WASHINGTON — Israel is urging the Bush administration to target Hezbollah following the war in Iraq, arguing that the militant Shiite organization threatens the stability of the Middle East and the security of the United States worldwide.
Based in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has stepped up its anti-American rhetoric since the start of the war in Iraq three weeks ago. Israeli intelligence sources warn that Hezbollah may be involved in recruiting volunteers to fight allied forces in Iraq, although the group has not directly targeted Israel or the United States since hostilities began.
According to Israeli government sources in Washington, such warnings have been conveyed to American officials during “working level” talks between the two countries on postwar priorities.
Critics of Hezbollah argue that the group’s global network of sleeper cells and its ability to destabilize the region with missile attacks against Israel make it impossible for the Bush administration to ignore. Israeli sources said that one plausible scenario would be an American green light for Israeli strikes against Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, following American diplomatic measures to ensure that such Israeli actions would not spark a Syrian reaction.
“Clearly, we would have to work together closely on this one,” said an Israeli diplomat in Washington.
Several experts warned that any military or diplomatic action by the United States against Hezbollah could trigger a string of devastating, retaliatory terrorist strikes.
“They have dormant cells around the world, which they can easily decide to use,” said Gal Luft, an expert on Hezbollah who co-directs the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a small Washington-based advocacy group dedicated to ending America’s dependence on Arab oil.
Israel’s position is that after stabilizing the situation in Iraq, the United States should act against Hezbollah, regardless of the organization’s behavior during the war, sources said.
Israeli sources told the Forward that even if Hezbollah does not actively fight with Iraq in the war, action must be taken because the organization has both the motivation and the ability to launch future attacks. Israeli officials have warned that Hezbollah boasts a military capability exceeding that of some Arab states, and a global network of dormant cells with the ability to hit American targets around the world.
Also, Israeli officials warn, Hezbollah could at any moment destabilize the region by provoking Jerusalem with cross-border attacks.
“Hezbollah can easily flare up Israel’s northern border and drag us into a war with Syria,” said an Israeli diplomat in Washington. “This is potentially very dangerous.”
Former FBI terrorism analyst Matthew Levitt argued that an effective anti-Hezbollah strategy would combine aggressive diplomatic pressure on Iran and Syria to end their support for the organization with decisive military measures against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.
Now a fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Studies, Levitt argued that Hezbollah faces a difficult decision over whether to jump into the current war by attacking American targets.
On the one hand, Levitt said, Hezbollah has “an acute interest in attempting to derail the war on terror by derailing the war in Iraq.” But attacks against American forces could lead to intense American pressure on Iran and Syria to end their support for the organization, effectively destroying it.
Hezbollah might opt for preemptive terrorist attacks against American targets, observers said, if it feels that the United States is successfully pressuring Iran and Syria to end their sponsorship of the organization. The organization could effectively carry out terrorist attacks even without support from Iran and Syria, and even without the safe haven it now enjoys in Lebanon, Luft said.
“Hezbollah is likely to continue its involvement in international terrorism, but is likely to do so via proxies, leaving no fingerprints,” Luft said.
Even if it loses support from its state sponsors or its ability to act freely in Lebanon, Hezbollah still enjoys significant advantages over Al Qaeda. Hezbollah maintains a large arsenal of weapons, and is widely respected and admired throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds for what is perceived as its victory in driving Israeli military forces out of Lebanon.
During a conference on terrorism last September, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said that “Hezbollah may be the ‘A team’ of terrorists,” while “Al Qaeda is actually the ‘B team.’”
Armitage said that Hezbollah is “on the list, their time will come, there’s is no question about it.” He continued: “they have a blood debt to us and… we’re not going to forget it,” referring to several anti-American attacks for which the group has claimed credit.
“All in good time we’re going to go after these problems, just like a high school wrestler goes out for a match: we’re going to take [them] down one at a time,” he told the conference, hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Hezbollah has regularly been broadcasting anti-American clips on its popular satellite television channel, Al Manar.
“Hezbollah has already launched unconventional warfare — a public relations campaign via the airwaves — against the U.S.,” said Avi Jorish, an expert on Hezbollah who is completing a monograph on Al Manar.
The station, beamed by satellite to tens of millions of Arabs worldwide, devotes about one quarter of its airtime to short video-clips, typically featuring evocative images collaged over combative soundtracks. Before the war started, Jorish said, approximately 80% of these clips were anti-Israel and the rest anti-American. “Now it is reversed,” Jorish said. “Almost all this material is of an anti-American nature.”
Last week, briefing diplomats, reporters and scholars at the Washington Institute, Jorish played a chilling selection of the new anti-American clips recorded from Al Manar. One shows President Bush holding a knife and a fork, devouring the globe, under the slogan “the beauty and the beast.” Another compares Bush to Hitler, flashing visually similar images from World War II and the Iraq war, with a slogan reading “history repeats itself.”
In one segment, the Statue of Liberty is portrayed as a skeleton clutching a knife.
A particularly disturbing clip, suggesting future attacks against the United States, features a song that ends with the words: “Let the mother of terrorism fall / America is the army of evil / An invading aggressive occupying army / There is nothing left but rifles / There is nothing left but the martyrs.”
The clip ends with the image of a suicide-bomber’s explosive-belt blasting, which Jorish interpreted as a not-so-veiled call for suicide attacks against the United States.