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Hezbollah Soldiers On

Author: Greg Bruno
August 13, 2008

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In the twenty-four months since the UN Security Council called for "the immediate cessation" of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, few shots have been fired by either side. Cross-border rhetoric notwithstanding, the bitter rivals even managed to pull off a controversial prisoner swap in July (WashPost). But the UN's broader goal outlined two years ago—to find a permanent solution to the conflict—remains elusive. As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it, the UN resolution designed to mediate lasting peace has "failed to fulfill its goals" (AFP).

For Hezbollah, however, the last two years have been a period of rapid ascendancy, including expanded military might, electoral strength, and what appears to be enhanced political cover (USNews) from Lebanon's new president. Beirut's policy statement legitimizing Hezbollah's right to "liberate lands that have remained occupied" by Israel—a deeply troubling prospect for Israeli leaders—is further proof of Hezbollah's increasing influence (Haaretz).

The question for Hezbollah now appears to be, "What next?" Hassan Nasrallah, the militant group's reclusive leader, has sought to keep attention on its founding mission: defending against an Israeli occupation of Lebanon. During a speech in Iran on August 6, Nasrallah said Hezbollah's struggle had finally weakened its Zionist enemy. Israel "is only a spider web if not weaker," he said, days after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced plans to step down (Telegraph) amid corruption charges. But few analysts believe the Shiite guerilla group is preparing to ease its militancy. Indeed, many point to allegations that Hezbollah has recruited in Germany (Spiegel) as proof of the group's broader ambitions.

Enabling this expansion, terrorism experts say, is the covert hand of Iran. Middle East security analysts Jonathan D. Halevi and Ashley Perry write that Hezbollah has become Iran's proxy for exporting Islamic ideals far beyond Lebanon (Ynet). "Footprints can be found in various African and South American countries," they argue. Frederick W. Kagan and colleagues at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute contend that Hezbollah has become an even more important partner for Iran as the mullahs vie for information and influence (PDF) along Israel's northern border.

Determining Hezbollah's ability to carry out its broadened goals, at least militarily, remains an exercise in speculation. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon alluded to in a June 2008 report, nearly all of the intelligence on Hezbollah's rearming has come by way of Israel (PDF). But analysts and Israeli intelligence officials sound increasingly alarmed. Kagan and colleagues say Iran has played a significant role in rearming Hezbollah since the group shocked Israel with its military strength two years ago, supplying its Shiite proxy with everything from long-range surface-to-air missiles to British-made night-vision goggles. The British press has alleged that Syrian officials (Times-UK) have supplied Hezbollah with advanced anti-aircraft missiles capable of targeting Israeli jets.

For the West, the rising star of Hezbollah presents a containment challenge. Gen. David Petraeus, incoming commander of U.S. Central Command, was in Lebanon on August 6 to offer increased U.S. support (AP) to the country's national army. Western governments have also sought to contain the militant group's ascendancy by creating a peacekeeping force, enshrined in Resolution 1701, and freezing some of the group's assets (WashPost). But Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says European leaders, in particular, need to do more (PDF).

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