Dr. Imad Salamey is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, and author of The Communitarian Nation-State Paradox in Lebanon. Part 1 describes the nature of the cross-border attacks between Hezbollah and Israel, including a strike on Hamas’ deputy leader al-Arouri. He also addresses Israel’s “Dahiya doctrine,” a military strategy of targeting civilian infrastructure with the aim of forcing civilians to jettison their political leadership or kick out combatant groups residing in the area. It was first deployed by Israel during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon to evict the PLO and is now being unleashed in Gaza under the pretext of rooting out Hamas.
Hi, I’m Talia Baroncelli, and you’re watching theAnalysis.news. I’ll shortly be joined by Imad Salamey to speak about Hezbollah, as well as the recent strike in the south of Beirut, which killed Hamas Deputy Leader Saleh al-Arouri.
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Joining me now to break down the developments ongoing in Lebanon is Professor Imad Salamey. He’s an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. He’s also the author of numerous books, including two books published in 2021 called The Government and Politics of Lebanon and The Communitarian Nation-State Paradox in Lebanon. Thank you so much for joining me today, Professor Salamey.
Great. Thank you, Talia.
Well, we’ve seen numerous strikes in the Middle East, or what some people are now calling West Asia, including two suicide bombings in Kerman in the south-eastern part of Iran, which attacked people who were commemorating the killing of Qassem Soleimani. At least 84 people were killed there, and over 284, I believe, were wounded. In addition to that, on January 2, we saw the Deputy Head of Hamas in the southern part of Beirut being taken out by a strike. That’s, of course, al-Arouri.
So far, Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for that attack, though they haven’t actively denied any responsibility there either. So that’s maybe something that we could discuss throughout our discussion today.
In response to this strike and taking out al-Arouri, the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has said that there would be a full-scale war if Israel decided to invade and escalate. At the moment, it seems like there’s more of a strategic balancing, and there hasn’t been any warfare that goes beyond low-intensity attacks. It’s very difficult to say whether this will indeed escalate. How do you perceive what’s going on? Do you think that Hezbollah will decide to take this and make this into a much broader regional war?
Yes, Talia. Thanks for the question. It’s very important to think about these issues right now as we go into a very unstable and fluid situation here in Lebanon and the wider Middle Eastern region. Of course, the assassination of al-Arouri in Beirut, in the southern district of the city, was a major change in the rule of engagement, so to speak, that was governed— the confrontation on the Lebanese-Israeli borders for the past two months. Since October 7, there have been limited skirmishes, what we call a low-intensity conflict, taking place on that border. It’s a conflict or fighting that has been within seven kilometers of both sides of the borders.
The assassination of Saleh al-Arouri, Deputy Chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, was a major escalation, so to speak, by Israel, which went all the way to the capital city of Beirut to target or kill the leader of Hamas. Definitely, this is from a perspective on the various threats made by Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, that require some major retaliations on the party’s side.
However, if you listen to Nasrallah’s previous speech, and today he just gave a speech as well, it appears that Nasrallah has been trying, to any extent possible, to divert a major retaliation that could lead to a major retaliation by Israel or what we are calling here open warfare between both sides or open conflict that could lead to the utilization of more strategic weapons such as long-range missiles from Hezbollah or by Israel bombarding major infrastructure of the party all over the country.
I believe Hezbollah and Nasrallah are hesitant to make the wrong move here in this battle. They are carefully calculating every action they’re making in this warfare and trying to divert a major war. Therefore, what we are hearing right now is a message that the retaliation of Hezbollah will be made based on their own timing and based on the positions or the place they feel is best to retaliate, maybe now, maybe in the future. This gives us a pretext for Hezbollah not to immediate retaliation and not to start a major conflict here in the country.
When you hear Hezbollah, and particularly Nasrallah, speaking about how they want or how they see the course of this warfare, their intention, as they say, is to back [inaudible 00:06:49] Hamas in Gaza rather than to become the fighting force against Israel or to have the front shifted from that of Gaza to Lebanon. Then, the whole political issue becomes that of Lebanon, Israel, or Iran. Iran is red because Iran supports Hezbollah on different levels: economically, militarily, and politically. I guess, for the moment, Hezbollah is trying to prevent this scenario from taking place. They are continuously trying to maintain a low conflict to play the supporting act or the supportive role to Hamas, fighting with them to become the military front in a fight [inaudible 00:07:49].
In a way, what I’m trying to say is that perhaps Nasrallah and Hezbollah do not want to retaliate in any major way that would spark a major war here in the south.
Right. They’re trying to avoid stealing the spotlight away from Gaza for various reasons. But Lebanon is no stranger to being attacked by Israel. There was the invasion in 1982, and even up to 2006, there was ongoing warfare between Israel and various groups in Lebanon. Of course, many civilians were killed in Lebanon. A lot of civilian infrastructure was destroyed.
I believe there was a doctrine that Israel developed in that fighting called the Dahiya doctrine, in which Israel would attack certain civilian areas where militants were residing. The whole purpose was to try and damage the civilian infrastructure so that those civilians would pressure the militants to leave those areas. Whether this is an effective strategy or not, I highly doubt it. Would you say that Israel is still using or deploying that strategy? Would you also say that Hezbollah’s response has been informed by decades of fighting between Israel and various groups in Lebanon?
Yeah, I mean, definitely what we’ve seen from Israeli actions in the past is what we call collective punishment. Similar to what’s happening today in Gaza, much of the military tactics utilized by the Israeli army is to attack major civilian infrastructure, to destroy every possible means of survival for the civilian population in the different areas of Gaza, therefore, to create local pressure by the civilian population against the militants.
This way, the civilian population becomes a position contradictory to those of the militants. This is how Israel calculated a way to undermine public support for Palestinian army groups. I think Israel has utilized the same tactics in southern Lebanon and many confrontations.
However, at one time in ’96, there was an agreement brokered by France at that time. There was an agreement that neither side would utilize civilian areas for the fight, and any retaliation would be exclusive to many of their positions. Of course, this was broken in 2006, again, in Lebanon, where we had major incursions by Israel, major fights that led to the destruction of power stations, the destruction of major bridges and roads. The target was civilians. Of course, Israel’s aim for those attacks was to create an anti-Hezbollah popular discontent against authority. Therefore, I guess right now this can develop in that direction.
However, till now it has remained very limited, the fight on the southern border between both sides and military installations. There hasn’t been an attack against civilian settlements or housing inside Hezbollah, nor has there been any real attack against civilian targets in Lebanon. That’s why we are calling this confrontation that both sides are fighting an understandable rule of engagement. A rule of engagement where the civilian sides are spared from this conflict. Thus far, this is how it has been going. But situations can easily get out of hand and the situation can become more volatile.
For any reason, if a mistake happened and a large number of civilians were hurt by any attacks, that would bring about a strong retaliation on either side and then we cannot control it anymore. But thus far, it has been low intensity skirmishes, attacks here and there without major bombardments on civilian targets.
Well, the situation is quite tense. As you say, we don’t know if there will be any additional escalations. The United States has been sending additional military assets to the eastern Mediterranean, as well as reinforcing some of the troops that are stationed there. How are these developments perceived by Hezbollah? Do they take this as a direct incursion into their space or as a threat, or are they really just worried about Israel?
No, of course. Hezbollah considers the United United States as part of the overall war in the region, being a main ally to Israel in terms of providing the Israelis with all types of support: political, economic, and military. The United States’ official position is to place Hezbollah on the terrorist list, similar to Hamas. In that sense, the party does not distinguish much between the United States and Israel.
Actually, in the latest assassination/targeted killing of Saleh al-Arouri, the leader of Hamas in the southern district of Lebanon, you’re going to find out that Saleh al-Arouri was listed on the U.S. list of terrorists, and there was a $5 million prize for any information leading to his arrest or killing. Therefore, there wasn’t much distinction, at least from a Hezbollah perspective, between the United States and Israel. They are both allies, and they’re both responsible for the atrocities taking place in Gaza today. They’re both orchestrating this fight against what Hezbollah considers the Axis of Resistance.
Therefore, you’re finding, in many ways, attacks against U.S. targets nowadays, especially in Iraq with U.S. bases, and they’re surrounded by many pro-Iranian and pro-Hezbollah groups who have been launching missiles against these bases because they consider the United States is responsible for what Israel is doing.
These feelings within Hezbollah and the so-called Axis of Resistance group are consolidated by the fact that the United States has repeatedly vetoed any resolutions, any direct national security councils to demand a ceasefire in Gaza or to open getaways, humanitarian assistance in any serious way or to open what is called to undermine a siege of Gaza. That’s to consolidate, so to speak, the convictions that the United States is part of this conflict when it’s backing Israel. It is what it’s doing.
When the U.S. passes through the Strait to come to the Mediterranean, Hezbollah considers this as a direct threat or a message to the party that it will be targeted if there is any conflict with Israel. Nasrallah has bowed to target these ships in case they join the fight, and they expressed fearfulness about the ship and military presence in the region. This is how it is unfolding here in the Middle East.
Well, you mentioned the so-called Axis of Resistance, which is comprised of groups such as Ansar Allah or the Houthis, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah. As you mentioned, there have been numerous attacks on commercial vessels by the Houthis and the Red Sea. In response to these attacks, in order to ensure that there’s global trade and commerce, the United States has created a neighborhood watch, which doesn’t involve many countries in the Persian Gulf or the neighborhood. The only country that’s involved in that area is Bahrain. The United States and the United Kingdom are the other countries that are leading this initiative. Countries such as Italy in Europe have pulled out. You do wonder how well thought out this particular initiative was.
In addition to that neighborhood watch, Politico reported that the Biden administration has other plans to potentially escalate the conflict in response to what’s going on. They’ve been launching additional drone strikes in Iraq and in Syria. We just saw a member of the Popular Mobilization Front, which is an Iranian-backed group in Iraq, being taken out by a U.S. drone strike. I do wonder, these additional plans that the U.S. has, do you see this potentially leading to a full-out war with Iran?
I think the United States is quite concerned about the widening of this conflict were it to become a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran because then you are at full-scale war. Regional war with Iran means full mobilizations of U.S. troops, marines, and air force. That means that Iran may be able to close the Hormuz Strait. It may launch missiles against U.S. bases in other countries, i.e., Arab Gulf states. That means that Iran can devastate the U.S. presence in the region.
We were talking about a full-scale war. That means we were talking about thousands and thousands of casualties, which means the United States will have to engage in a war on a wide scale with various fronts. A fight with Iran doesn’t mean a fight just across the Iranian borders because Iran has many proxy groups, many militant-supported groups all over the world, but particularly in Lebanon, with Hezbollah, in Iraq with Hashd al-Sha’bi, in Yemen with the Houthis, so we can expect that any fight between Iran and the United States will become a regional war. The United States will have to have many fights on different grounds.
I guess this is one of the reasons why many European countries pulled out from this coalition that was meant to secure passage through Yemen. Many Europeans fear that if a confrontation starts with the Houthis in Yemen, this will prepare the ground for a wider confrontation whereby the Europeans will have to be pulled into this conflict against Iran. I don’t think the Europeans at this moment are ready for such a scenario. The Europeans are already overwhelmed by the instability that took place in Syria, which led to a massive migration of refugees to European states. These migration waves undermined the unity of the European Union.
Imagine what would happen if Iran became unstable and there were a lot of massive migrations at the same time due to the conflict of war from Iran to different European countries. Europe is much closer. It’s much closer to the conflict and much closer geographically to Iran and to Iranian allies. It’s much more concerned and much more cautious than how the United States would act vis-à-vis Iran.
Now, what we’re seeing is that Israel, in particular, is trying to encourage some regional confrontation because Israel recognizes full well that the different groups it’s confronting on its own are backed and supported by Iran, whether they’re Hezbollah or Hamas, Hashd al-Sha’bi, or the Houthis, these different groups Iran knows full well that they can fight with them, but they will never be victorious as long as Iran continues to support these groups. The lifeline to these groups is held in Iran.
Therefore, Israel recognizes each day that the only way to stop a security threat against its national security interest is to undermine Iranian military bases and military power and cut off this line of support to these proxies— from Iran to them. The only way to do this is perhaps to have a major confrontation where the United States becomes involved in attacking and bombarding Iran.
Definitely, however, one can see that any confrontation with Iran is not going to be a simple fight. It will be a major undertaking. We don’t know how other countries would react. We have to also factor in here Russia. We have to factor in here China. How would they behave if Iran was attacked by the United States? One way or another, if Iran were to lose this fight, these countries have many military cooperation agreements with Iran, especially Russia. They could come to Iran as an aid and prolong any regional confrontation with the United States. The United States would end up in the same boat as Russia and Ukraine; it would become the United States with Iran.
There are many factors to consider here in any region of confrontation that are very complex and can lead to serious repercussions if not well thought out. I guess everybody, particularly the Europeans, is concerned about this, but also the American military is concerned about venturing into [inaudible 00:25:58] with Iran.
Well, the Europeans are concerned, but I think these issues always have a different spin when you look at the domestic politics of each individual member state. I think you were talking about the issue of additional migration waves coming from Syria and how, in 2015, Europe was overwhelmed. But perhaps that was a bit of a fabrication as well because there wasn’t much solidarity between the European states to take in Syrians. There wasn’t enough sharing of the burden, so to speak, between member states, but also no real solidarity with the people who are in need, who are being displaced from countries like Syria. We see the opposite happening with Ukraine, where Ukrainians were taken in with open arms, as they should be. That should be the case regardless of the background of the asylum seekers in question, regardless of whether they have blue eyes, blonde hair, or a darker complexion. There’s always a domestic component to it.
Going beyond what the domestic issues might be for Europe and whether they want to support Gaza or support Israel or oppose Hezbollah, for example, if we look at what the domestic politics are in Lebanon, how is the population there responding to what’s going on in Gaza, but also to this potential escalation between Israel and Hezbollah? It’s a sectarian country, of course, and there are a lot of different groups. How would you say the response has been domestically from within Lebanon to these developments?
Yes, Talia. We are very concerned. The Lebanese, in general, are very concerned about this state of instability and the constant anticipations of what could happen at any time or any hour, i.e., whether we will be dragged into a major war with Israel or, a political solution to the conflict, or a ceasefire. The Lebanese are worried. There is a continuous concern about how the situation is developing. That’s why I see people always watching the news. They’re on Twitter. They’re trying to figure out what’s happening second by second. It is a very alert population.
This is really concerning what we’ve seen in the last two months. Much of the foreign population in the country, Europeans or Americans who were either working for international organizations in the country or were at university as students, have left. We have this feeling of anxiety. Business is not as usual. Not even Lebanese are coming to Lebanon from abroad. There are a lot of concerns. This is taking its toll on the economy for sure.
Now, in terms of how the Lebanese are thinking about the Gaza situation, of course, the Lebanese, like many people around the country, condemn, in many ways, what’s happening in terms of the civilian population taking the fall for the military encounters between Hamas and Israel. People stand in solidarity. They feel with the children, with the innocent lives that are being spared in this fight. Many consider Israel’s retaliation and actions as overwhelming, so they condemn Israel’s action. This is across all sectarian and confessions.
Nonetheless, there is a clear division, political division, on what to do. What should Lebanon do, given what’s happening in Gaza? Of course, Hezbollah, on its own, has decided to engage the Israeli forces as a form of solidarity with Hamas and with the Palestinians in Gaza. They consider this a duty of the Lebanese to support their brothers and sisters in Palestine and to undermine this military campaign by drifting or splitting Israeli forces between the south and north of Israel. Hezbollah and supporters of Hezbollah consider the defeat of Hamas and the occupation of Gaza by Israel to pave the way for another incursion against Lebanon because the same pretext used to destroy Hamas in Gaza can be used against Hezbollah in Lebanon next time around. This concern is a pretext for Hezbollah’s armed engagement with the Israelis and to display some solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Now, not all Lebanese take this position. Other Lebanese, especially on the Christian side of Lebanon, consider Hezbollah’s actions are not necessarily that of Lebanon or the country’s interest is not being taken with the consent of the Lebanese population and is not coming out from a government perspective. It is in violation of UN resolutions, particularly Resolution 1701, which called to disarm the government in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah is operating right now. They think that Lebanon should take a neutral stance because it cannot afford a military confrontation with Israel.
We have that political division of what to do given the situation in Gaza: those who support Hezbollah’s actions of going into a confrontation with Israel and those who believe Lebanon is too weak and such a confrontation would cost a heavy price if Israel decided to militarily retaliate against Lebanon, so best to take on a neutral position and provide solutions.
There is quite a deep risk in the political scenery in Lebanon. Yet, this has not been manifested in any actions on the ground. People are still waiting in anticipation of what can happen in Gaza. Everybody is awaiting some solutions or resolution or international interventions that will stop the war and bring about a ceasefire so that Lebanon will be spared from this fight. Things will not deteriorate or escalate from there.
Well, Professor Salamey, it was a pleasure speaking to you. Let’s hope next time we speak, there will be a ceasefire as well as a cessation in hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, and other actors in the region. Let’s hope next time things will be a bit more positive.
Great. Thank you, Talia.
You’ve just been watching part one of my discussion with Professor Imad Salamey. Part two will be about sectarianism in Lebanon and the consociational state.
If you’d like to support the work that we do, you can do so by going to our website, theAnalysis.news, and hitting the donate button at the top right corner of the screen. Get on to our mailing list as well. Thanks for watching, and see you next time.
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Imad Salamey is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University. Salamey is a widely published researcher and scholar.