Threat or chance? Israel eyes Lebanon protests closely

Mount Hermon (AFP) –


Looking down on Lebanon from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, soldiers wonder whether the political turmoil in the neighbouring country will weaken arch-enemy Hezbollah or make it more dangerous.

"There, Hezbollah is very, very strong," said Samuel Boujenah of the Israeli military, gazing at a valley where calm was recently shattered by clashes with the Iran-backed Shiite group.

He was standing on Mount Hermon, a strategic and fortified outpost at the crossroads between Israel, Lebanon and Syria where Israeli military vehicles patrol and drones buzz in the sky.

It was in this region where on September 1 three Hezbollah anti-tank missiles hit near the Israeli township of Avivim, the first attack near a civilian area since the 2006 war between the armed Lebanese movement and Israel.

Motorists travelling along the winding mountain road still feel the bumps in the bitumen left by the strikes.

The frontlines have been unchanged for years, but it is the events of recent weeks in Lebanon that, Israel hopes, may weaken its foe Hezbollah, which it regards as a terrorist organisation.

Lebanon has been rocked by unprecedented, cross-faith civic protests that have bridged sectarian divides to demand the removal of the entire political class, whom the demonstrators accuse of systematic corruption.

- 'Opportunity for change' -

Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of Hezbollah -- a major political player -- has warned the unrest could lead to "chaos and collapse" of the economy.

Now Israel wonders whether Lebanon's troubles -- and the rising street pressure that is also being felt by Nasrallah -- could spell a threat or an opportunity for the Jewish state.

"We are monitoring what is happening in Lebanon, of course we have an interest," Israeli army spokesman Jonathan Conricus told reporters during a recent Mount Hermon visit.

"We don't have any involvement in what is going on", he stressed.

But he said Israel remains worried about Hezbollah, which could "collect intelligence, patrol the area and, when they want to, attack Israel" from southern Lebanon, including with precision guided missiles it has been manufacturing.

Conricus argued Lebanon should "get rid of" Hezbollah.

"As long as they allow Hezbollah, Iran's proxy, to do what they want in Lebanon, that becomes a threat for us, and maybe now it is a good opportunity to change that", he contended.

- Aid as leverage -

Israel is trying to convince the international community to limit Hezbollah's influence.

The Jewish state believes leverage could be exerted through economic aid for Lebanon, a country burdened by public debt of $86 billion, or 150 per cent of GDP.

"Israel has asked the United States and European countries to make any aid to Lebanon conditional on the closure of Hezbollah missile factories," a senior Israeli official told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Middle East expert Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University said such a strategy could achieve "some minimal progress", including pushing Hezbollah to back off developing missiles, but cautioned that it would not resolve the wider conflict.

A far worse outcome would be for an under-pressure Hezbollah to seek to divert attention and rally support by unleashing new attacks against Israel, warned Orna Mizrahi, a former security executive in the Israeli prime minister's office and now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies.

If Hezbollah "want to demonstrate that they continue the fight against Israel and they are the protector of Lebanon, you can't ignore the scenario of deterioration -- that if they are doing something, and Israel is retaliating, then we get some kind of deterioration," said Mizrahi.

In the long term, Israel must face the danger that Hezbollah will maintain its influence in Lebanon, or even increase it if chaos sets in, as Nasrallah has already suggested.

Such a scenario, said Mizrahi, "might be more complicated for us".

For the time being, however, said the Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour, the country's self-inflicted chaos meant that "if anyone is having a laugh", it is Israel.