Lebanon News

Detonation of spy devices raises tensions

BEIRUT: The detonation of Israeli surveillance devices near the southern village of Houla represent a success for Israel against archenemy Hizbullah, while also raising pressure on the Shiite group and further eroding the security situation in south Lebanon, a number of analysts told The Daily Star on Wednesday.

Two electronic listening devices planted near the Israel-Lebanon border self-destructed last weekend as people approached, while the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) destroyed a third article of espionage equipment. The existence of sophisticated Israeli spy technology inside Lebanon, albeit uncovered, still signifies a victory for the Jewish state in its struggle against Hizbullah, said retired General Elias Hanna, who teaches political science.

“A small breach is a success,” he said. “Even if it’s a minor breach, it’s a success.”

The discovery of the equipment will have a strong psychological effect on Hizbullah, which is left guessing how much Israel has found out about its operations, Hanna added.

“It’s telling Hizbullah that whatever you do …we can get access to you,” he said.

Furthering Hizbullah’s uncertainty, Israel provided a list of 100 possible Hizbullah missile sites to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) following a July 14 ammunition explosion in south Lebanon’s Khirbet Silim, Hanna said.

Military strategy dictates that Hizbullah, for its own protection, will have to proceed according to the worst-case scenario that Israel might know every detail of Hizbullah’s operations; as such, Hizbullah will have to make far-reaching changes and take more precautions, with the end result of limiting the group’s freedom of action, Hanna said.

Israel has said the devices were planted at the end of the 2006 summer war, while Hizbullah has said Israel embedded the equipment more recently.

Any remains of the machines will not be enough to ascertain which version is correct, but either explanation means a breach of an area long considered under Hizbullah’s complete control, Hanna said. If Israel did indeed leave the devices in 2006, that means Hizbullah did a poor job of assessing its staging ground after the conflict, he added.

If Israel managed to install the gear more recently, it means a “big breach” of Hizbullah’s home turf, Hanna said. Israel has long used similar equipment to monitor communications in Syria, as well as among Lebanese government targets, he added.

The Houla incident also demonstrates that Israel has refocused its efforts on gathering tactical intelligence, after the debacle of the 2006 war from that perspective, Hanna said.

In 2006 Israel declared its tactical goal to be the elimination of Hizbullah rocket fire into Israel. When the Israeli military found itself incapable of extinguishing Hizbullah’s daily volleys of Katyusha rockets, much of the world’s public viewed the war as an Israeli failure, Hanna added.

“2006 was something catastrophic for the tactical intelligence of Israel,” Hanna said. “The war was decided at the tactical level – it wasn’t strategic. The success of the war was measured by stopping the missiles.”

In addition to the electronic surveillance devices unearthed last weekend, events this year have proven that Israel is assembling tactical intelligence using the human intelligence of spies, and using the pilotless drones known as unmanned aerial vehicles, Hanna added.

“Failure for Israel is not allowed,” he said. “They cannot tolerate another failure.”

Although the blasts near Houla took place less than seven days after an explosion of military munitions in a house in south Lebanon’s Tayr Felsay, it is impossible to say whether the two events are connected, the analysts said. As after the Khirbet Silim explosion, Hizbullah says human error – not Israeli sabotage – caused the Tayr Felsay blast. Hizbullah does use “old” ordnance, so the possibility of human error leading to both explosions cannot be excluded, Hanna said.

In any case, the explosions all share the same trait of putting pressure on Hizbullah, the LAF and the state, Hanna said. As part of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war, Hizbullah should not be militarily active south of the Litani River, but each event provides evidence to the contrary – even though Hizbullah’s continued presence south of the river is hardly a secret, Hanna added.

The LAF and UNIFIL, meanwhile, should be in control of the area and keeping Hizbullah away, although the explosions underline that they are not meeting their mandates, Hanna said.

The security incidents also serve to increase the military friction between Israel and Hizbullah, said Ahmad Moussalli, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut and has written books about terrorism and security issues.

“There is rising military tension,” he said.

Israel wants to take advantage of every security mishap in Lebanon for political purposes, and desires to portray itself a victim, beset on all sides by rabid and dangerous terrorists, Moussalli added. Moreover; Israel wants to use the incidents to distract the world’s focus from the Israel’s growing international strains: longtime ally, the US, has insisted that Israel halt the construction of illegal settlements and a UN fact-finding team accused Israel of war crimes during its assault on Gaza at the start of the year, Moussalli said.

“Israel wants to draw attention away from many of the demands that [it faces] internationally,” he said. “Israelis want to look like they are the victims, or the underdogs.”

As long as the standing geopolitical calculus holds, with Israel seeing mounting pressure and its Western allies edging toward an agreement with Israel’s arch-foe Iran over Tehran’s nuclear file, south Lebanon should expect to witness more such security breaches as Israel expresses its displeasure, Moussalli added.

“We probably will see more explosions and more military activity in the area,” he said.

At the same time, while the Houla blasts underscore that the security situation in south Lebanon remains deeply unsettled, neither Israel nor Hizbullah wants to start a war in the short term, said Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Instead of conflict, Hizbullah wants to replenish its arsenal and manpower, in order to present an effective deterrent to war, Salem added. This represents a far different role than before the 2006 war, when Hizbullah concentrated on undertaking operations against Israel to remain an “irritant” to the Jewish state, he said.

“Hizbullah is not spoiling for a fight,” Salem said. “They are simply very actively and effectively building a major deterrent force.”

Despite the series of explosions in recent months, Israel wants peace in order to cast the 2006 war – as well as the Gaza incursion – as successes for Israel, in that neither Hizbullah nor Hamas can threaten Israel now, Salem said.

“The government now wants to ride on that sense that they succeeded. They’re fairly satisfied that the northern front is quiet,” he said, adding that Western nations would dissuade Israel from initiating any military adventures while negotiations with Iran continued.

“The general context is still not worrisome. In the short term, we’re still in a safe place.”

 

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