Hizbollah may have evolved, but its stance against Israel remains

From an underdog militia to a powerful, complex state-like apparatus, Hizbollah's tactics have changed through the years, writes foreign correspondent Josh Wood

A Cypriot policeman escorts 26-year-old Lebanese-Canadian Hizbolla member, Hussein Bassam Abdallah, into a police van following a court appearance in the coastal city of Larnaca. Abdallah pleaded guilty to terror charges linked to 8.2 tonnes of potential bomb-making material found in his Cyprus home. Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP Photo
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BEIRUT // The confession of a Hizbollah member to plotting attacks on Israeli targets in Cyprus may be an indication that the Lebanese Shiite militant group has not totally abandoned its old strategy of targeting the Jewish state overseas.

Lebanese-Canadian national Hussein Bassam Abdallah, 26, was handed a six-year jail sentence by a Cypriot court on Monday after pleading guilty to eight terrorism charges.

He was arrested in the eastern coastal city of Larnaca in May in connection with the seizure of more than 8 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser that can be used in bombs. Authorities believe Hizbollah may have been stockpiling the chemical compound in Larnaca since 2011.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Hizbollah plots against Israeli and Western targets abroad were a cornerstone of the group’s global strategy, in line with their founding principal of opposing the Jewish state and its allies wherever they could. But Hizbollah’s willingness and desire to enter direct confrontation with Israel has been seen as limited in recent years as their forces have entered wars in Syria and Iraq while also fighting extremist Sunni groups on Lebanon’s eastern frontier with Syria.

In 1992, a suicide bomber driving a lorry ploughed into the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in Argentina, killing 29 civilians including four Israelis. Argentina charged Imad Mughniyeh – a famed Hizbollah operative revered by the militant group – with the attack.

Two years later, a suicide bomber driving a car packed with ammonium nitrate hit a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, killing 85. Argentina again blamed Hizbollah.

More recently in July 2012, a Lebanese-born Swedish national and Hizbollah member was arrested in the southern Cypriot port town of Limassol. He admitted to surveilling Israeli charter flights and hotels frequented by Israelis in preparation for future attacks.

Less than two weeks after that arrest, a suicide bomber struck a bus carrying Israeli tourists who had just arrived on a charter flight at Bulgaria’s Burgas airport, killing five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver. Israel and a number of European sources blamed Hizbollah for the attack, but the militant group denied involvement.

Bomb attacks targeting Israeli civilian and military targets hark back to Hizbollah’s early years when they were a rag tag militia battling the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Since then, Hizbollah has evolved from an underdog militia to a powerful, complex state-like apparatus.

They rule the areas they control in Lebanon with their own bureaucracy and institutions and, at times, are seen by many observers as being militarily superior to the state.

Like a sovereign state, they intervene in regional conflicts and project their influence well beyond Lebanon’s borders.

Their push for dominion has supplanted guerrilla attacks as the defining facet of the group.

As they evolved, attention mostly turned away from Israel, the enemy the group was initially formed to battle against.

In 2012, the group entered Syria’s civil war to help the government of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad confront its mostly Sunni rebel challengers.

With the war dragging on, Hizbollah has been playing an increasingly important role in protecting regime territory and driving advances.

Hizbollah has also devoted forces to Iraq to aid Shiite militias there.

Back in Lebanon, attention and resources have been diverted from the southern border with Israel to the eastern border with Syria where Hizbollah is currently on the frontline against extremist groups like Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIL.

For now, Hizbollah may be diverting its attention from Israel, but Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah continues to underline the need to confront the Jewish state and has said that the group is prepared for war with Lebanon’s southern neighbour.

The group has also tried to draw parallels between the fight against Israel and the fight in Syria.

In a recent video aired by Hizbollah’s Al Manar TV station, images of Hizbollah members fighting along Syria’s border with Lebanon were juxtaposed with old footage of the group’s guerrillas fighting the Israelis in southern Lebanon.

Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria has at times unnerved the Israelis who do not want to see the Shiite militants extend their frontline with their state by seizing territory in the Golan Heights.

In January, an Israeli airstrike on the Golan Heights killed Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Hizbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh who was himself assassinated in 2008. In retaliation, a cross-border Hizbollah attack killed two Israeli soldiers and prompted Israel to barrage southern Lebanon with artillery. But the strike did not draw Hizbollah and Israel into a larger conflict.

With Hizbollah devoting resources to its war in Syria and along Lebanon’s eastern border, any provocation of Israel will be dangerous.

For Israel, however, initiating an attack on Hizbollah while their forces are stretched could deal a significant blow to the militant group.

But so far, restraint has been shown.

The war in Syria has complicated the picture in the crowded Levant, bringing together groups and conflicts across borders, and an attack on Hizbollah could sharply shift the balance of Syria and bring different undesirable groups to Israel’s doorstep.