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Inside the Struggle Between Israel and Hezbollah

With ongoing Iranian backing, the Lebanese terror group is more determined than ever to deliver offensive blows inside Israeli territory

by
Shimon Shapira
August 11, 2020
MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images
Protesters burn an Israeli flag during a demonstration, organized by Hezbollah, in the streets of the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon on Dec. 22, 2017, to protest against U.S. President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capitalMAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images
MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images
Protesters burn an Israeli flag during a demonstration, organized by Hezbollah, in the streets of the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon on Dec. 22, 2017, to protest against U.S. President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capitalMAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images

At the basis of the struggle between Israel and Hezbollah stands Iran, which views Lebanon as part of the territory of the Islamic Republic. The Islamic empire seeks to establish itself among the Shiite populations of the region while denying any importance to the national component, instead granting these populations collective expression in the form of movements, parties, and organizations whose task is to challenge the nation-states in which they operate and to shape them by building a fighting Islamic society that is exclusively loyal to the leader of Iran.

Lebanon was the Islamic empire’s first target. Over the past decade it has fallen like a ripe fruit into Iran’s hands. Through Hezbollah, Iran has taken control of the institutions of the Lebanese state and turned it into a failed state whose stability has collapsed amid severe economic and political corruption that threatens its demise.

The Hezbollah movement was founded in the summer of 1982 by Iran, which intended it to be the spearhead of the states exporting the Islamic Revolution to the Arab and Islamic world. The Shiite movement Amal, which was founded in 1975 by the Iranian Imam Musa Sadr and his Iranian assistant, Dr. Mostafa Chamran, was not prepared to replace its loyalty to the Lebanese state with loyalty to Islamic Iran. Musa Sadr was murdered in Libya in August 1978 with the encouragement of associates of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was decided in Tehran to set up a new Islamic movement that would lead the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon according to the revolutionary precepts of the Islamic Republic.

Khomeini assigned the mission of establishing the new movement to his longtime associate Ali Akbar Mohtashemi Pur. Considered an expert on the Levant, he arrived in August 1981 to serve as Iran’s ambassador in Damascus. One of the first tasks of the new Iranian ambassador was to invite for a meeting the Shiite clerics who recognized the Wali al-Faqih (the Rule of the Jurisprudent) principle and played key roles in the life of the Shiite community in Baalbek. Those who came to Damascus included Subhi Tofaili, who was the imam of the Imam Ali Mosque and eventually the first secretary-general of Hezbollah (1989-1991); Abbas Musawi, who was head of the hawza named after Imam Almantazer—the most important madrassa in Lebanon, to which the Lebanese students came who were expelled from Iraq with the Baath Party’s rise to power—and served as Hezbollah’s second secretary-general (1991-1992); and Mohammed Yazbek, who was the senior instructor at the madrassa. This was a seminal meeting in which the Iranian ambassador told the Lebanese clerics of Iran’s intention to establish a new Shiite Islamic movement, one that would unite all the pro-Iranian Lebanese elements who until then had operated independently and without any joint coordination with Tehran.

Khomeini appointed Ali Khamenei, who was then president of Iran, as his liaison to the new movement in Lebanon, thereby indicating the great importance he assigned to the undertaking there. This meeting laid the cornerstone for the establishment of Hezbollah.

The command staff of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Lebanon was in charge of building the new movement’s organizational and military framework. Their first act was to remove the white flags that the residents of Baalbek and its vicinity had hung on their houses to signal surrender to the Israeli forces that invaded Lebanon in 1982 to force out the PLO, and to replace them with red flags of jihad and war.

The first two commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, Ahmad Motevaselian and his replacement Mansour Koochak Mohseni, served in their posts a short time. The first, on July 5, 1982, a few days after his arrival in Lebanon, was kidnapped on his way from Baalbek to Beirut and executed by the Christian Lebanese Forces along with the Iranian official representative in Beirut and two escorts; his replacement, also a few days after he was appointed, was returned to Iran along with most of the Revolutionary Guard force. In Lebanon, Ahmad Kna’ani remained to command the forces, but he too ended his tenure after a short time.

Hossein Dehghan was appointed the fourth Revolutionary Guard commander in Lebanon and was responsible for building Hezbollah’s training camps in Janata in the Baalbek area. The training lasted about three months, with about 180 taking part in each course. The conditions for acceptance were straightforward: Up to age 25 and absolute loyalty to the Wali al-Faqih. Abbas Musawi, who was recruited in the first group, recounted:

When I trained in the first course of the Revolutionary Guards I thought I had come to the true Islam … The school of the Revolutionary Guards is the one that turned Muslim youth into youth who aspire to die a martyr’s death and so we were not surprised at all when a Muslim youth in Lebanon ... laughed to death as he carried a heavy load of explosives. This is the school of the Revolutionary Guards. The art of the Shahada and the art of the conflict with the Israeli enemy exist thanks to the Revolutionary Guards and thanks to the blood of the members of the Revolutionary Guards.

Under Hossein Dehghan’s command, a central headquarters was built for the Revolutionary Guard and for the Lebanese volunteers, operating in the Imam Ali Mosque in Baalbek. In September 1983 the Revolutionary Guard seized control of the Sheikh Abdullah base, which was the main base of the Lebanese army in the Baalbek region.

Three young clerics—Abbas Musawi, Ahmad Yazbak, and Hassan Nasrallah—marched at the head of a mass procession to the camp and conducted the Friday prayers there. The young clerics advised the commander and soldiers of the camp to “be at the disposal of the people and to disobey the orders and the instructions given at the White House and in Tel Aviv.” The Lebanese commander and his staff were removed from the camp. On its gate its new owners hung a clearly visible banner on which they proclaimed their objective: “The liberation of the Sheikh Abdullah camp by the Hezbollah masses, a first step toward liberation from Phalange rule.” The Sheikh Abdullah camp became the Imam Ali camp and the main headquarters of the Revolutionary Guard and the military force of Hezbollah, and from it the violent operations against the West and Israel proceeded.

The first baptism of fire for Khomeini’s supporters in Lebanon involved an attempt to stop the advance of the Israeli army, which was moving toward Beirut in the Khalde area. A group of young Shiites, numbering fewer than 50 fighters, ambushed the Israeli forces. Among the Shiites were also Amal and al-Dawa supporters, and they acted in cooperation with Palestinian organizations. Given the limited ability to hit the Israeli armor hurtling toward the conquest of Beirut, the military achievements were not especially impressive. Nevertheless, the fighters managed to take over an Israeli armored vehicle and to transport it to a victory parade at their base.

The Battle of Khalde is considered the founding myth of the “Islamic resistance,” and its fighters were lauded for their heroism. They were led by three men who would soon set up the military and operational force of Hezbollah: Imad Mughniyeh, Mustafa Badreddine, and Ali Deeb, who, for his heroism in the battle, was given the operational nickname Abu Hassan Salameh by Yasser Arafat after Ali Hassan Salameh of Fatah—a renowned operative who was assassinated by Israel. Mughniyeh and Badreddine were wounded in the battle, the former lightly and the latter seriously, losing the ability to walk steadily.

The three first got to know each other in the Fatah training bases during the latter half of the 1970s. Ali Deeb, the military instructor for the other two, had come of age in Fatah. The commander of the camp who received Imad Mughniyeh was Anis Nakash, who was recruited by Iranian intelligence and sent to Paris in 1980 to assassinate Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of Iran under the shah. When the Islamic Revolution broke out a few months earlier, Nakash had introduced Mughniyeh to representatives of Iranian intelligence in Beirut. In the new Islamic embassy, Mohamed Salah Husseini, an Iraqi of Iranian origin who was the liaison between Khomeini and Arafat and knew Mughniyeh well, was appointed the envoy of the Revolutionary Guard in Beirut.

The mother of Imad Mughniyeh, who was born in 1962, prayed that her son would be a man of religion and would learn in the prestigious madrassas of Najaf. He took Fiqh (jurisprudence) lessons already at the age of 10, and in his youth spent much time in the mosque of Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.

Imad Mughniyeh, however, saw his mission as the armed struggle against Israel. In 1980 Fadlallah survived an assassination attempt. Envoys of Iraqi intelligence tried to kill him because of his involvement in the Iraqi Dawa Party’s subversion against the Saddam Hussein regime. Subsequently Mughniyeh, together with a small group that he formed, set up a security unit to safeguard him, and indeed he would become the central spiritual figure of Shiite radicalism in Lebanon and the author of a concept of the use of force in Shiite Islam.

In 1980 Mughniyeh accompanied Fadlallah and a delegation of Lebanese clerics on a first visit to revolutionary Iran. He became an integral part of the operational branch of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.

When the first commander of the Revolutionary Guard was kidnapped in Lebanon in July 1982, it was Imad Mughniyeh who brought the bad news to the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. A short time later Mughniyeh proposed to his replacement in Baalbek, Mansour Koochak Mohseni, to kidnap the president of the American University in Beirut, David Dodge, as a bargaining chip for the kidnapped Iranians (it was not yet known that they had been killed). Dodge was kidnapped by Mughniyeh and brought to Baalbek, and from there transferred to Damascus and to Tehran. This was the first kidnapping, but not the last, that Mughniyeh carried out in the service of Iran.

On Nov. 11, 1982, at 7:20 a.m., a huge explosion was heard at the headquarters of the Israeli military governor in Tyre. The building collapsed upon its occupants. 76 soldiers and members of the General Security Service were killed as well as 15 Lebanese who were staying in the building. A military investigatory commission headed by Gen. Meir Zorea found that the disaster was caused by an explosion of gas canisters in the building.

The facts were otherwise. A white Peugeot 504 driven by a suicide bomber named Ahmad Qassir broke through the gate of the camp and blew it up. This marked the first time a suicide operation was carried out in Lebanon. It was planned in minute detail by Mughniyeh. He recruited the bomber and used the car of his friend Ali Deeb, in which a large quantity of explosives was hidden. The explosives were provided by Fatah.

Before the PLO forces left Beirut in September 1982, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) ordered that some of their weapons supplies and explosives be transferred to Mughniyeh, whom he knew from the days when Mughniyeh trained in Fatah. According to Mughniyeh’s official biography, he joined the elite unit known as Force 17 while Abu Jihad was head of Fatah’s military wing. Abu Jihad, like Arafat, gave preferential treatment to the young Shiite who showed such devotion to the jihad against Israel and the West.

Imad Mughniyeh had not known Ahmad Qassir. A family member of the suicide bomber put them in touch with each other. There was a need for legal permission to carry out the operation—it could not be executed without a fatwa from a supreme religious authority, as Ayatollah Hassan Tarad later recounted:

Lebanon was liberated through acts of self-sacrifice [istishad] only. And the only one who gave his blessing to them was Imam Khomeini … He sent me a letter in which he wrote that he was the muqallid [emulator] of Imam Khomeini, he had made a decision to perform istishhad and to attack the enemy. And I answered him [positively] on the basis of the ruling of his Marja’ Taqlid [religious authority], Imam Khomeini.

For several days, Mughniyeh observed the Israeli headquarters and studied its routines, how its guarding schedule was run, and, particularly, at which hours the largest number of soldiers were in the camp. During the two days before the operation, in her country house in Teir Daba near Tyre, Mughniyeh’s mother hosted her son and Ahmad Qassir, feeding and lodging them. A day before the operation, Mughniyeh ordered his mother and the other family members to leave the village and go to their home in Beirut. Mughniyeh and Qassir went on their way. The former closely monitored the successful performance of the operation. The identity of Ahmad Qassir was concealed for two and a half years to avoid harm to his family. His mother thought he had gone to Beirut and disappeared there.

When his identity was made public, Ahmad Qassir became a hero in Lebanon and in Iran. In its official bulletin, al-Ahed, Hezbollah published huge pictures of the young Shiite, in which his image arose from the ruins of the Israeli military headquarters. At the home of Qassir’s family in Dir Qanon al-Nahar, a remote village in southern Lebanon, a certificate of honor arrived from the commander of the Islamic ummah. The certificate bore a portrait of Imam Khomeini and the symbol of the Islamic Republic, with praises for their son’s deed. In Tehran a monument was inaugurated to this hero of Islam, with his portrait etched on it and descriptions of his glory in Arabic and Farsi.

Later the Qassir family was accorded honor and glory in Hezbollah as well. The brother of the “first shahid,” Muhammad Jafar Qassir, rose high in the Hezbollah command hierarchy and was in charge of the deliveries of Iranian weapons from Syria to Lebanon; another brother, Hassan Qassir, married Hassan Nasrallah’s daughter and was one of the close intermediaries to the Revolutionary Guard leadership.

Imad Mughniyeh himself won glory in Tehran. He had shown impressive operational ability while managing to maintain total anonymity. Up until the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah carried out 12 suicide operations against Israeli targets in Lebanon. The videos of the suicide bombers reading their wills before going on their missions were sent to Tehran. Imam Khomeini requested to see them; he watched every one of them and was deeply affected. Throughout its lengthy stay in Lebanon, Israel did not succeed in thwarting these operations.

Imad Mughniyeh’s success in Tyre led him to plan and implement suicide bombings in Beirut, the most severe of which struck the American Embassy in April 1983 and the Beirut headquarters of the Marines and of the French paratrooper force in October 1983. The order to blow up the headquarters arrived from Tehran, and Mughniyeh acted in total secrecy. He set up an operational unit that used the name “Islamic Jihad” and operated outside the organizational framework of Hezbollah and in direct coordination with the intelligence and operational organizations of the Revolutionary Guard. On Oct. 24, 1983, two suicide bombers were sent on the last missions of their lives. The two headquarters were blown up within a short time of each other. When the international forces left Beirut in defeat, Mughniyeh was received as a hero in Tehran.

In 1985 Israel withdrew to the security zone in southern Lebanon. Abbas Musawi was appointed military commander of the Islamic resistance in the South. Hezbollah’s struggle to drive Israel out of Lebanon intensified, and Hezbollah’s military force improved. New military frameworks were built, and Hezbollah fighters were trained in Iran where they learned methods of combat and use of weapons. Hezbollah commanders and fighters participated in warfare at the front with Iraq, with special emphasis on conquering fortified targets. A special War Media Unit was set up; its role was to film military successes, particularly if the Hezbollah flag was raised on a position that had been conquered even for a moment.

On Feb. 16, 1992, Israel assassinated Abbas Musawi as he was visiting the town of Jibchit where an annual memorial was being held for Ragheb Harb, a Shiite imam who led the struggle against Israel in southern Lebanon. The move was ill-considered. Behind it stood the head of Military Intelligence, Gen. Uri Sagi, and Chief of Staff Lt Gen. Ehud Barak. The recommendation from the assessment of intelligence was to monitor Musawi’s visit and collect intelligence that would make it possible to kidnap him when he came to the memorial ceremony the following year, and then trade him for air force navigator Ron Arad, who was held captive by Hezbollah and transferred to the Revolutionary Guard.

Hezbollah’s answer was lethal, and it crossed two red lines: That same day, the group launched dozens of rockets into Israeli territory all along the border area from Kiryat Shmona to Nahariya. It was the first time Hezbollah had fired rockets into Israel; up until then it had taken care to fire them only into the security zone. On March 17, 1992, a car driven by a Lebanese Shiite suicide bomber exploded at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. This marked the first time Hezbollah had attacked an Israeli target outside of Israel. The operation was planned and executed by Imad Mughniyeh and Iranian intelligence.

More than two years later, on the night of June 2, 1994, the Israeli air force attacked a Hezbollah training camp in Ain Dardara near Baalbek while about 150 Hezbollah recruits were sleeping. It was a severe blow. More than 40 Hezbollah members were killed, the highest number of Hezbollah casualties in a single Israeli operation. Six weeks later, on July 13, 1994, came the revenge. It, too, happened outside of Lebanon and again in Buenos Aires. This time as well, behind the planning and execution stood Imad Mughniyeh, with assistance from the Iranian intelligence branch in Argentina. In both operations Hezbollah made clear that a heavy blow against it would lead to a revenge strike that would breach the rules of the conflict in Lebanon. Argentina was chosen because of the operational infrastructure that Mughniyeh had built there with the help of Iranian intelligence, which made use of a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese Shiite population.

On April 11, 1996, in the wake of Hezbollah’s rocket fire into Israeli territory and its repeated violations of the understandings reached between the sides, Israel launched a large-scale campaign in Lebanon known as Operation Grapes of Wrath. It included devastating strikes on infrastructures of the Lebanese state and very heavy use of firepower, including airstrikes on Hezbollah targets in Beirut.

An operational foul-up brought about a mistake on Israel’s part. A barrage, intended to enable the rescue of an Israeli force that had been attacked, instead fell beside a U.N. compound in which Lebanese civilians had taken refuge. Hezbollah reported inflated figures of 102 civilians, including women and children, killed and 100 wounded, including four U.N. soldiers. After the United States and Syria drafted a document of understanding stipulating that Israel and Hezbollah would not attack, with missiles or any other weapons, civilians on either side, Israel ended the campaign.

On the night of Sept. 5, 1997, a special Hezbollah force ambushed a commando force of Shayetet 13 of the Israeli navy that had landed near the village of Ansariya to plant explosive devices that would kill a Hezbollah operative. The outcome was fatal. Eleven fighters, including the force’s commander, Lt. Col. Yossi Korkin, were killed.

In Israel, several investigatory commissions were formed to uncover the reason for the failure. The first commission, headed by Gen. Gabi Ophir, concluded that the Israeli force had encountered a chance ambush by Hezbollah that caused the explosive devices some of the Israeli fighters carried on their backs to detonate. The commission’s conclusions emphasized the incidental nature of ambush; no one believed that Hezbollah had had prior information on the arrival of the Israeli elite force.

In September 1998, as he marked a year since the Ansariya operation, Hassan Nasrallah hinted that Hezbollah did have prior intelligence information about the Israeli force’s arrival, but refused to reveal what it was. This was part of a psychological war that Hezbollah waged, which was planned and refined by Mustafa Badreddine.

In August 2010, Nasrallah disclosed the intelligence information. This was about five years after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which Hezbollah was accused of perpetrating. Nasrallah denied this entirely and accused Israel of the murder instead. To buttress his claim, he elaborated on intelligence information, including with regard to Israel’s technological capabilities, that Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence services had gathered on Israel’s clandestine activity in Lebanon.

Nasrallah revealed that Hezbollah had managed to intercept transmissions of aerial photographs, taken by Israeli drones, of a number of targets in southern Lebanon near Ansariya. He said the pictures were transmitted directly to an operations center in Israel and were not encoded as Israeli intelligence had thought. The Iranians provided Hezbollah with the appropriate equipment, and it was used by Hezbollah members who had studied in technical schools and institutes in Lebanon. Foremost among them was Hassan Laqqis, a close friend of Nasrallah who oversaw Hezbollah’s technological development.

The transmissions were intercepted by Hezbollah in real time and deciphered. They indicated the destination that Israel planned to reach. Mustafa Badreddine deployed his forces in ambushes for several weeks because the date of the operation was unknown. The ambush was an important operational achievement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time, “One of the worst tragedies that has ever befallen us. We lost some of our best soldiers. There have been some tragedies in the past, but I have never seen this type of tragedy.”

The Mughniyeh assassination told Nasrallah that he needed to immediately change his modus operandi. The blow was indeed very severe to Hezbollah as an organization, which most probably has still not recovered.

In 1998 Khamenei appointed Qassem Soleimani commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard. He replaced Ahmad Vahidi, who had played a key role in planning the bombing of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires together with Imad Mughniyeh; Vahidi was later appointed deputy defense minister and then defense minister of Iran.

Soleimani came to Lebanon from the front with Iraq to meet Hassan Nasrallah for the first time; the two had not known each other previously. One of the first decisions they made was to combine the two roles, that of the security commander and that of the military commander, which Mughniyeh and Mustafa Badreddine had held separately, with each of them directly subordinate to Nasrallah, into a single position that was called “jihad assistant of Hassan Nasrallah.” This position was given to Mughniyeh, who thereby became the commander of all of Hezbollah’s military and security affairs.

Mughniyeh, Badreddine, and other commanders also took part in that first meeting between Nasrallah and Soleimani. Nasrallah attested to the emergence of “spiritual harmony as if we had already known each other for decades.” Soleimani made Lebanon a secondary headquarters, and he would regularly come to Beirut every two or three weeks and stay there for days. Sometimes he would go to southern Lebanon to meet with the fighters at the front. 

The relations between the Iranian commander and Nasrallah and his staff went beyond work relations and turned into personal friendships, particularly with Mughniyeh; Soleimani was hosted at his home and got to know his family well. This strongly influenced the extent of the aid that Hezbollah began to receive from Iran. From 1985 to 1998, the year in which Soleimani was appointed to command the Quds Force, the ties between Hezbollah and Iran developed slowly, in line with military capabilities and Hezbollah’s limited manpower for military missions. When Soleimani and Mughniyeh were chosen for their posts in 1998, the doors opened wide and increased military assistance began to flow from Iran to Hezbollah.

At the end of 1999, Hassan Nasrallah—accompanied for the first time by 50 of Hezbollah’s field commanders, headed by Imad Mughniyeh—went to meet with Khamenei and the top Iranian leadership. “At that time we did not think that Israel would withdraw from Lebanon in 2000,” Nasrallah attested. “We were not sure, and we assumed it was not likely that Israel would withdraw in 2000 without setting preconditions.”

Hezbollah’s assessment was that Israel would not retreat under military pressure, fearing that this would have a strategic significance beyond the Lebanese arena that would lead to the emergence of a new regional reality. Nasrallah presented this reasoning to Khamenei and said Hezbollah would need more time for additional operations that would bring about an Israeli withdrawal without preconditions.

Khamenei, Nasrallah noted, bore down and asked why Hezbollah held that view. After lengthy explanations by Nasrallah and his comrades for why Israel would not withdraw, among other things so as not to create a precedent regarding the Palestinians of withdrawing under fire outside the framework of negotiations, Khamenei recommended that his guests seriously reconsider their stance. He demanded that they continue the military activity and plan the future in such a way that Israel would withdraw from Lebanon, while taking military, public-advocacy, and diplomatic measures.

“We were surprised to hear these words,” Nasrallah remarked. “Because we all believed that Ehud Barak, who had now won the elections, would not fulfill his promise to withdraw because the conditions he had supposedly set for Lebanon and for Hezbollah had not been met. It appeared to us not smart and not logical.”

After the official meeting, the Hezbollah delegation was invited to Khamenei’s house for the evening. Nasrallah, Mughniyeh, and the field commanders stationed at the front with Israel, wearing uniforms and keffiyehs, looking like Iranian fighters at the front, entered a large hall in which prayers were conducted with Khamenei presiding. When the prayers concluded, he turned to bless the guests. He asked his escorts to move aside and turned to Nasrallah: “I am here to listen to you.”

At that moment one of the Hezbollah commanders drew close to Khamenei and kissed his hand. The emotion was great and profound, and some of the tough field commanders began to cry; others did not manage to stay on their feet. Slowly they approached Khamenei; one kissed his hand, and when he bent to kiss Khamenei’s feet, the leader of Iran did not let him. He drew back and asked Nasrallah to seat them and calm them down so that a conversation could be held with them. Khamenei made statements in Persian, and Nasrallah translated them into Arabic. “You will win, the victory is closer than people think.” Because Nasrallah had said it was unlikely that Israel would withdraw under these circumstances, he pointed to him and added, “Every one of you will see the victory with his own eyes and you will win.”

In May 2000 Israel withdrew from Lebanon to the international border, without conditions. This was the first time Israel had withdrawn from Arab territory under fire and without a ceasefire agreement or any diplomatic arrangement. Hassan Nasrallah became a national hero in Lebanon and in the Arab and Islamic world. He was perceived as the successor of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saladin. In Tehran Nasrallah was received as the hero of Islam. The imam smiled upon him. The Hezbollah military commanders, headed by Imad Mughniyeh, who accompanied Nasrallah at the beginning of 2000, became symbols of Islam’s victory over Israel.

The images that Hezbollah’s propaganda outlets transmitted showed the flight of the Israeli forces and the convoys of families of South Lebanon Army members who crowded together beside the border fence and asked to enter Israel. Hezbollah flags were displayed all over southern Lebanon. Although Israel withdrew to the international border, Hezbollah did not recognize the new line because Israel retained the Shebaa Farms area, which had been under Syrian sovereignty. The area remained in dispute and served as a pretext to continue the jihad against Israel.

Several months after the Israeli withdrawal, Nasrallah went to meet with Khamenei in Tehran. The Iranian leaders were delighted at the victory, Nasrallah noted. “We talked about the future and Khamenei told me that Israel had 25 years left in which to exist.” Nasrallah took these words very seriously and tried to explain the ludicrous rationale behind them.

In October 2000 Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers who had been patrolling the security fence along the Lebanese border. Nasrallah waited for an Israeli response that was not long in coming, but he was soon surprised by its feebleness. As he saw it, the Israeli response bore no relation to the truculent threats and warnings its leaders had voiced before and after the withdrawal. Nasrallah was reinforced in his belief that Israeli society was made out of spiderwebs and that its leaders were in a state of shock. He listened in amazement to voices in Israel saying “restraint is strength.” And he rubbed his eyes in wonder at the sight of Israeli soldiers getting pelted with stones hurled across the fence and taking shelter in special cages designed to protect them.

Ali Khamenei allowed Hezbollah to take a further step when he approved its joining the new Lebanese government, formed after the Syrian forces’ departure from Lebanon in the wake of the Hariri assassination in 2005. Hezbollah sent two ministers to serve in the new government, primarily to safeguard its military force; it remained the only party in Lebanon that had its own army. Hezbollah exploited the political rules of the game to seize control of Lebanese state institutions, and Lebanon turned into a failed state, in which Iran replaced Syria as the arbiter of the country’s fate.

On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah carried out a second successful kidnapping, this time capturing two Israeli soldiers. Mughniyeh personally planned and commanded the operation. Nasrallah expected an Israeli response similar to that of October 2000. This time, however, the Israeli response was of a different magnitude.

In the first half hour of the war that Israel launched, its air force jets destroyed Hezbollah’s long-range missile stockpiles and removed its ability to strike deep within Israel. Hezbollah retained medium- and short-range missiles, which it fired at the Israeli home front. For the first time, targets were hit in Haifa and other cities in northern Israel. Hezbollah aimed missiles at strategic targets in Haifa Bay. They missed, but took a toll in life and property in other places.

Israel reacted with great force and destroyed Hezbollah’s headquarters in Dahieh, its social institutions, and the home and offices of the Lebanese Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a close associate of the leader of Hezbollah. Nasrallah was surprised; he stated, with rare regret, “If I had known what the Israeli response would be I would not have kidnapped the two soldiers.” But he was encouraged by the fact that the Iranian leader stuck by him. On the first day of the war, Khamenei announced his support for Hezbollah and emphasized the need to resist and fight Israel. Nasrallah rejected the conditions that Israel posed for a ceasefire: The freeing of the two kidnapped soldiers, Hezbollah’s disarmament and transformation into a political party alone, and the deployment of an international force on the border with Israel.

Qassem Soleimani came to Lebanon to help manage the war. Because Beirut and the means of access to it were under bombardment and Israel had destroyed bridges and roads leading to the Lebanese capital, Nasrallah tried to convince him to remain in Damascus. Imad Mughniyeh went to Damascus and brought the Quds Force commander to Dahieh. During the war, Soleimani stayed in close proximity to Nasrallah and Mughniyeh. The three conducted the war from a joint operations room whose location Israel did not manage to discover. Soleimani’s presence, Nasrallah recounted, played a supportive, morale-boosting, spiritual and psychological role.

During the first week of the battles Soleimani left Beirut to meet with Khamenei in Iran. The imam convened all of the top Iranian leadership for a consultation in Mashhad, which was attended by past and present defense ministers as well as all of the past and present Revolutionary Guard commanders.

Soleimani gave a firsthand account of the course of the war: “My report was a sad, bitter one,” he said, and emphasized that his assessment did not reflect any hope for a Hezbollah victory. “The war was different; it was a technological and precision war. The targets were chosen with precision and the objective was to attack not only Hezbollah but also the whole Shiite community,” Soleimani commented. After him Khamenei spoke. He said Soleimani’s report was true and the war was indeed difficult, and compared it to the Battle of the Trench (Khandaq), also known as the Battle of the Confederates (627 CE). He described the situation of the Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad’s band in the battle, as well as the spirit of the fighters, and concluded by saying he believed that the victory in this war in Lebanon would be like the victory in the Battle of the Trench.

“I was daunted,” Soleimani acknowledged. Khamenei’s words did not jibe with the military situation on the ground, and Soleimani was worried. Khamenei drafted a letter to Nasrallah, and Soleimani was asked to bring it to Beirut.

In his letter, the leader of Iran detailed how he viewed the war and, more important, its outcomes. Khamenei’s message included an Iranian justification for the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers, which was very important for Nasrallah, who was facing harsh criticism for it. Khamenei described the kidnapping as “a hidden divine blessing” because it prevented a surprise attack on Hezbollah. Khamenei had expected the war to be very vexing, frustrating, and threatening to Hezbollah’s existence; yet he demanded patience of Nasrallah because, by the war’s end, “you will be victorious and you will become a regional power to the point that no other power will be able to confront you.”

Nasrallah was skeptical. He told Soleimani that surviving the war would be his great achievement. In the course of the war, Nasrallah, Mughniyeh, and Soleimani went from place to place out of fear of an Israeli strike. Nasrallah removed his robe and turban and went about in a track suit.

Yet, in Hezbollah’s terminology, the Second Lebanon War was naser ilahi kabir—a great divine victory. It was fraught with “divine intervention,” with miracles and wonders, and Shiite imams and angels played an active part in it, supporting the jihad fighters and vanquishing the enemy. A widespread legend told of a Hezbollah fighter at Bint Jbeil who fired missiles at the enemy and, when the allotment of missiles ran out, left the place and hid. However, he and his commanders were surprised to discover that the missile launcher marvelously continued to launch missiles by itself for a long time and to strike the enemy.

After 33 days of fighting, a ceasefire was announced and Nasrallah declared a divine victory; he survived the war. In Israel, a state investigatory commission was established to examine the course of the war, and the feeling among the public was that the military and the leadership had failed. A finger of blame was pointed at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, all three of whom were new to their positions when the war erupted.

Hezbollah Chief of Staff Imad Mughniyeh, now regarded as the commander of both victories—the 2000 withdrawal and the 2006 war—did not rest on his laurels. A short time after the war ended, he set up teams to analyze the development of the war, draw military lessons, and prepare for the next war. The main conclusions focused on the need to exploit what Hezbollah perceived as the Israeli weak point, namely, the civilian front. This required renewing and strengthening the missile arsenal so as to strike strategic targets deep within Israel and fracture Israeli society from within.

In light of this conclusion, along with the understanding that Hezbollah’s ground forces had operated satisfactorily, it was decided to form additional elite units, equipped with advanced weapons, that would have both defensive and offensive capabilities. Thus the special force was established that eventually was called Radwan (Mughniyeh’s operational nom de guerre). It was built from elite units and numbered about 5,000 carefully chosen fighters who were sent for commando training in Iran.

Qassem Soleimani, who spent the entire duration of the war in Lebanon and reported on a daily basis to Khamenei, won approbation in Iran for his role in Hezbollah’s “divine victory.” He was now in charge of renewing Hezbollah’s missile supply, including filling the storerooms with long-range missiles. He saw an urgent need to surround Israel from north and south with missile batteries that would enable Hezbollah and the Palestinian organizations in Gaza, particularly Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to strike the Israeli home front.

From Soleimani’s military perspective, the Second Lebanon War had altered the Israeli strategy that David Ben-Gurion had established at the country’s inception, which was based on preemptive offense and on attacking and waging the war in the enemy’s territory. Now, in his view, that had been changed to a defensive strategy.

In February 2008, Hezbollah was dealt a severe blow. In a joint operation that was attributed to Israel and the United States, Imad Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus. He was in the midst of the process of drawing lessons from the Second Lebanon War. Minutes before he was killed, he parted from Soleimani, together with whom he had met with Ramadan Abdullah Shalah, leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and planned the continuing armed struggle against Israel from the Gaza Strip.

No actor took responsibility for the assassination. However, senior intelligence and espionage officials, as well as fame-hungry politicians in Israel, briefed familiar journalists on very secret operational details. Everyone wanted their moment of glory.

The Mughniyeh assassination told Nasrallah that he needed to immediately change his modus operandi, hide, and set up shop in a bunker from which he threatened in televised speeches to get revenge on Israel in whatever way possible. The blow was indeed very severe to Nasrallah, who had known Mughniyeh since before 1982, and to Hezbollah as an organization, which most probably has still not recovered. Upon his death, Imad Mughniyeh became a symbol of Shiite heroism and was compared to military commanders who had fought alongside the Prophet Muhammad, to Imam Ali, and to his son Imam Hussein.

Since the assassination, no one of comparable profile and abilities has arisen to replace Imad Mughniyeh. Hezbollah’s operational apparatus abroad managed to carry out a few attacks against Israeli targets outside of Israel (in Thailand, India, and Bulgaria), but they were not of Mughniyeh’s operational magnitude. Mustafa Badreddine, Mughniyeh’s successor, himself was assassinated in May 2016 near the airport in Damascus when he was commander of Hezbollah forces in Syria. Hassan Nasrallah accused the Sunni rebels of the assassination, but the circumstances of Badreddine’s death remain unclear to this day.

Israel’s then-chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, turned an accusing finger in a surprising direction, when he affirmed reports that said Badreddine was assassinated by Soleimani with the approval of Nasrallah. Similar reports claimed that the trigger of the weapon that killed Badreddine was pulled by Ibrahim Hussein Jizani (“Nabil”), who was head of Nasrallah’s personal security detail. Other reports said the commander of Hezbollah forces in Syria had refused to comply with the orders of the commander of the Iranian Quds Force.

Soleimani had demanded an increase in the number of Hezbollah fighters in Syria. This, along with the patronizing treatment of the Hezbollah fighters by the Iranian commanders, who were not always in the battlefield, sparked resentment. Hezbollah’s heavy losses in Syria, which reached a peak (during 2013-2019) of about 2,000 dead, including commanders from the group’s founding generation, and about 8,000 wounded, provoked anger among the Shiite community, which was further inflamed by the leading opponent of Hezbollah, Subhi al-Tufaili—one of the organizations founders—who ruled that whoever was killed in Syria was not considered a shahid because he had not fought and been killed in the jihad against Israel. He ruled furthermore that the fighting against the Muslims in Syria was a violation of sharia law.

There is no doubt that the years of the campaign in Syria, despite the heavy casualties, had a formative effect on Hezbollah’s battle capability and afforded it confidence in its military capabilities. At the beginning of 2011, and during the revolt in Syria, Hezbollah formulated an operative plan for the conquest of the Galilee. The mission was assigned to the Radwan forces, which began to train for the possibility that, in case of a war with Israel, they would cross the border and seize control of settled areas within Israel.

About 5,000 of the Radwan fighters were sent to Iran for rounds of training under Iranian instructors. According to a source close to Hezbollah, five battalions were set up in Hezbollah, each with a thousand fighters, and each battalion was assigned a specific territory to take over in northern Israel. Each battalion studied and became familiar with the special topographical conditions of the area it was responsible for and trained to conquer it. While the war in Syria interrupted the preoccupation with this plan, it also, as noted, enabled the Radwan forces to accumulate highly valuable battle experience for the future.

Hezbollah’s plan to conquer the Galilee was not abandoned because of the campaign in Syria. On the contrary, Nasrallah repeated several times his threats to take over the Galilee if and when a war broke out with Israel. Hezbollah also invested great engineering effort in digging tunnels from Lebanon into Israel.

In December 2018, Israel uncovered six of these tunnels. Lt. Gen. Eizenkot remarked that Hezbollah had a “grandiose plan” for a surprise underground infiltration of 5,000 fighters into Israeli territory amid a barrage of fire. Eizenkot disclosed that Israel had already become aware of Hezbollah’s plan in 2014. All six of the tunnels were blown up, and Hezbollah lost an important operational capability. Nasrallah, however, did not shelve his plan to seize control of parts of the Galilee in the next war.

The war in Syria revealed the extent of Iran’s involvement in transferring strategic weaponry, some of it game-changing, to Hezbollah. Most of the Iranian effort involved transferring long-range missiles to Hezbollah and developing their precision capabilities. At first, factories for the precision-guided-missile project were built in Syria, but they were discovered and bombed by Israel and so were relocated to Lebanon, where they were also soon discovered. Israel made clear that it viewed the precision of Hezbollah’s missiles as a red line and would not allow such missiles to be produced or transferred to Hezbollah.

In August 2019, two drones penetrated the very heart of Hezbollah, the Dahieh neighborhood of Beirut. The objective was to strike a critical ingredient of the precision-guided-missile project. According to The Times of London, “The targeted facility was used to store high-end industrial planetary mixer, a component in high-grade precision missiles’ propellant.” The drones identified the facility and destroyed it.

In July 2020, the Jerusalem Post reported that Hezbollah has at least 28 missile-launch sites in populated areas of Beirut that are under its control. These include private homes, medical centers, industrial zones, and offices. The sites are involved in the launching, storing, and production of medium-range Fateh-110 missiles and are part of Hezbollah’s precision-guided-missile project.

Hezbollah is believed to have 600 Fateh-110 missiles with ranges of up to 300 kilometers, among them more advanced missiles of the Zulfiqar model with ranges of up to 700 kilometers. Overall Hezbollah is believed to have 130,000 missiles and rockets with ranges of 10 to 500 kilometers, also dispersed in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley in bunkers that are next to schools, clinics, hospitals, soccer fields, as well as the Iranian Embassy in Beirut and the Lebanese Defense Ministry.

The struggle between Hezbollah and Israel is currently at full throttle. Hezbollah, with Iran’s help, is working to build long-range capabilities that will allow it to strike precise targets in the Israeli home front. Israel is resolved to prevent Hezbollah from gaining that capability. Even though both sides want to avoid a war, the conflict between them could go out of control if one side makes a miscalculation. Meanwhile Hezbollah is also building a capability to use special forces to seize lands in the Galilee. This marks a basic change in Hezbollah’s approach to war, which until now primarily built deterrent and defensive capabilities and now is also dealing intensively with offense and with taking the next war to Israeli territory.

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and author of Hezbollah: Between Iran and Lebanon. He served as the Military Secretary to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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