by Prof. Eyal Zisser
For a number of years, the Lebanese army has been working closely with Hezbollah. So it was only a matter of time before the French weapons, or at least the same sophisticated weapons systems the group needs, would find its way into its operatives' hands, despite assurances to the French and the Saudis that such a scenario would never come to pass.
These days, when senior Israeli officials are issuing repeated warnings about Hezbollah stepping up its arsenal, the organization's leader -- Hassan Nasrallah -- got an unexpected boon.
Last week (on April 19), a shipment of French weapons arrived in Lebanon, the first part of a $3 billion arms deal Saudi Arabia will be underwriting.
The weapons, of course, were not sent directly to the Hezbollah warehouses, but were earmarked for the Lebanese army as part of a French-Saudi effort to bolster Lebanon's military and state institutions in the hope that these will eventually provide a counterweight to Hezbollah and its attempts to take over Lebanon, goaded and supported by Iran.
But not to worry. For a number of years, the Lebanese army has been working closely with Hezbollah. So it was only a matter of time before the French weapons, or at least the same sophisticated weapons systems the group needs, would find its way into its operatives' hands, despite assurances to the French and the Saudis that such a scenario would never come to pass.
In Israel, people are keeping a close eye on Hezbollah's increasing power. The organization is undergoing a shift. It's true that Hezbollah is up to its ears in fighting in Syria and Iraq, and possibly Yemen, as well. It is paying a heavy price; nearly 1,000 of its fighters have been killed in those countries. But it cannot be denied that the group's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Syria can wind up strengthening its people and give its commanders battle experience they lacked. Hezbollah hasn't been a wild militia for some time, but today we're talking about a skilled, disciplined military organization.
These points are reflected in Nasrallah's rhetoric. In his recent speeches, he has been speaking as if he were a regional leader with aspirations of running the entire Arab world, not just the Lebanese Shiites. Lately Nasrallah has been shrugging off the caution that he has used since the Second Lebanon War [of 2006]. He is no longer as frightened as he was of another round of fighting with Israel -- rather, he is taking that possibility into consideration in any move he makes. Israel can no longer cling to the hope that the leader of Hezbollah will behave responsibly and prevent the situation from deteriorating. Quite the opposite -- Israel must take into account that the group will continue to challenge it as it has this past year, and will cross the lines Israel drew in the past, such as actions launched from the Golan Heights or even from inside Lebanon itself.
Given this, it's surprising that there are still those -- France, for example -- who think that supplying weapons to the Lebanese army is the way to weaken the organization. The way France probably sees it, radical Sunni terrorism comprises the real threat, and Iran and Hezbollah have surprisingly become part of the West's solution to the troubles in the region rather than part of the problem itself. Besides that, it appears that France still hasn't let go of its dreams for Lebanon and does not realize that this is no longer a country under Christian control that wants to be a bridge between Europe and the East.
The Saudi willingness to take part in the party is also surprising. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia has no illusions about the nature of Hezbollah. It has just begun fighting in Yemen to prevent the establishment of a "Yemenite Hezbollah" controlled by Iran that will do to the Saudis in Yemen what Hezbollah in Lebanon does to Israel. But when it comes to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia is pinning its hopes on a large population that while not Shiite, has many members -- especially Christians, Israel's former friends in Lebanon -- who sold their souls to Hezbollah years ago.
The Lebanese challenge is not a new one for Israel, and, like the matter of the Gaza Strip, it will be with us for years to come. But there is no doubt that we are approaching a turning point in the current confrontation in light of recent developments in the area, both in Lebanon and within Hezbollah.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.