On May 25, 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered Israeli forces out of south Lebanon, ending Israel’s ill-fated 18-year foray into its northern neighbor’s territory. Barak believed the withdrawal would weaken Hezbollah by depriving it of its raison d’etre to continue attacking Israel. But he miscalculated. Across the frontier, Hezbollah was beginning a pre-planned next phase of its war with the Jewish state. Declaring victory the next day, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah dubbed Israel “weaker than a spider’s web” and vowed Israel’s withdrawal was only the beginning of a “new era” of “coming victories.”
Twenty years later, Barak stands by his decision, even though the intervening decades have largely vindicated Nasrallah. But his error would transform Hezbollah from a largely Lebanon-based militia into Iran’s regional spearhead – altering not only the parameters of its conflict with Israel, but the whole Levant.
Mistakes in the Security Zone Architecture
Barak alone is not to blame for the situation he inherited. Israel pulled back to the south Lebanon Security Zone in 1985, after withdrawing its forces from their deployment along the Awali River. But this buffer zone was created with certain inherent deficiencies that, by May 25, 2000, had transformed it into a security burden that provided little protection to northern Israel. Barak claims to have identified these defects in 1985 – while he was head of IDF Military Intelligence – opposing the Zone’s creation and advocating a full withdrawal to the international border between Lebanon and Israel.
The Security Zone was structured in a manner that was inadequate to deal with the threat Israel was confronting. It was established as a static line of defense with fixed outposts – recreating, as Barak notes, the inherent vulnerability of the Bar Lev Line that Israel established on the Suez Canal – to confront an increasingly proficient guerilla enemy. This deficiency came into starker contrast as the years of Israel’s south Lebanon occupation wore on, and the IDF became increasingly reluctant to use its positions in the Security Zone as launching pads for aggressive action against Hezbollah. IDF soldiers deployed in Lebanon became fixed targets for the group’s hit-and-run attacks, while failing to prevent its rocket attacks on northern Israel.
The IDF’s specific points of deployment within the Security Zone also amplified this vulnerability inherent in the buffer territory’s overall structure. Often, the IDF established positions that intended to protect its South Lebanon Army (SLA) ally, rather than to maximize the goal for which the Security Zone was built – to defend northern Israel.
The Narrative of Victory
Nevertheless, Barak made his own mistakes. His decision to dismantle the Security Zone and withdraw the Israel Defense Forces was based more on domestic considerations than Hezbollah’s military successes. However, the optics and method of withdrawal created the impression that the Shiite group had indeed militarily defeated the IDF in south Lebanon, and liberated Lebanese territory through force of arms – and that in and of itself was a sufficient victory for Hezbollah, contributing to its growth and permanence.
Israel has traditionally either dismissed the importance of psychological warfare – the so-called “hearts and minds” component of warfare – or carried it out in a comparatively ham-fisted manner. To Hezbollah, however, this soft-power is central, compensating for its inferior military hardware. This contrast between the foes’ approaches was nowhere more evident than in the 1985-2000 South Lebanon Conflict, particularly the withdrawal in May 2000.
Hezbollah’s 1985 Open Letter – its binding ideological manifesto – declared that the responsiveness of the masses to a party was more important than controlling territory. The group’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem elaborates on that point in his book Hezbollah: The Story from Within, stating that Hezbollah acted – and was even structured – to maximize the dissemination of its message and broaden its support, even beyond its natural base of ideologically and religiously committed Shiites.
Per Qassem, “resistance” was Hezbollah’s most attractive magnet to draw this kind of support, because it crossed Lebanon’s ideological and sectarian boundaries. He states, “interest in Hezbollah membership increased following clear demonstration of achievements on the resistance-to-occupation front. To some, direct involvement in the Party’s framework was an obstacle, as not all of those who believe in the righteousness of Hezbollah’s resistance could abide by and conform to its Islamic ideology.”
Even in 1985, Hezbollah sought to use resistance to Israel’s military presence in Lebanon – which by then had settled into an occupation – to broaden its support and create alliances beyond its ideological core. Hezbollah took this a step further in the subsequent decade, which brought with it the end of the Lebanese civil war and Syrian domination over Lebanon. Lebanon’s former warring factions were re-rallying around the reconstituted republic and Syria, the country’s new hegemon, wanted stability. There was therefore little room for Hezbollah to attempt to realize its revolutionary ideals through the methods it had used in the previous decade. The group therefore downplayed or temporarily suspended certain ideological principles and goals, rebranding from “the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon” to the “Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.”
The reason for this was simple. Syria and most Lebanese would not support the establishment of an Iranian-style theocracy in Lebanon. However, virtually all Lebanese wanted to liberate their territory occupied by Israel, and Damascus welcomed Hezbollah making Israel bleed in south Lebanon to gain leverage over Jerusalem vis-à-vis the occupied Golan Heights. The group therefore played up its resistance identity and narrative, because it was the point of consensus between itself, the Lebanese Republic, and Syria. Acting in this area of consensus, Hezbollah was able to grow its arsenal and social institutions unhindered by either Beirut or Damascus.
On some level, the Israelis understood that Hezbollah’s resistance and martial successes fueled Lebanese support for the group. In 1996, a document surfaced alleging to contain Hezbollah’s “13 Principles of Warfare.” As it turns out, according to Raphael Marcus’ Israel’s Long War with Hezbollah, “the document was actually crafted by IDF [Military Intelligence’s] Research Department as a representation of how the IDF thought Hezbollah would fight, highlighting the IDF’s conceptual understanding of Hezbollah, rather than how Hezbollah viewed itself.” Per Marcus, only six of the thirteen principles were based on Hezbollah’s modus operandi, while the rest were based on “how the IDF thought Hezbollah would operate.” Two of these latter principles reflected the IDF’s understanding of the importance Hezbollah attached to propaganda, particularly where real victory was lacking, and the critical role that civilian support played in ensuring the organization’s growth and survival.
On some level, Barak himself seems to have also understood this. In a comprehensive recent interview with Maariv regarding his decision to execute the May 2000 withdrawal, Barak attributes Hezbollah’s indestructibility to its civilian support. And yet, when he ordered the withdrawal – and in every step leading up to the final Israeli soldier leaving Lebanese soil – he ignored the impact propaganda and a narrative of victory over the IDF in south Lebanon would have on strengthening the group.
Indeed, Barak seems to have entirely misinterpreted Hezbollah’s escalation as the date of the withdrawal drew near. In his memoir, My Country, My Life, Barak says Hezbollah’s “obvious aim” behind this was to make “the withdrawal as difficult as possible.” After Barak promised on March 1, 1999 to end the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon within one year of taking office – either through a deal with Syria or unilaterally if that failed – Hezbollah began increasing the rate of its attacks on Israeli forces in the Security Zone. While many of these attacks did cause IDF casualties, most were strategically insignificant. Their impact was largely psychological, compounding Israeli society’s overwhelming desire to withdraw the IDF from Lebanon, which began to grow due to an accidental helicopter crash that killed 73 soldiers in February of 1997. In fact, though Hezbollah dubbed 1999 the “year of resistance par excellence,” in purely military terms they were on the rebound from a resurgent IDF. Hezbollah – acutely aware of the power disparity favoring the Israelis – wasn’t trying to win or conventionally force the IDF out of Lebanon. Lacking that ability, the group wanted to make it appear that the inevitable IDF withdrawal declared by Barak had occurred under fire – rather than willingly – and reap the benefits of this ostensible victory.
Barak, meanwhile, inadvertently played into Hezbollah’s hands. Intent on cutting the Lebanese Gordian Knot at any price, the Israeli prime minister was fixated solely on ensuring that the withdrawal was orderly. But by his own admission, he would have also withdrawn under fire. He cared little for optics. The single metric by which Barak gauged the success or failure of the withdrawal was the lack of casualties.
In retrospect, Hezbollah succeeded in creating the impression that it had militarily defeated Israel and liberated the south. Even many among its political foes have accepted this narrative. The October 2000 government of Rafic Hariri – now seen as an anti-Hezbollah symbol – prefaced its policy statement with an expression of gratitude to Hezbollah for “achieving the greatest national accomplishment in Lebanon’s history…by forcing the enemy to withdraw and admit defeat.” Practically speaking, up until the present, many Lebanese – even some who otherwise oppose Hezbollah – accept the narrative that it liberated south Lebanon and that it is necessary for the group to retain its arsenal for to the purpose of “defending Lebanon against Israel.” This impression was reflected in conversations between the author and several Lebanese who described themselves as “anti-Hezbollah.” One in particular put it this way: “I don’t like what Hezbollah is doing politically, but I can’t deny that they defend Lebanon.”
Hezbollah’s Next Phase
Barak’s second fundamental error stemmed from his flawed perception of Hezbollah as an “authentic [Lebanese] resistance movement,” which would halt its attacks against Israel – or at least fail in justifying them – once the IDF ceased to occupy Lebanese territory. Such a belief runs contrary to Hezbollah’s own expressed – and unaltered – identity. In its 1985 Open Letter, the party declared itself “the sons of the Nation of Hezbollah, whose vanguard God made victorious in Iran…obeying the orders of a singular wise and just leadership, embodied in the Wali al-Faqih.”
Hezbollah’s war with Israel is therefore an extension of the Iranian regime’s zero-sum conflict with the Jewish state. Rather than a feud over parcels of Lebanese territory, it is over the Israel’s very existence in historical Palestine. The impact of the withdrawal thus extended beyond merely improving Hezbollah’s image and strengthening its popular support.
Hezbollah began laying the foundations for the next stage of its conflict with Israel before the IDF withdrew. On May 21, 2000, Hezbollah launched its first operation in the Shebaa Farms, opening its battle for the “liberation” of this 16 square mile, largely neglected territory.
The ownership of the Shebaa Farms is ambiguous, due to France neglecting to properly demarcate the border between Lebanon and Syria during its Mandatory oversight of the two countries. After gaining independence, neither Beirut nor Damascus resolved this ambiguity, which Israel eventually inherited upon occupying the territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
For Hezbollah – backed by Syria, who wanted to regain the leverage over Israel that it lost after the IDF’s withdrawal from south Lebanon – this ambiguity served as the perfect pretext to justify continuing its attacks against the Israelis. Beginning with the October 7, 2000 kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers – Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan, and Omar Sawaid – Hezbollah would launch a low-intensity conflict along the Blue Line that would last virtually until the eve of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
But the group’s activities against the Jewish state would not end at the border. According to al-Akhbar, Imad Mughniyeh began laying the groundwork for the Second Intifada years before its outbreak in 2000. He set about establishing contacts with Fatah’s leadership in Tunisia and the Palestinian territories to establish a plan of action to carry out attacks against Israel. Hezbollah had already established close ties with several Palestinian factions years prior to the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. Beginning in late 1998, it increased weapon smuggling to these groups, whose primary point of contact was Mughniyeh.
Perhaps inspired by what he saw as Hezbollah’s success against Israel, or perhaps seeking extra leverage against the Israelis during the Camp David negotiations, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat contacted Mughniyeh weeks after the May 2000 withdrawal. Arafat wrote to Mughniyeh, expressing his desire to ignite another intifada in the West Bank. The PLO Chairman had earlier instructed Fatah’s cadres to “work quietly and calmly [with Hezbollah]” and that he “[didn’t] want your activities discovered.” To give himself plausible deniability, Arafat did not want to be told details of Fatah’s cooperation with Hezbollah. Arafat also instructed close Fatah officials to move to Tunisia to ease their communication with Hezbollah and for its Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to cooperate with Mughniyeh, who in turn sent a group of “resistance fighters” to work with the Brigades. Al-Aqsa operatives admit that Hezbollah began offering them assistance from early in the intifada, and recruited several of the Brigades’ operatives.
Hezbollah also worked to create more radical splinters within Fatah, an effort which paid off in September 2000 with the founding of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). Reports indicate Hezbollah has given the PRC funding and arms—specifically missiles, rockets, and bomb-manufacturing capabilities.
Mughniyeh used Hezbollah’s Unit 1800, tasked with executing attacks against Israeli targets abroad, to provide logistical, media, cultural, and economic support to the intifada as well. Unit 1800 in turn spawned Hezbollah’s “Special Research Apparatus”— Mughniyeh’s own fiefdom within Hezbollah—which recruited Hebrew-speaking Palestinians to spy on the Israelis. According to Israeli military intelligence, Mughniyeh’s apparatus was Iran’s main conduit for recruiting Palestinians for training in Lebanon or Iran.
According to Shin Bet estimates, Hezbollah was involved in 21 percent of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel in 2004, and in 2005 Hezbollah funded 90 percent of the attacks carried out by Fatah’s Tanzim faction. According to one Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades operative in Nablus, Hezbollah provided his local group with $8,000 per month to purchase weapons and ammunition.
Hezbollah also directly took the fight into Israel. It established Unit 133 in the early 2000s – either a parallel to Unit 1800, or one of its sub-units – to focus its operations on Israeli targets both domestically and across the Middle East and Europe. Unit 133 relies primarily on human intelligence activity, luring recruits with money. Due to the nature and purpose of the unit’s activities, it does not exclusively draw on Shia Muslims for recruitment. Recruits are given broad security and military training, charged with recruiting new assets as well as intelligence collection, target acquisition, surveillance, reconnaissance, managing sources and establishing cover stories.
For its operations within Israel, the unit was tasked with recruiting intelligence assets and terror operatives from among Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel’s Arab citizens. To accomplish that, it turned to Lebanese drug dealers who worked with Israeli-Arab smugglers.
Unit 133 has been linked to previous attempts, some unsuccessful, to carry out attacks within Israel. In April 2012, for example, it tried to smuggle 24 C-4 explosive devices, M-16 rifles and other weapons past Israel’s border with Lebanon through Israeli-Arab smugglers. The goal was to have one of the Unit’s cells within Israel use the materials to carry out a mass-casualty attack, but the attempt was foiled by Israel’s Shin Bet security services before they reached their intended recipients. Thus Hezbollah continued its aggression against Israel even after its 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon.
The Spread of Resistance
Barak’s other critical error is in fact an extension of his view of Hezbollah as an “authentic [Lebanese] resistance movement.” As such, he views its role as strictly confined to fighting Israel, and assesses the expansion of its arsenal – which, as Barak notes, occurred mostly after the 2006 war with Israel – as the only metric of its growth. He also considers the May 2000 withdrawal and the 2006 war as unrelated phenomena, despite disagreement from senior IDF commanders. Barak therefore considers his decision to withdraw Israeli troops from south Lebanon a total success because – as he states both in his Maariv interview and his memoir – during the “half dozen years following the pullout, the Israel-Lebanon border was quieter than any time since the late 1960s.”
And yet, it is in those years that Hezbollah experienced what was perhaps its most significant growth. Freed of having to devote the bulk of its resources to confront Israel in south Lebanon, Hezbollah fully stepped into its intended role as the spearhead of Iran’s regional expansionism, soon turning its attention to combatting Iran’s other foes – primarily the United States.
Based on its statements, Hezbollah was already apprehensive of a direct American military entry into the region shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The group spared no time preparing to fight U.S. forces upon their arrival.
In an October 22, 2002 speech – a little more than a month after President George W. Bush formally announced the need to take action against Iraq – Nasrallah “predicted” the American invasion of Iraq would embroil it in an asymmetrical war and insurgency, and mark the “beginning…of the end of the United States’ control over the world.” Again, a week before the invasion, Nasrallah promised that the “peoples of the region” would greet the invading American forces not with “roses, jasmine, rice, and fragrances, [but] with rifles, blood, weapons, martyrdom, and martyrdom-seeking operations.”
Nasrallah’s statements reflect more his group’s preparations than his own clairvoyance. At Iran’s behest, Hezbollah created Unit 3800, which entered Iraq on the coattails of the invading American forces. The speed of its entry can only be explained by prior planning and allocation of the vast resources the group no longer required to confront the Israelis in south Lebanon. It immediately began organizing, training, and equipping Iraqi Shiite militias to carry out assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings on its behalf. It provided these groups with free and generous aid from the outset, including weapons and funds, and dispatched its top military commanders, including Mustafa Badreddine and Imad Mughniyeh, to train the Iraqis and organize them into “Special Groups”– including Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army – to confront American forces. Hezbollah also indoctrinated these groups with its Iranian-inspired ideology, giving itself and Tehran a permanent foothold in Iraq.
The group wanted to bleed America of treasure, personnel, and its will to project force abroad by embroiling it in a protracted, asymmetric war. As the previous decade attests, this largely succeeded. From Barak’s limited perspective, this may be a blow exclusively to the United States. However, dependent as Israel is on American regional and global hegemony, this Hezbollah-led war of attrition and the subsequent contraction of American power which it caused was no less a long-term strategic setback for Jerusalem than Washington. In fact, it was arguably critical to Iran’s exponential regional expansion over the last decade, particularly in Syria, where the lack of American will to use even limited force to repel Tehran and its proxies brought them to Israel’s doorstep.
An honest historical reckoning is necessary on Barak’s decision to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon. Reflecting on the events of May 2000, senior IDF officers involved in the action recently described it as the correct move. However, they stressed that it was “carried out in poor form, and in a manner that strategically damaged the IDF and Israel’s security.” Indeed, its effects are still being felt until the present – not just in Israel, but the entire region.