Rafael Sattarov

The situation around Lebanon is becoming increasingly tense due to Hezbollah’s actions. Israel’s northern command is now on full combat readiness for potential military operations against Lebanese Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the American side is attempting to engage in dialogue.
Last month President Biden’s special envoy for the Middle East, Amos Hochstein, had arrived in Beirut, and a secret meeting between Iranian and American representatives was held in Iraqi Kurdistan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has indicated that a war with Hezbollah could severely damage Israel’s infrastructure and lead to significant casualties, yet Hezbollah’s actions appear to be making such a conflict unavoidable.
A recent article from the Kuwaiti publication ‘Al Jarida’, based on diplomatic sources in Israel, Iran, and Lebanon, highlights the looming and seemingly inevitable war between Israel and Hezbollah. The article suggests that in the event of war, Israeli forces would prioritize eliminating the party’s top leaders, including its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy Naim Qassem, followed by political leaders and members of parliament, all amid a large-scale invasion.
Al Jarida’s source in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force confirmed that affiliated security services have investigated spy networks relaying information about the exact locations of Hezbollah leaders, who are reportedly being targeted daily by Israel. Initial accusations pointed to Lebanese political groups opposed to Hezbollah, but the investigation revealed that smart mobile phones, especially WhatsApp, are primary sources of spying in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq. The investigation found that all those killed by Israel had used WhatsApp to contact relatives, allowing Israeli security services to determine their exact locations and target them.
The same source confirmed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the location and assassination of Nasrallah if possible. Despite these efforts, Israeli security services have yet to locate Nasrallah or successfully carry out an assassination. Last week, senior Quds Force security officers offered to relocate Nasrallah and his family to Iran, but he declined, insisting on staying in Lebanon to maintain control of the situation.
Given Nasrallah’s survival skills and intellect, it may be extremely challenging for Israel to execute such an operation. While the probability of success is minimal, it is not zero.
Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah is a significant figure. The Islamic Republic of Iran has numerous Hezbollah factions, but none compare to the Lebanese Hezbollah. This group has resources in Latin America, West Africa, and the Arab-Persian Gulf, achieving a level of self-sufficiency. Nasrallah has succeeded in Lebanon where Yasser Arafat failed, building a state within a state with international operations and transnational ambitions.
In the 1970s, Arafat’s efforts to consolidate power in Jordan and then Lebanon were met with resistance from Maronite Christians, Israel, and Syrian leader Hafez Assad. Today, Hezbollah’s armed forces exceed those of Lebanon itself, with the Lebanese army often serving as a front for Hezbollah. Given Nasrallah’s capabilities, Israeli security forces face a formidable challenge in eliminating him.
However, Israel’s past success in eliminating Imad Mughniyeh suggests it might be possible to do the same with Nasrallah.

Who was Imad Mughniyeh?

Mughniyeh’s Shadow: Does Danger Lurk for Nasrallah? (Credit: khamenei.ir)

Imad Mughniyeh was born in southern Lebanon into a Shiite family. He began his career as a bodyguard for Yasser Arafat, when Arafat settled in Beirut after being expelled from Jordan. Following the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War and subsequent Israeli and Syrian interventions, Arafat had to relocate his operations to Tunisia. Before leaving, Arafat left the PLO’s weapons arsenals to Mughniyeh. Initially secular, Mughniyeh became more religious after establishing contacts with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, helping to found and staff Hezbollah.
Mughniyeh was a senior Hezbollah commander and a founding member, known for his careful and creative approach to terrorist attacks. He was one of the first to use suicide bombers and was reportedly an inspiration to al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden in this tactic. Mughniyeh was implicated in several high-profile attacks, including the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and military barracks in Beirut, which killed hundreds, mostly U.S. Marines. He was also linked to the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, where a U.S. Navy diver was murdered, and the 1992 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires.
Mughniyeh’s operations extended globally, and he was considered a top target by Israeli and U.S. intelligence. In 1985, Mughniyeh kidnapped four Soviet diplomats in Lebanon, leading to the death of one, Arkady Katkov. This incident involved intense negotiations and retaliatory actions by the KGB, which ultimately resulted in the release of the surviving diplomats. This event highlighted Mughniyeh’s willingness to engage in high-stakes and brutal tactics.
Israel succeeded in assassinating Mughniyeh in 2008 in Damascus through a car bomb. The exact circumstances of his death are disputed. According to some reports, he was killed after attending a reception marking the 29th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The blast, which killed only Mughniyeh, was attributed to a bomb planted in the spare tire of his Mitsubishi Pajero. Other theories suggest that his assassination was facilitated by a high-ranking Syrian official who might have betrayed him to the Israelis. The French publication Le Figaro even claimed that Mughniyeh was killed by Syrians after attempting to recruit members of the Syrian elite units.
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is fraught with indirect warfare through intelligence. The United States and France are currently trying to mediate to prevent a military escalation that could devastate Lebanon. If Israel fails to eliminate Nasrallah, his influence and authority could grow significantly, potentially leading to a complete Shiite takeover of Lebanon.
Such a scenario would be unacceptable to Israel, making Nasrallah’s elimination a critical objective. Israel might again rely on allies within Lebanon among Hezbollah’s opponents, as well as other Middle Eastern entities opposed to Hezbollah’s support for Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.
Time will tell whether Israel can achieve its objectives, but the stakes for Lebanon and the broader region are undeniably high.

Rafael Sattarov is a writer and foreign policy expert in Alexandria, VA.