist, the question is not whether Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite militia will wage a final, decisive battle against Israel, but when.

“Things have changed; it’s not like before,” says the fighter, a Hezbollah member for 22 years who uses a pseudonym. “Historically, they [Israel] are the ones who have threatened. Now we threaten them – whenever we want, on our timeline.”

Even as Israel today is absorbed by unprecedented political turmoil at home, Hezbollah seems emboldened by its growing strength on the Jewish state’s northern border.

Both sides have built up assiduously for renewed war since their last major conflict in 2006, which lasted 33 days. But that fight was so destructive and costly that, ever since, each has sought to deter the other from dangerous escalation, while carefully calibrating its own moves.

Deterrence and restraint still hold for now, analysts say, and neither side wants all-out war, despite a string of actions in recent months that has raised tensions and the risk of miscalculation to their highest point since 2006.

Yet the deterrence arithmetic may now be changing, suggests the Hezbollah missile specialist.

Hassan scoffs at recent Israeli estimates that Hezbollah can fire 4,000 precision rockets and missiles daily into Israel during the early stages of a new conflict, compared with 100 per day in 2006.

“There is no number – it is unlimited, open,” he says of the capacity of Hezbollah’s current missile arsenal, which analysts note has advanced considerably – with Iran’s help – in scale, precision, range, and punch.

Hassan speaks calmly and confidently, but with tired eyes. Incongruously, for a militant whose life has been devoted to attacking the power of the United States and its Israeli ally, he wears a bright red U.S. Polo Association shirt with an American flag patch.

“Hezbollah is working around the clock when it comes to technology,” he says. “When one group goes to bed, another group goes to work.”

Words versus deeds

Amid months of tit-for-tat provocations – with Hezbollah poking its Israeli foe – it is an article of faith among the Lebanese Shiite fighters that war is coming.

Veteran fighters proudly tell the Monitor about their many expectations for any future conflict – including “surprises” such as the destruction of Israeli airports, the neutralizing of Israel’s air superiority, and even a ground advance to seize territory.

But Hezbollah’s moves to repeatedly prevent escalation, analysts say, indicate little appetite now for all-out war among the leadership – or in Iran.

“Your ardent Hezbollah guy would argue that fighting Israel is more important than worrying about your neighbor’s house being blown up in another war,” says Nicholas Blanford, a Lebanon-based senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank.

“But pragmatically, the Hezbollah leadership knows that if they are seen as responsible for starting a war that is going to turn Lebanon into a car park, there is going to be a huge backlash against them, not just from Christians and Sunnis and Druze, but from their own [Shiite] constituency,” says Mr. Blanford, author of the book “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel.”

“They are pushing the envelope more now, but they are very much keeping it within limits. At the end of the day, Hezbollah does not have leeway to go and start a war with Israel; that’s the choice of Iran,” says Mr. Blanford.

“The Iranians are not going to be happy if Hezbollah triggers a massive war with Israel” over a minor border dispute, “because the Iranians invested all this time, effort, weaponry, and money in Hezbollah to serve as a deterrent for its own interests,” including its nuclear program.

Indeed, Iran would appear to have little immediate interest in a Hezbollah-Israel battle: A U.S.-Iran deal is reportedly in the works to free five Iranian American dual nationals held in Iran, in exchange for unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian funds. Iran is also beginning to reconcile with U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia, after years of severed ties.

And Iran’s own domestic scene has been troubled in the past year by months of anti-regime protests, an economy damaged by U.S.-led sanctions and by mismanagement, and questions about the succession to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Renewed focus on Israel

Still, Hezbollah is battle-hardened and turning its attention again to Israel, after fighting successfully for nearly a decade in Syria – alongside Iran and Russia – to preserve the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Morale has notably improved since the hardest days of the Syrian entanglement, when the flow of Iranian money was tight and some fighters questioned a mission not targeted at Israel.

When Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned Hezbollah last month that Israel would return Lebanon to the “Stone Age” in any new conflict, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah replied within days, highlighting Israel’s internal turmoil and boasting that “all available evidence” indicated that Israel, too, would be “returned” to the Stone Age.

“We definitely have no problem with what is happening in Israel; we are watching very closely,” says a ranking Hezbollah officer reached in a tiny village in southern Lebanon, who gave the name Ahmad. Wearing a blue polo shirt and with the sunburned arms of a farmer, Ahmad laughs when asked to compare Hezbollah’s readiness now to 2006.

“Today the game has changed. The Israelis can’t come here to this village and not pay a price,” says Ahmad. “Don’t misunderstand me. The Israelis are a military superpower; they have air superiority. We understand that real well. We know that the Israelis have 2,000 targets already in their pocket, if things happen. But we have 2,500 targets in Israel.”

He says Hezbollah will certainly “fight these people [Israel] again, and fight to the end,” but only on the orders of Mr. Nasrallah, the leader to whom, Ahmad says, he and all his family give “blind loyalty ... to the last breath.”

“We are not trying to scare anybody; we’re just telling the facts of what will happen ... if this war is renewed,” says Ahmad. “In 2006, we used to launch missiles that put holes in walls. This time, if they hit one building in Dahiya [Hezbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold], we will hit two buildings in Tel Aviv.”

Preventing escalation

Such tough talk belies moves by both sides to swiftly stop the kind of escalation that could lead to war.

“One reason we surmise that neither party actually wants a large-scale conflict is that both Hezbollah and Israel have made clear efforts, in response to previous provocations, to contain the spiral and try to avoid things getting out of control,” says David Wood, the Lebanon analyst in Beirut for the International Crisis Group.

Hezbollah’s moves “are all pretty meaningless stuff, but they are designed to anger the Israelis, which is working,” says Mr. Blanford of the Atlantic Council. He notes that a barrage of 34 rockets fired into Israel last April was “amateurish by design,” with little real impact that would “make a big noise, but ... limit the potential for damage in Israel that could result in an escalation.”

Hassan, the missile specialist, dismisses chances of the Shiite militia taking advantage of the political turmoil in Israel to attack now.

“Hezbollah is waiting for Israel to get weaker and weaker,” he says. “If we attack them now, it makes them strong, because it will unify them.”

A new museum’s message

Similar confidence is on display at a Hezbollah museum that opened last week in the hills above Baalbek, an ancient Phoenician and Roman city in the Bekaa Valley. The museum is built on a site where Israeli commandos landed by helicopter for a brief mission in 2006 and took selfies.

Outside is an array of captured Israeli equipment, including tanks, as well as Hezbollah’s own camouflaged fast-attack boats, drones, and three SA-6 surface-to-air missiles.

Hezbollah and Lebanese flags whip in the wind, and the hot summer air is rich with the scent of freshly laid and watered turf. Visiting families place small children on tanks for photos; one father shows his daughter how to operate a heavy machine gun.

“What you are looking at here is all hardware of Israelis that we captured, and made a playground for our children,” says a uniformed, bearded Hezbollah officer at the site, who gave the name Jibril. “What is here is a fraction of the capability we have now – that is the message.”

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