May 24, 2023 - World

Inside Hezbollah's wargames near the Israeli border

 Pro-Iranian Hezbollah fighters take part in a staged military exercise in a camp in the Lebanese southern village of Aramta. Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images

Pro-Iranian Hezbollah fighters take part in a staged military exercise in a camp in the Lebanese southern village of Aaramta on May 21. Photo: Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images

AARAMTA, LEBANON — The Lebanese Hezbollah militant group held a rare demonstration of the group's fighting power this week in an apparent attempt to remind the Lebanese people, Israel and Iran about its military capacity and role in the region.

Why it matters: The military exercise was unusual not only because it was made public — nearly 400 people attended, including Hezbollah supporters and several journalists — but also because it was conducted only 12 miles north of the Israeli border, just outside an area where militias are not allowed to operate under a UN Security Council resolution adopted in 2006.

  • Rockets fired toward Israel from Lebanon following a violent Israeli military raid on Jerusalem's Haram al-Sharif compound, also known as the Temple Mount, less than two months ago resulted in the most serious escalation between the two countries since the 2006 war. The Israeli military said Hamas was behind the rockets, though Hamas never claimed it fired them.
  • Israel responded with strikes in Lebanon. It, however, only targeted Hamas targets in an effort to avoid a wider conflict with Hezbollah.

Driving the news: Sunday's exercise took place ahead of the annual celebration of “Liberation Day," when the Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon on May 25, 2000, after a 15-year occupation of the territory.

  • During the two-hour staged military exercise, held at one of Hezbollah’s training sites in southern Lebanon, fighters jumped through flaming hoops, demonstrated their hand-to-hand knife combat skills, and fired off the back of motorcycles at Israeli-flag targets.
  • At the end, Hezbollah’s fighters emerged from plumes of gun and rocket-fire smoke, ripped out an Israeli flag, and planted in its place the distinctive yellow and green flag of the militant group. Claps and cheers then erupted from the audience, which faded into religious chants and melodies.
  • Dalal Shahrour who came to attend the military show from the Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon told Axios that Palestinians “have high hopes that Palestine will be liberated very, very, very soon and Israel will be defeated and we will return."
  • “The people who saw the show can really feel the power of Hezbollah,” said a 22-year-old Lebanese Christian youth, who supports the Shiite group and asked to remain anonymous. “What I like about Hezbollah is that they’re not just fighting for themselves … they are defending the Lebanese people,” he told Axios at the event.

The other side: A day after the exercises, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Aharon Haliva, said that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was “close to making a mistake that could plunge the region into a big war” and warned that Israel would be “ready to use force” in the event of an escalation on the Israeli-Lebanese or Syrian border.

  • The U.S. and Israel consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

What they're saying: Hezbollah deputy secretary-general Sheikh Naim Qassem said the military drill sends a “message of deterrence” and “readiness to confront any Zionist aggression and defend Lebanon.''

  • He added that the weapons presented during the exercise represent a fraction of Hezbollah’s arsenal and stressed that the organization’s precision missiles weren’t shown.
  • Although no precision-guided missiles were displayed at the military show, Hezbollah did reveal a new anti-drone weapon.
  • Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati criticized Hezbollah’s public show of force and told the UN special envoy in Lebanon this week that “the issue” of Hezbollah’s weapons “must be among the priorities of the coming phase."

Between the lines: “The parade demonstrates how much weaker the Lebanese state has become while Hezbollah grows its military capabilities,” Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Axios, noting how the country’s army and security forces have weakened as its state coffers dry up.

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that Hezbollah's military drills took place just outside the area where militias are not allowed to operate under a UN Security Council resolution, not inside the area.

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