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A menacing reminder of what led to war in 2006

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A young Hezbollah fighter once told me something I’ve never forgotten. “We missed out on being able to fight Israel like our parents and grandparents, but now with the war in Syria, we are learning as much as we can and when the war there is over, we will turn our attention back to Israel - better trained and more experienced,” he said.
by PAULA SLIER | Sep 07, 2017

The last time Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant organisation, went to war with Israel was in 2006. The 34-day conflict was sparked by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. The latter had celebrated his barmitzvah in South Africa and his parents, Miki and Shlomo, were told of his kidnapping while vacationing in Durban where they’d been thinking to retire.

For months, every time I visited their home in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, Miki would be sitting at her kitchen table, writing thank you letters to the thousands of schoolchildren who’d sent prayers for her son’s safe return.

It was only when his remains were handed over two years later in a coffin, that she finally gave up all hope of ever seeing him alive again.

For journalists, that war was the last time we were given unfettered access by the IDF to Israeli soldiers on their way to battle. I remember being surprised that I was allowed to film and interview them, their faces camouflaged green, as they walked through an opening in the fence that separated the northern Israeli border town of Metula from southern Lebanon. Many looked afraid.

Days later, I found myself on the Lebanese side of that fence, talking with Hezbollah families who’d lost their homes to Israeli airstrikes. They spoke with pride and admiration that the militant organisation had managed, as they repeatedly told me, to fend off the IDF and by doing so give the Arab world back its pride.

The Second Lebanon War, as it came to be known, resulted in Hezbollah pummelling northern Israeli towns with thousands of rockets, ultimately leaving 165 Israelis dead, 44 of them civilians. Over 1 100 Lebanese, including Hezbollah fighters and civilians, were also killed in that war.

Each side claimed to be the winner, although it didn’t take long for Israeli intelligence to suggest that the full arsenal of rockets the IDF had destroyed, had been replaced.

A decade on and the Shiite group is today even stronger than it was then. Israeli officials now believe it has amassed around 150 000 rockets, including a number of long-range Iranian-made missiles capable of striking Israeli cities from the north to the south of the country.

This is a 50 per cent increase in Hezbollah's weapons stockpiles since May. The group’s firepower eclipses that of most states in the world and experts agree it looks like they’re ramping up efforts to acquire weapons with the purpose of attacking Israel.

What’s more, since 2012, thousands of Hezbollah forces have been in Syria, fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad, assisted by Russia and Iran. The conflict has given them training and experience and while hundreds have been killed, rather than destroying the group, it has emboldened it.

And yet, despite all this, most people in Israel believe that Hezbollah is not interested in a confrontation or war right now because the Israeli response would be unforgiving, and in all likelihood, turn Christian Lebanese against them.

Still, Hezbollah is being urged on by Iran who would rather Hezbollah, as her proxy, take on Israel instead of her doing it directly. Iran might be geographically and population-wise larger than Israel, but her military capacity is inferior.

And so, she has been pumping arms and millions of dollars to the militant group, via Syria, something that was made much easier after Tehran re-entered the global community with the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015. She's not even pretending not to.

Iran's new defence minister says he's prioritising boosting the country's missile programme and exporting weapons to neighbouring allies. The commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned: “Today, the grounds for the annihilation and collapse of the Zionist regime are [present] more than ever.” It was precisely this scenario that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned would happen.

And so, while Israel has always maintained neutrality in the Syrian war, she is widely believed to have been behind a number of airstrikes aimed at stopping the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Syria. It’s why Netanyahu jumped on a plane recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin whose forces control the skies over Damascus.

Netanyahu’s message in that meeting was simple: Israel will act militarily if Iran begins to entrench itself in Syria.

Jerusalem wants Tehran far from her borders, but a new agreement between the United States and Russia will soon see Iranian militia stationed only eight kilometres, and no longer 40-50 kilometres, from Israel.

While it's part of the latest attempt by Washington and Moscow to establish a ceasefire in southern Syria, it's hugely worrying for Jerusalem. It is also a menacing reminder of the last time the two sides went to war in 2006.

"My worst nightmare came true," Miki Goldwasser told me after her son's death was confirmed. Israelis are praying that nightmare isn't about to repeat itself.

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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