من موقع ميمري: نقاشات في الصحافة العربية تتناول حدوث حرب وشيكة بين إسرائيل وحزب الله/H. Varulkar/MEMRI: In Arab Media, Increased Discussion Of Imminent Israel-Hizbullah War

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In Arab Media, Increased Discussion Of Imminent Israel-Hizbullah War
من موقع ميمري: نقاشات في الصحافة العربية تتناول حدوث حرب وشيكة بين إسرائيل وحزب الله
H. Varulkar/MEMRI/April 30/2019

In recent weeks, there has been an upsurge in discussion in the Arab media, particularly in the Lebanese and Syrian media, of the possibility of war this summer between Israel and Hizbullah, and perhaps even of war across the region. This is despite the fact that Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has reiterated that his organization is not anticipating a war in the near future and Lebanese President Michel Aoun also stated, on April 29, 2019, that war is not imminent.[1]

Numerous factors have contributed to the spike in talk of war, first and foremost the U.S. sanctions on Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah that have exacerbated the economic crises they are already experiencing. Other factors include the April 8, 2019, U.S. designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO);U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s April 22 announcement that from May 3, 2019, the U.S. would not renew sanctions waivers for nations importing Iranian oil; and Iran’s threats to close off the Strait of Hormuz.[2]

Additionally, there have been increasing threats from senior U.S. officials visiting Lebanon, most importantly by Secretary of State Pompeo, to tighten the sanctions on Hizbullah and to expand them to include other Lebanese elements close to them. It should be noted that the U.S. sanctions on Hizbullah have already seriously impacted the organization to the point where it recently requested the public’s help with fundraising.

Further contributing to the tension in the region was U.S. President Donald Trump’s March 25 recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, enraging the Syrian regime and its allies in the region, Iran and Hizbullah, and Israel’s ongoing aerial attacks against Iranian and Hizbullah targets in Syria.

This report will review articles in Arab media about the possibility of an Israel-Hizbullah war.

Lebanese And Arab Press: Fear That War Will Break Out In May Or June 2019

Over the past two months, Hizbullah Secretary-General Nasrallah has reiterated in his speeches that he does not anticipate war with Israel soon, and that what is preventing Israel from starting a war with Lebanon is Hizbullah’s deterrent power. In these speeches, Nasrallah spoke with restraint about the measures taken by Israel and the U.S., among them recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Israel’s aerial bombing forays in Syria, the designation of the IRGC as an FTO, and the announcement that the sanctions waivers for nations importing Iranian oil will not be renewed. While he did condemn them, criticize the U.S., and say that the resistance axis retains the right to respond to them, he did not say what this response would be.[3]

Nevertheless, in the Arab press, and especially the Lebanese press, there is clear apprehension as well as warnings that Lebanon is on the threshold of war with Israel. For example, senior Saudi journalist Fares bin Hizam wrote in his March 28, 2019 column in the Saudi Al-Hayat daily, under the headline “The Upcoming War With Iran,” that “the situation today is closer to war with Iran than ever” because of the harsh sanctions on Iran and the Trump administration’s willingness to enter into military conflict with it, and also in light of the ongoing Israeli attacks in Syria. He also pointed to May as a possible month for the outbreak of such a war, because of the lapse of the sanction waivers on the import of Iranian oil then.[4]

The following day, the Shi’ite Lebanese website Janoubia.com, which is owned by the anti-Hizbullah Shi’ite journalist Ali Al-Amin, published an article by Hassan Hammoud titled “About The Next War, In The Summer, And Hizbullah’s Preparations,” stating that Hizbullah’s supporters in Lebanon were quoting senior Hizbullah officials discussing the possibility of war with Israel in June. It added that this war would be waged also on the Syrian front.[5] Additionally, Al-Amin warned, in an article in the London-based Al-Arab newspaper, about the possibility of a military escalation in the region beginning in May because of the harsher sanctions on Iran which, he said would cost Lebanon dearly.[6]

Similar arguments were very much in evidence also in articles published over the past month in the Lebanese Al-Nahar daily. On March 28, following the U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, columnist for the newspaper Ibrahim Haidar wrote that this move in itself would not lead to war in southern Lebanon, “but the exacerbation of the U.S.-Iran conflict… could threaten border stability.” He went on to urge Hizbullah to take no steps that would be bad for Lebanon.[7] In a subsequent column, on April 15, Haidar wrote: “Hizbullah is taking into account the possibility that the U.S.-Iran conflict will ignite, and it knows that it will be part of it… Therefore, according to sources close to it, it is planning for any possibility, issuing threats.., and outwardly escalating [its positions] while seeking to maintain calm in the domestic arena…”[8] Additionally, Lebanese journalist Ibrahim Bayram wrote, on April 12 in Al-Nahar, that conflict was likely to break out following the implementation of harsher sanctions on Iran in May, and added that Hizbullah was preparing for the possibility.[9]

Reports that Hizbullah was preparing for war with Israel were also published by other Lebanese media. The Lebanese Elnashra.com website reported that in light of the fear that Israel would attack Hizbullah facilities in Lebanon, which would lead to war, “Hizbullah has recently upgraded its presence in southern Lebanon,” and has even “prepared complete plans for handling any aggressive operation” by Israel. Sources told the daily that Hizbullah’s preparations for war with Israel were underway not only in the south of the country but also in Syria, because Hizbullah also has missiles there.[10]

The Lebanese Al-Modon daily reported, on March 30, on recent organizational and military changes by Hizbullah, including new appointments to senior positions, among them positions overseeing the sectors in southern Lebanon. According to the report, changes were also made to Hizbullah’s military deployment, but these changes had not made public by the organization.[11]

Additionally, the Arab and Lebanese press recently reported that Israel had sent messages to the U.S. and France that it had no intention of remaining silent in the face of Hizbullah’s recent construction, on Lebanese territory with Iranian funds, of a plant manufacturing precision missiles.[12]

Syrian Officials, Journalists: The Situation Is Likely To Descend Into All-Out War

In Syria too, there have been warnings that the resistance axis could launch a war against Israel, in response to President Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, to Israel’s aerial attacks on Syria, and to the U.S. designation of the IRGC as an FTO. For example, Syrian deputy parliamentary speaker Najdat Anzour told the Syrian daily Al-Watan, following the U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, that the option of “mobilizing all popular forces, and the alliance of the resistance, in advance of a possible military clash with the Zionist enemy is being considered.”[13]

These warnings have come also in articles in the Syrian state press and in newspapers close to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. For example, in an article in the Syrian Al-Watan daily, which is close to the regime, journalist Fares Al-Jeroudy wrote that President Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan would lead to an escalation in the region that would end in all-out war.[14]

In the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra, journalist Muhriz Al-Ali criticized the U.S. recognition of this Israeli sovereignty and its designation of the IRGC as an FTO, stating that by doing so it was “setting the region on a barrel of explosives that could go off at any moment.” He added that these moves were likely to lead to “wars whose destructive results no one can foresee.”[15] Syrian journalist Hiba Ali Ahmad wrote in her column in the Teshreen government daily that Israel is surrounded by resistance movements, particularly by Hizbullah on its northern border. She continued: “In every future clash, its defeat will be greater in human lives and property, because Hizbullah has precision missiles… and great weapons capabilities, and because its missiles cover every inch of occupied Palestine…”[16]
Editor Of Arab Daily: Hizbullah Official Told Me That On May 3, A Military Operation “Will Be Inevitable”; Hizbullah Denies This

A notable article discussing the possibility of an imminent war was published March 29, 2019, by Abd Al-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based online daily Rai Al-Yawm. It focused on his recent visit to Lebanon, during which he met with senior Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, as well as with politicians, senior economic officials, Lebanese journalists, and MP from Hizbullah Nawaf Al-Moussawi. Atwan wrote:

“Al-Moussawi, who just two days ago met for five hours with [Hizbullah Secretary-General] Hassan Nasrallah and with other senior officials whose names he did not provide, stressed [to me] that May 3 will be an historic day. When I asked him for clarification, he said that it was the day when the second phase of the U.S. sanctions on Iran would come into effect, preventing it from exporting a single barrel of oil. Al-Moussawi added, in these exact words: ‘Iran will face two options: The first is to allow the U.S. to starve 70 million Iranians, which will bring down the regime from within, and the Iranian leadership will in no way allow this to happen. The second is to enter into a war with the U.S., Israel, and their allies in the region. Because of this [situation], this military response is inevitable, whatever the outcome.'”

Atwan added: “[Al-Moussawi] refused to name the place where the military response would occur, and how it would happen, saying that this was up to the military. But he did not rule out the possibility that Hizbullah and other [elements] would be at the heart of the battle…”[17]

Following the article’s publication, Hizbullah’s media relations department hastened to publish a denial of the statements attributed to Hizbullah MP Nawaf Al-Moussawi in Atwan’s article, noting that the meeting between the two had been personal and intended to be off the record.[18]

It is noteworthy that in various articles published in April, Atwan repeatedly claimed that a regional war is anticipated in the near future, particularly mentioning May 3. In an April 24 article, he even presented several possible scenarios for an Iranian response on that date: a) closure of the Strait of Hormuz by the IRGC; b) an official Iranian withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement and a return to enriching uranium at higher levels of concentration, which will lead to the establishment of a military nuclear arsenal; c) giving a free hand to the IRGC, to Syrian and Iraqi factions, to Hizbullah, to Hamas, and to Islamic Jihad to perpetrate terror attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets in the region, and possibly also worldwide; and d) attempting to close the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait at the entrance to the Red Sea and threaten global marine transportation with terror attacks perpetrated by the Houthis against U.S. and Israeli vessels.[19]

Kuwaiti Daily: Nasrallah Has Prepared Hizbullah Senior Officials For The Possibility Of An Imminent War During Which He May Be Killed

In another notable article, published April 21 in the Kuwaiti Al-Rai daily, journalist Elijah J. Magnier reported on a closed and secret meeting convened recently by Hizbullah Secretary-General Nasrallah with senior Hizbullah commanders. According to the report, at the meeting Nasrallah informed the commanders that there was a high probability of war with Israel in the coming summer, and even asked them to pass on this information to the residents of the villages in southern Lebanon. He added that there is evidence that Israel seeks to launch a surprise attack against Lebanon, like that in 2006, so they must be prepared for every eventuality.

The report also stated that Nasrallah had, during the meeting, referred to the possibility that he might be killed, telling those present: “It is possible that I will not be among you for much longer, and it is possible that most of the senior officers [in the organization] will die along with me. It is possible that Israel will succeed in wiping out the commanders… [We have prepared] for extreme eventualities and for the deaths of the commanders…” Hizbullah, it added, is assuming that Israel will attempt to assassinate Nasrallah, leading to war, and that the organization had already evacuated some of its positions in preparation for the confrontation, and had also delegated authority to commanders in the field and prepared plans for various scenarios.[20]

Nasrallah Responds: The Kuwaiti Daily’s Report Is False; I Reject The Possibility Of An Imminent War With Israel

Elements in Hizbullah hastened to deny the Al-Rai report on the meeting between Nasrallah and senior Hizbullah commanders, including the statements attributed to him. Sources in Hizbullah’s media relations department told Lebanon’s MTV channel that the “article is a fabrication, a figment of the thoughts and imagination of the writer” and that “there is no connection between it and reality.”[21]The following day, on April 22, Nasrallah himself denied the Kuwaiti report in a speech: “I never said, at any meeting, that this summer an Israeli war against Lebanon will break out. I never said that I will not be among you, for this matter is in the hands of Allah, and I never said that top or second-level commanders would be killed. Everything that appeared [in this report] is a figment of the imagination and is totally incorrect.” He added: “I personally would reject the possibility of an Israeli war [against Lebanon], because the Israeli home front is unprepared and all the Zionists’ boasting about their ability to deal with with the missiles is incorrect… Further, the time has passed when the Israeli air force could determine the outcome of the war. [Today,] in order to determine the outcome of a war, Israel would have to undertake a ground mission, and the Israeli ground forces are unprepared for this…” He went on to state that within Israel itself, there are those who oppose a war with Hizbullah, but at the same time noted that Israel is a cunning enemy and that one must be prepared for any confrontation with it – and that is why the resistance is always ready and draws up plans for worst-case scenarios.[22]

Despite Hizbullah’s Denials, Arab And Lebanese Papers Insist That Chances Of War Are High

Nasrallah’s claims notwithstanding, Arab and Lebanese commentators continue to assess that an imminent war with Israel is likely. For example, in another article, published April 22, following Nasrallah’s denial, ‘Abd Al-Bari ‘Atwan wrote that the region is on the brink of war, and added that Nasrallah is taking care not to escalate his rhetoric for reasons having to do with the domestic Lebanese front. “The fact that Nasrallah refrained from speaking about Iran’s reaction [to the U.S. decision not to renew sanctions waivers for nations importing Iranian oil] does not mean that the chances of war are not very high… Nasrallah is trying to maintain the stability of the Lebanese domestic arena and to avoid sparking chaos there, especially in light of the suffocating economic crisis [there]… Still, all signs indicate that the chances of war are greater than the chances of peace…” ‘Atwan concluded: “The coming days will be full of unpleasant surprises for the U.S. and for its Arab and Israeli allies.”[23]

Writing in the Lebanese daily Al-Jumhouriyya, journalist Georges Hayek likewise assessed that the chance of war remains high, and leaned towards believing the Al-Rai report rather than Nasrallah’s denial. He wrote: “It may be illogical for a commander [like Nasrallah], who is glorified by the public of the resistance axis, to make remarks [like those attributed to him by Al-Rai], considering their negative impact on the morale of [Hizbullah’s] operatives and supporters. Still, nobody can deny that attempts to assassinate top [Hizbullah] commanders are always a conceivable [option]… Also, we must not forget that Israel assassinated Nasrallah’s predecessor, ‘Abbas Moussawi, in 1992…

“The chances of a Hizbullah-Israel war seem high in light of the escalating [tensions] between the U.S. and Iran, and the second wave of U.S. sanctions that are scheduled to [come into effect] soon, on May 3. This will increase the pressure on Iran, and it will face tough choices, one of which will surely be a military solution. As a result, the Lebanese arena will not be immune to the [effects] of war. In fact, it may be at the epicenter of the war, given Hizbullah’s close involvement in Iran’s strategy. All this means that the talk about a threat to Nasrallah’s life is not implausible, even if it was denied and described [by Hizbullah] as imaginary.”[24]

On The Possibility That The Palestinians May Participate In The Campaign
As part of the discussion in the Arab press about an imminent war, some also raised the possibility that the Palestinians might participate in it. On April 21, 2019, ‘Abd Al-Bari ‘Atwan, editor of the online daily Rai Al-Yawm, wrote in the publication that “hundreds or even thousands of missiles will be fired every day on cities, airports, factories and military bases in Israel, from South Lebanon, Syria, Iran and perhaps also from the Gaza Strip.”[25]

In his April 23 column in the Hamas-affiliated daily Felesteen, Yousuf Rizka responded to reports about the possibility of an Israel-Hizbullah or Israel-Hamas war this summer, wondering whether Israel would fight on both fronts simultaneously. If that happens, he stated, “it will mean that Gaza and Lebanon share a single destiny, so they must coordinate, cooperate and share information.” He added: “Israel’s threats of war must not intimidate either of these [two] parties… for Israel will find itself facing fighters who are ready to die as martyrs and who neither fear death nor flee the battlefield…”[26]

In an article on the anti-Hizbullah Shi’ite Lebanese Janoubia.com, Lebanese journalist ‘Abdallah Al-Khiami assessed that the tightening of U.S. sanctions on Iran would result in action against Israel. This action, he said, may take several forms, specifically, either “high-quality operations carried out in the occupied territories by internal [Palestinian] forces, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” “a military infiltration of occupied Palestine by Hizbullah,” or a combination of both.[27]

In this context, it should be noted that on March 25 Nasrallah and Hamas deputy political chief Saleh Al-Arouri met to discuss the need for cooperation and for consolidating the efforts of the axis of resistance “to contend with the American-Israeli attack” against it.[28] It was also mentioned that senior members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are inclined to praise Iran’s positions and its support of their two organizations, and that recently Hamas had condemned the U.S. decision to designate the IRGC as an FTO.[29]
*H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 30, 2019.
[2] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7996, Reactions In Iran To U.S. Designation Of IRGC As A Terror Organization, April 11, 2019 and MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8014, Iranian Regime Mouthpiece ‘Kayhan’ Calls For Targeting America’s Economic Interests In The Region, Blocking Strait Of Hormuz And Red Sea To Saudi Oil Exports, April 22, 2019.
[3] Almanar.lb, March 26, 2019; Alahednews.lb, April 10, 2019; Almanar.lb, April 23, 2019.
[4] Al-Hayat (Dubai), March 28, 2019.
[5] Janoubia.com, March 29, 2019.
[6] Al-Arab (London), April 2, 2019.
[7] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), March 28, 2019.
[8] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), April 15, 2019.
[9] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), April 12, 2019.
[10] Elnashra.com, March 29, 2019.
[11] Al-Modon (Lebanon), March 30, 2019.
[12] Al-Rai (Kuwait), April 17, 2019; Al-Hayat (Dubai), April 20, 2019.
[13] The Al-Watan daily also quoted the director of the Golan Affairs Ministry in the Syrian Prime Minister’s Office as saying that this “could cause the resistance axis to coordinate [positions among its members] and escalate [the situation] in order to… regain the Golan. He added that Syria has the right to use all means necessary, including war, to regain its territory. Al-Watan, Syria, March 24, 2019.
[14] Al-Watan (Syria), April 2, 2019.
[15] Al-Thawra (Syria), April 10, 2019.
[16] Teshreen (Syria), April 17, 2019.
[17] Raialyoum.com, March 29, 2019.
[18] Mediarelations-lb.org, March 30, 2019.
[19] Raialyoum.com, April 21, 2019; April 22, 2019; and April 24, 2019.
[20] Al-Rai (Kuwait), April 21, 2019. It should be noted that ‘Abd Al-Bari ‘Atwan, editor of the online daily Rai Al-Yawm, claimed that the journalist who wrote the article in the Kuwaiti Al-Rai is known to be very close to Hizbullah circles and is trusted by the organization. Raialyoum.com, April 21, 2019.
[21] Elnashra.com, April 21, 2019.
[22] Almanar.com.lb, April 23, 2019.
[23] Raialyoum.com, April 22, 2019.
[24] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), April 23, 2019.
[25] Raialyoum.com, April 21, 2019.
[26] Felesteen.ps, April 23, 2019.
[27] Janoubia.com, April 11, 2019.
[28] Almanar.com.lb, March 25, 2019; Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), March 27, 2019.
[29] Alahednews.com.lb, March 4, 2019; Almayadeen.net, March 30, 2019; Alarabiya.net, April 10, 2019.
https://www.memri.org/reports/arab-media-increased-discussion-imminent-israel-hizbullah-war