(JNS) Israel’s thwarting on Saturday of an attempt to smuggle weapons into the country from Lebanon crystallized the duality on the northern border: On one hand, the quiet and deterrence along both sides of the border; on the other, non-stop activity that could ignite the entire front at a moment’s notice.
The bust was facilitated by Israel Defense Forces lookout posts operating in the Mount Dov region, followed by the engagement and elimination of the smugglers by a joint force of police and an element of the IDF Golani infantry brigade. It was the largest confiscation of smuggled weapons in years, including 43 guns, some with fittings for silencers—a direct continuation of the smuggling operation (15 guns, cartridges and 36 kilograms of hashish) that was foiled last month.
Although Israel doesn’t have proof that Hezbollah is directly responsible for Saturday’s smuggling attempt, it would be surprising to learn that none of its current or former members were involved. Just last week, the IDF “outed” Haj Khalil Harb: The former security adviser to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and one of the terrorist organization’s senior officials is now a criminal operating a drug and weapons smuggling operation over the border between Israel and Lebanon.
It still isn’t clear for whom the guns were earmarked. The matter is being investigated by the Israel Security Agency, and it appears the motivation was criminal in nature. History, however, has already shown that the line between criminal and nationalist violence is very thin indeed. Moreover, often the smugglers themselves don’t know the ultimate objective of the operation. Case in point, nearly a decade ago, Hezbollah tried smuggling explosive devices across the border via criminal elements in Israel, apparently to be used in terrorist attacks.
In the past, Nasrallah adamantly objected to drug trafficking and even prohibited his people from such activity, yet now it isn’t clear whether he has lifted this prohibition or whether some of his people are acting independently.
The recent steep rise in smuggling attempts also stems from and is apparently largely due to Lebanon’s economic crisis. Although Hezbollah is in good condition in relation to the rest of the country, it too is searching for additional revenue streams. In the past, Nasrallah adamantly objected to drug trafficking and even prohibited his people from such activity, yet now it isn’t clear whether he has lifted this prohibition or whether some of his people—affected by the economic situation or seeking to supplement their incomes—are acting independently.
This is a critical matter that requires clarification, not just to understand the organization’s policies but also, and mainly, to determine whether Nasrallah’s iron grip over his people has slackened. If so, this is bad news. Hezbollah is a hierarchical organization with a clear chain of command and decision-making process; it controls every facet of its operations and obedience within its ranks is absolute. If this has changed for one reason or another, the next stage could involve someone deciding to break ranks and act independently in other areas.
In the meantime, it appears Lebanon’s dire economic situation isn’t affecting the security situation on the northern border—and if it is, then it’s been for the better. Hezbollah is extremely preoccupied with the country’s internal matters and is trying to keep all its balls in the air. It wants to tend to the Shi’ite population, hold the institutions of state power and deflect criticisms against it (and its patron, Iran) that its very presence is preventing the collapsing country from receiving international aid.
It’s unlikely that Nasrallah wants to open another front with Israel under these circumstances. Fifteen years after the Second Lebanon War, deterrence is as strong and effective as ever, although we must honestly admit that Israel, too, is deterred from acting in Lebanon.
Still, it would be a mistake to think this deterrence is impervious. The border has been tense for months and is highly volatile. The heightened level of alert certainly paid dividends on Saturday, but every such incident always has the potential to spark an escalation that forces both sides into an unintended and undesired clash.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom