The Fourth Front: Hezbollah and Iran’s Quest to Establish a Battlefield Behind Israeli Lines

A deceptive calm has prevailed along the Blue Line since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Since then, the pastoral beauty of south Lebanon and the northern Galilee has obscured Israel and Hezbollah’s obsessive preparations for the future conflict that both parties believe is inevitable. At Iran’s behest, the Shiite organization has laid the groundwork to establish frontlines in south Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Syria – from which it can menace the Jewish state. However, while Israel is focused exclusively on these new activities across its borders, Hezbollah appears to be establishing another front behind Israeli lines, both within the country’s official boundaries and the West Bank.

Publicly, the Israeli security establishment appears fixated on detecting signals that Hezbollah is readying for another direct war or escalation with Israel. Hezbollah has been behaving brazenly. In late March, Israeli media reported that Hezbollah had deployed a thousand seemingly unarmed personnel along the border. Six hundred Hezbollah members and four hundred  Palestinians affiliated with various militias, including Hamas, have appeared. Shortly thereafter, two tangentially-related incidents occurred. First, in late March, a Palestinian militant infiltrated Israel from Lebanon and planted an explosive device bearing hallmarks of Hezbollah manufacture in Megiddo. Second, during the Passover holiday in early April, Hamas fired a barrage of thirty-four rockets from Lebanon into Israel. Hezbollah certainly facilitated both attacks, but kept a sufficient distance from their execution to maintain a degree of plausible deniability and to avoid an Israeli reprisal or escalation.

Hezbollah made headlines again in late May with a massive “war game.” The group’s military maneuver was not unprecedented. In just one example, in August 2012, ten thousand of its fighters drilled for the invasion and occupation of the Galilee to commemorate six years since the conclusion of the Second Lebanon War and the group’s claimed “victory” over Israel. This year’s “war game” also fell on the anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, another significant date for the group. In a rare move, reporters were invited to witness masked fighters engaged in training exercises in which they jumped through flaming hoops, among other activities.

The war game was typical Hezbollah military theater to celebrate the anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal. As a battlefield exercise, it was useless. But it was invaluable at creating dramatic images for the group’s martial music videos and bolstering its popular support by reinforcing the false impression that Hezbollah possesses the initiative and military upper hand against Israel. It may also have been intended as a distraction, to cover Hezbollah’s infiltration of Israeli territory and installation of two outposts in the Har Dov/Shebaa Farms region, a move likely meant to test the limits of Israeli patience and challenge the rules governing engagement between the two foes.

Nevertheless, these developments obscure Hezbollah's far more dangerous initiative to establish a foothold by proxy inside Israeli territory.  The group has sought to develop an option to attack Israel from within for decades, starting after Israel expelled 400 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters to south Lebanon in 1992, only to readmit them a year later. These returnees served as a nucleus for Hezbollah and Iran to direct their fight against Israel from within. This effort continued with direct armed assistance to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah beginning in 1998, and later extended to several armed groups during the Second Intifada and afterward.

In the years since, Hezbollah, sometimes in cooperation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other times independently, has devoted considerable efforts to recruiting Arab Israelis, Lebanese, individuals from Arab countries with foreign passports, and Palestinians to gather intelligence, recruit additional assets, or establish sleeper cells for planning terror attacks. To accomplish this, the group and its patron have also exploited, among other venues, connections between Lebanese and Arab Israeli criminal networks.  

However, Hezbollah’s ultimate objectives behind these efforts are far more ambitious than periodically igniting scattered chaos. Based on statements issued by Hezbollah and Iranian officials, as well as an analysis of the group’s past and current behavior, it appears that this effort has a threefold, far-reaching purpose.

The first objective seems to be the exporting military production capability to Palestinian militias in the West Bank. IRGC Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami stated in an August 2022 interview that creating a domestic production capability in the West Bank was one of Tehran’s objectives, and that the territory was being armed “the same way that Gaza is armed.” He told Fars News, “When something is homegrown, it cannot be stopped.”

Hezbollah and IRGC advisers have already achieved a similar goal with the Houthis in Yemen. This accomplishment replicates the successful exportation of military expertise by then-Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh to Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip. Sometime after the 2005 Israeli withdrawal and before his assassination in 2008, Mughniyeh spent months in the coastal enclave training Palestinian militants in rocket and launching pad production, and tunnel and rocket warfare. If the recent attempts to fire rockets from Jenin which was claimed by a Hamas-affiliated group calling itself the “[Yahya] Ayyash Detachment – West of Jenin"  – or the launch pad discovered last month in east Jerusalem are an indication, this effort may already be starting to bear fruit in the West Bank as well.

The second objective, as stated by Salami in 2014 when he was deputy commander-in-chief of the IRGC, is to “imminently transform the West Bank into an unbearable inferno and hell” for Israel. As with most of Iran’s activities within Israel, Tehran outsourced this task to Hezbollah. Two years later, Israel arrested a five-man terror cell in the West Bank assembled and funded by Hezbollah’s Unit 133. The group’s efforts, particularly weapons smuggling, have significantly intensified since 2021, according to Israel Police and Shin Bet, almost immediately preceding the upsurge of West Bank violence which began in June of 2021.

Hezbollah and Iran’s efforts have brought about the resurgence of groups once thought defunct in the West Bank, like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AAMB). New armed groups like the PIJ Quds Brigades-linked Jenin Detachment and Nablus Detachment, and AAMB’s Hezam Al-Nar and Liwa al-Shuhada, have also sprung up in Jenin and Nablus, and unrest has spread to cities long considered tranquil like Jericho. The most prominent of these new groups is the so-called Lion’s Den, a shadowy and diffuse group centered in Nablus which has proven appealing to Palestinian youth, particularly those disaffected with the Palestinian Authority. Lion’s Den emerged independently in August 2022, but according to Shin Bet director Ronen Bar, Iran has used online platforms to encourage recruitment to the group.

Finally and most disturbingly, Hezbollah is attempting to exploit tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs to its advantage. After riots overlapping with Israel’s clash with Gaza-based Palestinian militants broke out throughout the country in May 2021, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem announced that a “strategic change and historical inflection” had occurred. That development he said united West Bank, Gazan, and Jerusalemite Palestinians with Arab Israelis in purpose, whereby an attack by Israel on one would be met by their collective response, and not just the segment of the Palestinian people under direct attack. This, in Resistance Axis jargon, has been referred to as “the Unity of the Fronts.”

In a recent exhaustive interview with Tasnim, Hezbollah Executive Council Chairman Hashem Saffiedine hinted that this development was a major milestone in the group’s goals. “The day will come when the Resistance takes part in operations within [Israel’s] 1948 borders, something that Israel couldn’t imagine…this will cause the [Zionist] regime to crumble from within. Imagine what would happen if the Resistance enters the ’48 territories,” he said, fantasizing about the day when this united front would give Hezbollah the ability to sow chaos, within the heart of Israel.

Establishing a front within Israel and the West Bank has immense utility for Hezbollah. In the immediate term, it continues the group’s recent “plausible deniability” tactic of fighting Israel through proxy forces. At a minimum, this approach will mire the IDF in combatting low-level, albeit sustained, violence in the West Bank. At worst, the ongoing clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants increase the possibility of miscalculation or overreaction by one or both of the combatant parties – igniting a new intifada. This outcome appears more likely, particularly as a younger Palestinian generation –  disillusioned both with their leadership and negotiations with Israel, and with no memory of the bloodiness of the Second Intifada – is pushing Palestinian society increasingly in support of a return to armed confrontation.

The utility of Hezbollah’s infiltration will prove useful during any future confrontation with Israel. It’s not impossible to imagine Hezbollah, most likely long into the future, igniting that war during one of the religiously/nationalistically sensitive anniversaries that pack the Israeli-Palestinian calendar. Timing a conflict to coincide with such a period when religious or nationalistic sentiments and sensitivities are heightened on either or both of the Jewish or Palestinian side, the group could activate the cells it has cultivated in the West Bank and tap affiliates among Israeli Arabs to carry out a clearly nationalistically motivated attack on a Jewish target. A synagogue in a mixed Arab-Jewish Israeli city, is an example.

With this simple act, Hezbollah could touch off a cycle of actions and reactions by Jewish and Arab extremists, just like in May 2021, that could spread throughout the country. By setting the West Bank and Israel aflame, Hezbollah will force Israel to divert the attention of its government and security forces from other active fronts, including – most critically to the group’s survival – Lebanon, to confront a lethal threat behind its own lines.