Perspectives - February 12, 2021

IDF Annual Intelligence Assessment Says Hezbollah Remains Committed to Revenge

The Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) Military Intelligence branch (AMAN) stated in its annual security estimate that it believes Hezbollah will initiate limited escalations against Israel, along the border with Lebanon, for the first time since 2006. AMAN noted that these escalations, dubbed “battle days,” would resemble the periodic flareups between Israel and Gaza. The goal, according to AMAN, was to shore up Hezbollah’s growing “deterrence deficit” vis-à-vis Israel, accruing due to the latter’s continued airstrikes on the group’s targets in Syria, particularly since the July 2020 strike which killed junior operative Ali Kamel Mohsen.

According to AMAN, in carrying out these attacks, Hezbollah will “go right up to the edge” to close its accounts with Israel and reestablish deterrence, but would stop short of committing any actions – like killing Israeli civilians or striking deep into Israel – that could lead Israel to launch a war against the group. One possible scenario predicted by AMAN is Hezbollah firing anti-tank missiles, or sniper fire, at IDF troops on the Lebanon-Israel border, which would result in IDF retaliation against the group’s targets in Lebanon, and a counter-attack with mortar fire by Hezbollah on IDF bases near the border.

The annual intelligence estimate also addressed Hezbollah’s Precision-Guided Missiles (PGMs) stating that it estimates the group only has a “few dozen” such missiles, despite the group’s ongoing efforts to obtain precision kits which could turn thousands of Hezbollah’s “dumb” rockets into accurate, GPS-guided missiles capable of striking strategic installations in Israel. As a result, the AMAN does not yet recommend taking preemptive action against this strategic capability build-up by Hezbollah, since Israel’s other means of countering the organization’s PGM project, including soft assassinations, remain effective.

AMAN also noted that, despite COVID-19’s impact, Hezbollah – as well as Hamas and Iran – continued their build-up. This was contrary to predictions based on initial signs after the pandemic first hit last year.

U.S. Ambassador Attends Lokman Slim’s Memorial

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea attended a memorial service for slain Lebanese activist Lokman Slim, held in the southern suburbs of Beirut where he resided. Shea reiterated her stance that Slim’s murder was “barbaric,” and said that she and the U.S. embassy joined his family and loved ones in mourning his loss. She also said the embassy would join in “demanding accountability for this horrific crime” and continue its partnership with the organizations he helped found. Noticeably, however, Ambassador Shea once again failed to mention Slim’s tense relationship with Hezbollah, or that the group was the target of his activism.

Shea’s presence drew criticism from a group called “Karamet Watan” (The Dignity of a Nation) – whose stated goal is to “confront American intervention in Lebanon” – in a statement that was carried by Hezbollah’s Al-Ahed news. Karamet Watan, whose limited activities indicate an alignment with Hezbollah’s goals and outlook, accused Shea of threatening of the independence of Lebanon’s judiciary by pressuring it to proceed with investigations into Slim’s murder. “Her behaviors violate Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, and constitute a blatant example of violating Lebanon’s dignity, and the freedom of its people to carry out democratic principles, as well as a tool for strife to undermine [Lebanese] national stability and unity, to pressure Lebanon into changing its resistance Arab identity with submission to America.” The group called on Lebanese President Michel Aoun, parliament, and the government to “take necessary steps to put a stop to such illegal activities.”

Shea’s remarks weren’t the only source of controversy. Ali al-Khalil, a Shiite cleric, was attacked on social media for his participation. Hezbollah supporters were quick to attack al-Khalil for reading the Qur’an, and the cleric soon apologized to his “brothers and sisters” for appearing at the service and placing himself “in a position of suspicion.” He noted that his “political direction” i.e. his support for Hezbollah “is known.” He also claimed, “I honestly didn’t know for whom I was reading the Qur’an, this individual who is not from our direction, path, or political line.” 

Hezbollah Politician Presents Bill to Regulate Online News Outlets

Hezbollah MP Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, who heads the Lebanese parliament’s media and communications committee, submitted a bill to regulate online news and media outlets. Per an interview al-Hajj Hassan conducted with Hezbollah’s Al-Ahed news, his legislative proposal would require these websites to obtain licenses demonstrating their compliance with print and audiovisual journalism legal requirements, or face closure.

While on the surface this seemed a purely regulatory bill, Al-Ahed’s commentary signaled that the impetus for tabling the bill was that many online outlets “write, analyze, and publish without any regard for accuracy or objectivity…and fabricate stories wholesale for the goal of causing strife,” a euphemism often used by Hezbollah for any criticism directed at the group. In other words, it seems that rather than solely aiming at ensuring journalistic integrity, the goal of al-Hajj Hassan’s bill is also to stifle or chill speech directed at Hezbollah.

Relatedly, Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc – of which al-Hajj Hassan is a member – issued a statement calling on Lebanese judicial and security agencies to prosecute and hold accountable anyone accusing Hezbollah of responsibility for the murder of slain activist Lokman Slim.

Hariri: No Progress On Government Formation After Talks With Aoun

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Friday there was no progress toward forming a new government after holding the first talks with President Michel Aoun in nearly two months.

“I consulted with His Excellency the president and will continue to consult [with him],” Hariri told reporters after meeting Aoun at Baabda Palace. “We made no progress, but I explained to him the importance of the golden opportunity that we have, so we must accelerate the formation of this government, and every political team must bear the responsibility of its stances from now on.”