Quassem Soleimani is dead but in Israel fear of his warped legacy lives on. The Iranian general was key to his country’s strategy of developing networks of militant groups throughout the Middle East. These organisations are all held together by one thing: a common hatred of Israel. And a month after Soleimani was killed in an US drone strike, Israel is worried that its nemesis’s objective might soon become reality.
Soleimani was the mastermind of Hezbollah’s programme in Lebanon aimed at adding a deadly new weapon to the group’s arsenal. The intention is simple: to take ‘stupid’ (unguided) missiles and add GPS technology to make them accurate. Whereas in previous conflicts Hezbollah has relied on its quantity of weapons in attacking Israel, this will allow the organisation to achieve a devastating change of tactic.
Israelis live in fear of Hezbollah acquiring such arms: if the group achieves its goal, any future conflict between Israel and Lebanon could be bloodier and more devastating on both sides than the last time war erupted in 2006.
Soleimani did not live to see the fulfilment of his programme, but he would have been pleased with Hezbollah’s progress in recent years. Hezbollah is, for now at least, the most significant and potent threat to Israel. It dominates southern Lebanon and is bankrolled by Iran, whose purpose in having a proxy force neighbouring Israel is clear.
There is currently an uneasy stalemate between the two countries. Yet under Soleimani’s watch, Hezbollah has been busy preparing itself for the next conflict. Many of its munitions are stashed in civilian areas – even inside houses – close to the border with Israel. This is a strategy learned from Hamas, with both groups aware the Israeli defence force (IDF) is reluctant to strike civilian areas for fear of the fallout if it does.
The IDF says the organisation has amassed an arsenal of some 130,000 rockets. Back in 2006, the group had far few fewer, around 10,000. It fired 100 or so rockets indiscriminately each day during the conflict. Dozens of Israelis were killed. The next war is likely to be far worse, especially if Hezbollah gets its hands on guided missile technology.
Hezbollah is now ‘dangerously close’ to getting such technology, says Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli defence force. Hezbollah is unequivocal about its hatred of Israel. Its leader Hasan Nasrallah has described Israel as an 'illegitimate entity and...a threat to the region':
'It is a constant threat to the whole region. We cannot coexist with this threat. That is why the ultimate goal of the [Arab and Islamic] nation is to end Israel's existence'
So it’s clear what the purpose of acquiring such arms is.
For now, Hezbollah is moderated somewhat by its newfound elevated status within the Lebanese government. Hezbollah holds key posts inside the regime, including in the ministry of health. And amidst a backdrop of instability and political unrest domestically, Hezbollah's leadership must ensure it focuses on its day job, avoiding doing anything to exacerbate or worsen these tensions.
Hezbollah also has a weakness on a broader question: who will take over from Nasrallah when he does eventually step down? So far, there is no obvious candidate. And as with the quest in the Iranian regime to find a replacement for Soleimani, Hezbollah is short of viable contenders.
Sanctions within Iran are also hitting hard, having a knock-on effect against Hezbollah’s operations. But nonetheless, while Iranian funding for its proxies is not as lavish as it once was, in southern Lebanon the organisation is nonetheless still well-equipped and funded. The group is effectively in command in the area; its foot soldiers walk freely and unchallenged in southern Lebanon.
Alongside its quest to develop new weaponry with which to target Israel, this money is also being spent in other ways: burrowing into Israel with the apparent aim of attacking Israelis. Last year, the IDF exposed a cross-border Hezbollah attack tunnel. It was 1,000 metres long, 80 metres deep and ran 80 metres into Israeli territory. It is a testament of Hezbollah’s determination to strike at Israel and a grim reminder of the lengths that militants are prepared to go to to attack Israel and find a weak spot in the country’s substantial defences.
Life would have been grim for the Hezbollah operatives digging through tonnes of solid rock over several years as they made their way across the border, but they were only metres from fulfilling their goal when they were thwarted. What was the plan? The location of the tunnel suggests a chilling motive: if Hezbollah had succeeded, the town of Zar-it – no stranger to suffering at the hands of Hezbollah – would have been at the group’s mercy. The town's several hundred inhabitants would have been encircled.
In the time since, the IDF has developed technology that can detect tunnels at a depth of more than 50 metres. But in the game of cat and mouse between Hezbollah and the IDF, there are other fears. Hezbollah’s growing connections with other armed forces is a particular worry.
This is all part of a strategy, according to Israeli security forces, for Iran to effectively develop a border with Israel. By strengthening its proxies who, unlike Iran itself, neighbour Israel, it hopes that it can put Israel under renewed pressure and in the future attack its enemy in a way that it is unable to do from its own territory, 1,000 miles away.
A link up between Hezbollah and other armed groups is certainly underway in Syria. Hezbollah operated alongside the Syrian army during the civil war. Now this conflict is largely over, yet Hezbollah still seemingly maintains a presence close to the Golan heights. What is it doing there? According to the Israelis, Hezbollah’s presence – said to be made up of a few dozen core Hezbollah troops and a few hundred mostly paid mercenaries – is still busily watching IDF troops and collecting intelligence. It is also seemingly trying to inculcate its doctrine within the Syrian army. Not everyone in the Syrian army is happy about this. The presence of Hezbollah brings danger in the likelihood that it will draw a response from the Israeli army.
Yet while Israel can target militants and keep Hezbollah on the run, it faces an uphill task in containing the growing and changing threat on its borders. Will this legacy of Solemani succeed? Israel has the upper hand for now. But in the game of cat and mouse playing out on Israel’s borders, Iran’s proxy forces are certainly busy and Solemani's legacy is alive and well.