Hezbollah’s covert war with Israel has turned for the first time against the pro-Iranian militia in Lebanon. The shooting down by missiles of the Israeli Armed Forces of three of its drones, when they were heading towards the platform of a gas field in Israeli waters of the Mediterranean, has unleashed a clash with the Government of Beirut since last weekend. This Hezbollah drone incursion occurred while Lebanon and Israel negotiated with the mediation of the United States the delimitation of their common maritime border (an area with large gas reserves). In an unusual challenge to the powerful Shiite militia party, the Lebanese Executive has branded the operation of the drones as “unacceptable”. Hezbollah recorded a setback in the May elections amid the deep crisis in the country.
“Lebanon considers unacceptable any action carried out outside the framework of the powers of the State and the diplomatic context of negotiations that are at an advanced stage, since it exposes the country to unnecessary risks,” read the statement released by the office of the Prime Minister, Nayib Mikati, after a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdalá Bou Habib. Bringing the fields into commercial exploitation is vital to Lebanon’s ailing economy. 80% of the population is below the poverty line after the outbreak of the political crisis in 2019. But with its rearmed militia, hardened by a long decade of conflict in Syria, Hezbollah continues to constitute a state within the state.
The failed reconnaissance flight with unarmed drones over the Karish field, Israel’s closest to Lebanese waters, has been a warning message, according to Israeli military analysts. “The operation was intended to generate a psychological impact on Israel, which is preparing to begin gas extraction in September,” says Yossi Yehoshua, defense correspondent for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot. After setting himself up as a defender of Lebanese interests in disputed territorial waters, the leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite cleric Hassan Nasrallah, had already threatened retaliation if the gas pumping was started before Beirut accepted a delimitation agreement.
Although the drones were not flying in formation and were moving at a very low altitude, they were detected on Saturday afternoon when they were heading towards the Karish field, located a hundred kilometers from the coast of Haifa (north). An Israeli F-16 fighter launched the first attack, which was followed by the firing of missiles from the corvette. Eilat, which premiered the Barak defensive system in a real operation.
The military information services released a few hours later images of the shooting down of the drones. Contrary to the usual, the pro-Iranian Lebanese organization assumed responsibility for the operation, which it described as “mission accomplished”, without mentioning the destruction of the unmanned devices. “The message has been delivered,” he said in his statement.
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Israel’s new acting prime minister, Yair Lapid, the next day accused Hezbollah of “undermining Lebanon’s ability to reach an agreement on the maritime border.” On Tuesday, before flying to Paris to meet with President Emmanuel Macron, Lapid warned: “The Lebanese government must keep Hezbollah in check, or we will.”
Without diplomatic relations, Israel and Lebanon remain technically at war, even though the guns fell silent in 2006, at the end of a conflict between the army and Hezbollah that claimed the lives of 1,200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis. War incidents are frequent, however, in a scenario marked by tension. A Spanish general is in command of the 10,300 blue helmets of the UN (of which more than 600 are Spanish) that supervise stability in the conflictive border.
As of 2020, both countries undertook indirect negotiations, under the mediation of the US and the auspices of the UN, to delimit the maritime divide in their exclusive economic zones. Talks resumed in 2021 after an initial blockade, Israel and Lebanon dispute a strip of 860 square kilometers in the heart of the eastern Mediterranean gas reserves.
The Karish extraction platform is located outside the disputed area, according to Israel, but Beirut disagrees on the location of other fields in close proximity. The increase in energy demand in Europe, which is looking for alternative sources of supply to gas from Russia after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, seems to have accelerated the drilling and pumping process. “Israel is not going to sit by the repeated threats,” Lapid emphasized during his visit to the Elysee.
Alarm in a new era of attacks
The age of drones has already dawned in the Middle East. They hardly leave a mark on the radar and are relatively cheap. The same is used to observe the enemy from afar, which can crash with several kilos of explosives against a predetermined target with precision. Last February, a Hezbollah drone set off alarms after entering Israeli airspace from Lebanon. Fighter-bombers and helicopters were urgently dispatched to meet them, while the interceptors of the Iron Dome defense system soared through the skies of Galilee.
The pro-Iranian militia party assured after the incursion that the unmanned aircraft had returned to its base “intact”, after having reached the shores of Lake Tiberias, about 70 kilometers from the Blue Line, the unofficial border between the two countries. “We have been manufacturing drones in Lebanon […] with experts from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Nasrallah warned in a televised message.
A few days later, six Israeli drones attacked a drone base in eastern Iran, the daily revealed. haaretz, where hundreds of devices were destroyed, according to information from the Lebanese channel Al Mayadin, linked to the Shiite community. Drone actions are becoming increasingly strategic. Israel came to attack in 2019 with two suicide planes loaded with explosives a Hezbollah headquarters in Beirut to destroy materials for the manufacture of missiles. And before the heads of diplomacy from the US and four Arab countries meeting last March at the Negev Conference, the embryo of a regional military alliance, the Israeli government revealed that its aviation had shot down in 2021, “over the airspace of a neighboring country”, Iranian drones carrying weapons for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“Despite the slogan of ‘mission accomplished’ launched by Hezbollah’s war propaganda machinery, the operation (against the Karish deposit) has not caught Israel off guard, which has achieved operational success,” concludes the former general. Amos Aydin, military analyst and former director of the intelligence services of the Armed Forces. To the setback suffered by its drones in the Mediterranean, the pro-Iranian militia party now has to add the disapproval and censure of the Government of Lebanon.
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