Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski served as head of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command and is a former observer to U.N. peacekeeping operations in the Middle East. He is also a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Board of Advisors and Hybrid Warfare Policy Project.
The world looked on in horror as two massive explosions ripped through Beirut on Aug. 4, killing more than 150 people and injuring thousands.
Lebanon’s president attributed the disaster to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that were improperly stored at the city’s port, where Hezbollah is believed to wield significant influence. While the same material has been stockpiled abroad by this Iranian proxy, there is currently no indication of its direct involvement in the blasts, and preliminary information points to government negligence.
Regardless, the incident underscores the need to protect the Lebanese people, who have already withstood too many tragedies — including, most concerningly, from another conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
The threat is immediate, as evidenced by recent tensions on Israel’s northern border. The Israeli military repelled an apparent Hezbollah incursion from Lebanon on July 27, as well as a bomb-planting attempt by a suspected Iran-backed cell from Syria on Aug. 2. This escalation followed the death of a Hezbollah operative in an alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria, where Jerusalem has vowed to resist Iranian entrenchment.
Israel has told international officials that it isn’t seeking a war with Hezbollah, but pledged to retaliate strongly to any attack — something that the Iranian proxy warned is still forthcoming, after denying involvement in the July 27 incident.
Such a threat should not be taken lightly. The Shiite group has expanded its arsenal from 13,000 rockets and missiles on the eve of its 2006 conflict with Israel, to an estimated 130,000 currently. It could fire these weapons by the thousands each day in order to overwhelm Israel’s missile defense systems. Indeed, Hezbollah recently threatened that it could strike “very precise targets in Tel Aviv and anywhere in occupied Palestine.”
Israel has likewise warned that Hezbollah is seeking to grow its arsenal of precision-guided missiles, including through the establishment of facilities in Lebanon to manufacture the weapons. A reported Israeli drone attack in Beirut last August targeted the Iran-backed project.
In line with past practices, Hezbollah emplaces such weapons amongst Lebanese civilians, illegally using the population as human shields. As noted in a recent report by an Israeli research center, Hezbollah’s missile infrastructure has been positioned near homes, schools, clinics and cafes in Beirut, as well as in civilian areas in southern Lebanon — a tactic that extends to Hezbollah’s tunnel warfare strategy.
During Operation Northern Shield, launched in late 2018, Israel uncovered six Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnels. The longest, which penetrated 250 feet into Israeli territory, originated in a home in the Shiite village of Ramiyeh in southern Lebanon. Equipped with electricity, ventilation and communication systems, the tunnel was indicative of the sophistication of Hezbollah’s efforts.
These developments suggest that, when Hezbollah next seeks a major conflict with Israel, the damage will be even more devastating than it was in 2006. They also highlight, yet again, the failure of the international community to successfully enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.
This measure, which marked the end of the 2006 Lebanon War, calls for “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.” Yet far from disarming, Hezbollah’s military capacity has only grown under the scrutiny of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the U.N.’s peacekeeping force.
With stakes as high as ever, the international community must urgently rally to help Lebanon as it struggles to recover from this latest tragedy, amid a severe economic collapse and the novel coronavirus pandemic. An estimated 300,000 people have now been left homeless in a country already struggling with skyrocketing poverty and unemployment.
Yet it must also ensure Hezbollah cannot take advantage of relief efforts to further its entrenchment in Lebanon and enrich its own coffers, which have been heavily hit by the American sanctions campaign. Along with European and Gulf Arab allies, Washington should take a leading role in pushing Lebanon’s political elites to accept much-needed reforms and ensuring foreign aid directs them away from Hezbollah — perhaps the most significant threat to Lebanon’s long-term stability and development.
Pressure must also be ramped up on Hezbollah to disarm. UNIFIL, whose mandate will come up for renewal at the Security Council this month, must be empowered to police Hezbollah’s military build-up, including by proactively inspecting areas labeled as private property, where the terrorist group often keeps its assets, and assert greater freedom to operate independently of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Such efforts could increase international pressure for action against Hezbollah and Iran over their violations of UNSCR 1701. More pressingly, they might help strengthen the Lebanese people — already deeply disturbed with the Hezbollah-dominated political system — as they reckon with the immediate dangers posed to their families by this Iranian proxy.
Another war between Israel and Hezbollah will be devastating to Lebanon, which has already suffered too much. Rather than waiting idly by, the international community must work vigorously to avert the next tragedy.
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