KFAR CHOUBA, Lebanon (AP) – Twenty years after Hezbollah guerrillas pushed Israel’s last troops from southern Lebanon, both sides are gearing up for a possible war that neither seems to want.
Israeli troops are striking Hezbollah targets in neighbouring Syria and drilling for what could be an invasion of Lebanon. The militant Hezbollah group is beefing up its own forces and threatening to invade Israel if provoked. The bitter enemies routinely exchange warnings and threats.
“We are preparing seriously for the next war. We’re not taking any shortcuts because we understand we have to be extremely strong to defeat the enemy,” said Colonel Israel Friedler, an Israeli commander who has been overseeing a weeks-long exercise simulating war with Hezbollah at a base in northern Israel.
Hezbollah emerged as a ragtag guerrilla group in the 1980s, funded by Iran to battle Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon. A protracted guerrilla war, characterised by roadside bombs and sniper attacks, eventually forced Israel to withdraw in May 2000. With the exception of an inconclusive, monthlong war in 2006, the volatile frontier has largely remained calm.
Since then, Hezbollah has evolved into the most powerful military and political entity in Lebanon. The party and its allies dominate Lebanon’s Parliament and are the main power behind Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government.
“Domestically, Hezbollah has emerged to become the preponderant force in Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. But regionally, he said, “the position of Hezbollah is precarious” due to Israeli pressure, domestic turmoil and problems for its Iranian benefactors.
The group can ill afford another massive clash with Israel. The Lebanese economy is in shambles, around half the population is now estimated to live in poverty – including in Hezbollah strongholds – and the group’s finances are suffering because of US sanctions imposed on it and Iran.
The group also suffered heavy losses in the Syrian civil war, losing some 2,000 fighters while battling alongside the forces of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.
Qassim Qassir, an expert on Hezbollah, says the group has no interest in going to war but has been preparing for battle for a long time. “The battle will not be a battle of missiles only,” he said, a reference that Hezbollah might try to invade parts of northern Israel.
In a region filled with adversaries, Israel considers Hezbollah to be its toughest and most immediate threat.
During the 2006 war, the group launched some 4,000 rockets into Israel, most of them unguided projectiles with limited ranges.
Today, Israeli officials say Hezbollah possesses some 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel. They say it has sophisticated anti-tank missiles, night-vision equipment and cyber warfare capabilities.