Samya Kullab/No rules of engagement mean no more red lines with Israel

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 No rules of engagement mean no more red lines with Israel
Samya Kullab/The Daily Star/Feb. 02, 2015

BEIRUT: Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah addressed his supporters on Feb. 17, 2010, in a televised speech to commemorate the killing of both his predecessor Abbas Mousawi, who died during an Israeli air raid in 1992, and Hezbollah’s top military commander Imad Mughniyeh, killed in a car bomb attack in 2008. Their deaths, he promised, would be avenged “in the right time and place, and circumstances.” By threatening to respond to Israeli attacks proportionately – “If you bomb the Rafic Hariri Airport in Beirut, we will bomb Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion,” he told the cheering crowd – Nasrallah gave to observers a frame with which to understand Hezbollah’s confrontation with its enemy.

Five years later the scene would repeat itself, and the promise of revenge was renewed, this time at a ceremony to honor the deaths of six Hezbollah fighters killed in an Israeli airstrike in Syria’s Qunaitra. Among the dead was the son of the late military commander, 25-year-old Jihad Mughniyeh. But on this occasion Narsallah’s vow included a game-changing qualifier.

“We have the right to respond in any place, at any time and in the way we deem appropriate,” he said, signaling that the tacit rules of combat underlying Hezbollah’s war of deterrence with Israel had changed. But how this “new equation,” as Hezbollah deputy commander Naim Qassem referred to the shift, would affect future battles between the warring entities remains to be seen.

In the past, the rules of the game were simpler, recalled Timur Goksel, former spokesperson for UNIFIL and professor at the American University of Beirut, who witnessed the gradual evolution of Hezbollah during the ’90s.

The first instance in which Hezbollah and Israel agreed to respect red lines was in the Israeli-Lebanese Ceasefire Understanding of April 1996, which concluded Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath. In it both sides agreed to avoid attacks on civilians and to use populated villages to launch attacks. The dynamics changed after Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, after which clashes centered around the still-occupied Shebaa Farms.

“In between, before the 2006 [July War] the rules of the game were not to attack any place beyond Shebaa, the reason being there are no civilians there, it’s a completely militarized zone,” Goksel said.

But in 2006, the equation drastically changed when Israel launched a wide-ranging war in response to a cross-border raid by Hezbollah to kidnap two Israeli soldiers with the hope of exchanging them for captives held by Israel.

“Because the area where Hezbollah carried out the operations was not in Shebaa, everyone said they broke the rules of the game.”

Both the number of casualties and the nature of the target often determined the question of escalation, Goksel explained. Other than civilian deaths, the number of military casualties was also a factor that could determine the severity of counterattack. For instance, had the Hezbollah ambush of an Israeli convoy in Shebaa, in retaliation for the Qunaitra attack, killed 10 and not two soldiers, Goksel believes the blowback would have been far more drawn out.

Qassem Qassir, an expert in Islamic movements, interpreted Nasrallah’s public rejection of the rules of the game to mean attacks could be waged on a wider stage, well beyond the confines of Shebaa. “Now the world is an open field for Hezbollah and Israel to launch attacks,” he said, expecting the Golan Heights to see more military operations in the coming months.

“Right now we are in a transitional phase, we need to wait until the dust has settled to see what is going to happen in the region,” he added, predicting that warming U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as developments in Syria, would weigh on military calculations from both sides.

“Hezbollah has made it clear that there are no red lines,” he said. “The conflict is open.”

Former Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Hanna disagreed that Nasrallah had done away with rules of engagement. “Nature opposes a void,” he told The Daily Star. “Nasrallah said there are no more rules to the game, but that by itself constitutes a rule of the game.”

The principle of proportionality was never a set standard, he argued, but a strategic calculation considering regional and domestic circumstances in Lebanon and Israel.

“If you hit me, I will hit back, this dynamic will create an understanding, an unspoken agreement that everyone comprehends,” he said. “But sometimes there can be miscalculations, this can lead to war.”

If one side feels it is in their interest to shift the status quo, which might have provoked Israel’s attack in Qunaitra for instance, each subsequent strike would rewrite the rules, he said.

“The purpose of this is psychological: to create an atmosphere of ambiguity and anxiety that the stakes are rising,” he explained.

“It’s clear no one wants a war now – the situation today is that Israel killed seven and Hezbollah retaliated, everyone is happy – but if we go to war, it will be because it benefits the parties.”