Hizballah’s decision to kidnap the two IDF soldiers was taken by Sheikh Hassan Nasserallah and the other six members of the Shura Karar, its supreme decision-making body. Additionally there are two Iranian representatives (from the Iranian embassy in Beirut/Damascus) that provide a direct link on matters that require strategic guidance or Iranian assistance or arbitration. The file for handling special operations of this kind is usually left to Imad Mughniyeh, the elusive terrorist mastermind for Hizballah, who stands with one foot within Hizballah (reporting to Nasserallah directly) and with one foot in Iran inside the architectures of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the al-Qods unit within the Iranian Pasdaran. Mughniyeh is strictly reserved for special occasions (like the Buenos Aires bombing in 1992 to avenge the Israeli assassination of the previous leader Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi) and his primary mission over the last decade has been to forge qualitative ‘military’ guidance to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives inside Gaza and the West Bank.
Hizballah’s overall guidance and support to the Palestinian militants has been strengthened on multiple levels. Firstly the presence of Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ representative to Lebanon, makes a qualitative difference. Hamdan is an important conduit for the Hizballah-Hamas-Iran axis as he was the Hamas representative to Iran for many years. Hamdan resides in dahiyya (southern suburbs) of Beirut amidst Hizballah’s own offices and supporters. Alongside with the Hamas exile leadership in Syria (most notably Imad Alami, Khalid Mishal and others), this presence has strengthened Hamas-Hizballah consultations on all strategic and military affairs, especially influencing the decision by Hamas to recently kidnap the IDF soldier. Undoubtedly Hizballah influenced this decision.
Secondly, Hizballah provides continuous qualitative technical advice to Hamas in improving the Qassem rocket series through blueprints via e-mail and advice on advanced tactical guerrilla and other fighting techniques. This has even extended towards smuggling weaponry through Jordan as was evident by the 2001 arrest of one of Imad Mughniyeh’s assistants. Some of this technical expertise has been diverted towards Iraq where Hizballah has provided some technical expertise to local Shia factions to attack coalition forces.
Thirdly, Hizballah has accelerated its efforts to recruit and use foreign nationals (usually EU-passport holders) as low-level reconnaissance operatives inside Israel (see article) providing a potential second internal front for future missions. This has been complimented by a drive to recruit Druze officers inside the IDF.
Fourthly, al-Manar (Hizballah’s TV-station) is the second most watched station in Gaza providing support and direction to the Palestinian factions. In 2001 al-Manar and its high-tech studios moved to underground locations as it feared Israeli military strikes. Al-Manar is a critical vehicle for the Hizballah to amplify its threats and psychological warfare against Israel. In essence Israel will continue to prioritise disruption of media services that will debilitate Hizballah’s manoeuvrability somewhat in political influence terms.
Lastly, the Hamas-Hizballah-Iran axis is strengthened by the guidance of Ali Akhbar Mohtashemi, the former Iranian ambassador to Syria and a key founder of Hizballah in 1982, who is the Secretary-General of the International Islamic Support for the Palestinian Resistance Conference hosted in Teheran. It was Mohtashemi alongside the old Hizballah leader Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli that were the principal architects of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, which killed 243 US Marines. If Hizballah should make a break with its darker past (terrorism) these two individuals could constitute an expendable price for rehabilitation of the organisation.
Hizballah’s kidnapping operation was sophisticated and complex. Sheikh Nasserallah continuously calls for negotiations behind the scenes and for further prisoner exchange. This file is handled by Wafic Safa, who personally reports to Sheikh Nasserallah, and there will be no shortage of diplomatic efforts by third parties to intercede to try to resolve this issue. The German intelligence service, who brokered the last deal in 2004, are probably already making overtures to their contacts in Beirut. It is, however, likely to take considerable months, if not years, to resolve as Israel is unlikely to part with Sheikh Obeid or any other high value prisoners they continue to hold. It is also likely that Israeli intelligence will target a senior Hizballah official for abduction or retaliation against Iranian operatives in Lebanon.
Both Hizballah and Hamas have succeeded in manufacturing a crisis to give them manoeuvrability – for Hizballah to avoid disarmament under UN Res 1559 and for Hamas to garner international sympathy and aid. It is critical now for Wasington to assist in breaking the potential for regional escalation and to accelerate the international efforts to disarm Hizballah.