Middle East

The Israeli Campaign Against Iran and Its Proxies

According to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the Israeli attacks in Lebanon in late August were the first “big breach of the rules of engagement” since the end of the 2006-war. But the Israeli campaign against its rivals went beyond Lebanon. As a part of the regional power struggle between Israel and Iran, Iranian proxies were also the target of Israeli attacks in Syria and Iraq. The sudden escalation raised the questions: Does Israel want war, and why right now?

It seems that Israel first had its eyes on Iranian proxies in Iraq. Allegedly, Israel was behind a number of attacks during July and August on the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Also known under their Arabic name Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, the PMF is a state-sponsored umbrella organization mainly made up of Shia militia groups. Besides being known for their important role in fighting IS in Iraq, the PMF are well-known for their affiliation with Iran. The latest of these attacks on the PMF took place on August 25, when one of their weapons storages near the Syrian border got hit by a drone attack and caused two deaths.

The powerful Fatah coalition, an Iran-affiliated political coalition, considered the attacks a declaration of war from Israel, while Iraqi president Barham Saleh was more careful in his announcements. President Saleh condemned the attacks without making any assumptions about who was behind them.

Being an ally of both Israel and Iraq, the US got caught in the middle. The Fatah coalition stated that they held the US fully responsible for the attacks, and that the American military presence in the country was no longer needed.

Israel-Iran flags / Wikimedia Commons

Then it was Lebanon’s turn. On Sunday August 25 two drones were spotted in Beirut’s southern, Hezbollah-dominated suburb Dahiyeh. While the first drone fell to the ground, the second drone exploded and caused damage to a Hezbollah media office. The following day another attack was carried out. This time the target was the Hezbollah-affiliated Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command in the Bekaa Valley. Here, the three rockets that hit the location caused material damage. Assuming that Israel was behind the attacks, Hassan Nasrallah soon after announced in a TV speech that Hezbollah would react to any Israeli attacks on Hezbollah targets and that Israeli drones within Lebanese territory would be shot down.

Whereas the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) did not directly comment on the attacks in Iraq and Lebanon, they proudly announced that they had prevented multiple killer drone attacks on Israel by attacking targets in Syria the night between August 24 and 25. While IDF claimed to have successfully hit the targets and prevented the attacks on Israel, Syrian state media asserted that the missiles were intercepted by the Syrian Air Defense. According to the IDF, operatives from the Iranian Quds force had traveled to Syria to carry out attacks on civilian and military targets in Israel. The IDF further stated that Quds force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani had commanded these attacks. Official Iranian reactions were mainly quite limited and focused on downplaying the attacks. Major General Soleimani himself described the Israeli attacks on targets in Syria as “the absolutely last tries of the Zionist regime.”

Following the Israeli attacks in Syria, Hassan Nasrallah held that the IDF had in fact attacked a Hezbollah position in Syria, killing two Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. This act certainly implied retaliation. Following this announcement, two sources close to the organization stated that Hezbollah was planning a calculated attack – one that would be proportional to the Israeli aggression in order to reach a balance. However, according to the sources, Hezbollah was not interested in going to war with Israel.

Netanyahu holds a piece of an armed Iranian drone shot down over Israel / Wikimedia Commons

In the following week, while everyone was waiting for Hezbollah’s next move, IDF took advantage of the time. Through their Twitter, they revealed the location of a Hezbollah facility housing Iranian-supplied machinery to produce precision guided missiles. With such missiles, Hezbollah would allegedly be able to hit targets within Israel with an accuracy of less than 10 meters. Hassan Nasrallah however denied these claims, while stressing that Hezbollah had all the precision missiles they needed.

The following Saturday, August 31, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah was ready to respond to the alleged killing of the two Lebanese Hezbollah fighters on Syrian ground. Just the next day, anti-tank missiles were fired from the Lebanese village Maroun al-Ras in Southern Lebanon and struck an Israeli armored vehicle in the Israeli city Avivim located along the Israeli-Lebanese border. The unit behind the attack was named after the two martyred Hezbollah fighters, emphasizing that this was indeed an act of retaliation. Both Hezbollah and IDF confirmed the attack, yet with a slightly different perception of the events. Whereas Hezbollah claimed the strike killed and injured the Israeli soldiers inside the vehicle, Israel denied this allegation. As a response to the attack, IDF returned fire towards a number of Lebanese villages in the border area. Moreover, additional troops and material were deployed to Israel’s northern border.

During the course of events, the Lebanese government reached out to the international community and asked for help to reestablish and maintain stability along the country’s border with Israel.

Lebanese prime minister Hariri was in contact with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and advisor to French president Macron, Emmanuel Bonne. The Lebanese government also appealed to the UN Security Council, pointing to the numerous Israeli violations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. Lebanese president Aoun emphasized that the Israeli aggressions were essentially a declaration of war and that Lebanon held its right to defend its sovereignty and territory.

The president also emphasized the importance of the extension of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s (UNIFIL) mandate in order to secure stability along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Back in 1978 during the Lebanese Civil War, UNIFIL was established as a peacekeeping mission due to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The UNIFIL mandate was supposed to end ultimo August 2019, but was renewed on August 29 by the UN Security Council in the midst of the instability by the border. UNIFIL Head of Mission Major General Stefano Del Col assured that they were mediating between Israel and Lebanon and that they attempted to prevent an escalation of the conflict.

Considering these developments from Netanyahu’s perspective, rumor has it that the timing of the Israeli campaign against Iran and its proxies was not a coincidence. With the Israeli legislative elections on September 17, it seemed that Netanyahu aimed to make headlines about matters of security rather than personal claims of corruption. Yet, as the result of the elections showed, the Israeli campaign against Iran and its proxy forces did not save Netanyahu and the Likud party.

So, what is the status a month after the events? For now, it seems that Hezbollah succeeded in making a proportional attack. Nasrallah got his retaliation without dragging Lebanon into another war with Israel. The main focus in Lebanon at the moment seems to be the Lebanese economy suffering from a huge deficit, which triggered demonstrations in several Lebanese cities on September 29. In the aftermath of the Israeli elections, the focus in Israel appears to be on the political negotiations on forming a new government. The result of these negotiations will be crucial in any attempt to predict the coming developments in the regional power struggle between Israel, and Iran and its proxy forces.

Rebekka Storm Rubin Lauritzen

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