In a TV address Thursday night, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah claimed responsibility for the October 6 launch of an Iranian-designed unmanned drone into Israeli airspace, sending a message to both friends and foes in the region.
Days after Israel shot down an unidentified drone over its southern Negev desert region on October 6, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah dropped a bombshell.
In a televised address Thursday night, Nasrallah acknowledged that the Lebanese Shiite movement was responsible for dispatching the unmanned drone, which flew 35 miles into Israel, entering the country’s airspace from the Mediterranean Sea.
According to Nasrallah, the drone was designed in Iran and assembled in Lebanon. It had flown over “sensitive sites” in Israel, said the Hezbollah chief, before it was shot down near the Dimona nuclear reactor.
Hours before Nasrallah’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accused Hezbollah of launching the drone. But in his speech, Nasrallah accused Israel of playing down the breach of its territory, calling the October 6 incident, “a very important operation in the history of the resistance in Lebanon and the region”.
In a region that has witnessed an escalating war of words between Israel and Iran against the backdrop of a bloody civil war that has drawn Sunni and Shiite powers on either side of the sectarian divide, the implications of the Hezbollah drone operation are serious.
The October 6 operation is not the first time Hezbollah has attempted to send a drone into Israeli airspace. But it was certainly the first time the Tehran-backed Shiite movement acknowledged sending an Iranian-designed drone on such a mission.
“The fact that Hassan Nasrallah clarified that the drone was Iranian-made was significant, although he was careful to claim the initiative,” said Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
According to Salem, the drone operation must be viewed in the context of the tensions between Iran and Israel around the Iranian nuclear program.
“In this case, Hezbollah is a messenger,” said Salem. “It is a longstanding Iranian policy to use its Lebanese ally to send a message to Israel, to remind Israel that if it launches a war against Iran, it could pay the consequences on its soil.”
Fears of dragging Lebanon into a war – once again
But if a conflict does break out, it’s not just Israel that could pay the consequences on its soil.
As Tehran – and the Lebanese people – well know, it’s Lebanon that shares a border with Israel, not Iran.
In his 50-minute, self-congratulatory televised speech, Nasrallah thundered that “the Lebanese should be proud” of the October 6 drone operation.
But the news was greeted with disquiet in many sectors of Lebanon, a tiny nation that has historically been a staging ground for proxy wars between regional powers.
“The situation could escalate at any time and thus lead the Lebanese unwillingly into a war in which they have nothing to gain and everything to lose,” said the Carnegie Center’s Salem.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman in his response to Nasrallah’s speech. “Sending a drone over enemy territory highlights the need for a defense strategy that would benefit the resistance’s (Hezbollah’s) capacity to defend Lebanon,” said Sleiman. “But it also raises the question of who gives the order to use this ability in accordance with the plans of the army, its defense needs and the national interest only.”
A longstanding fear among Lebanese politicians opposed to Hezbollah is that the movement, which comprises a political party as well as an armed militia, would drag an unwitting Lebanon into a conflict with Israel – as happened in 2006.
“It’s not up to Hezbollah to decide on war or peace with Israel in the interest of a foreign power, namely Iran,” said a former Lebanese diplomat, who did not want to be named, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Beirut.
Keeping the focus on Israel while Syria divides Lebanon
The drone incident and the subsequent Hezbollah claim come amid mounting fears that the civil war in Syria could spill over into sectarian violence in neighbouring Lebanon.
As a Shiite movement, Hezbollah has been historically supported by the Alawite regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In recent weeks, there has been growing evidence that Hezbollah militants have been fighting Syrian opposition forces inside Syria. On October 1, Hezbollah announced the death of one of its senior commanders while he was “fulfilling his jihadi duty” in Syria.
Nasrallah has officially denied that he has ordered his fighters into Syria, but he maintains that Hezbollah reserves the right to join the battle in the future.
According to some analysts, the Hezbollah drone incident is an attempt by the Shiite movement to keep the focus on the traditional foe, Israel, amid growing signs of a Sunni-Shiite divide over the Syrian conflict.
In an interview with the New York Times, Talal Atrissi, a political science professor close to Hezbollah, said Nasrallah’s speech was an attempt to show that “Hezbollah’s priority for the time being is Israel despite everything that is happening,” and to say, “We’re not going to fall with the (Syrian) regime”.
For Israel, the latest drone incident is a sign that Hezbollah does not plan to shift its focus.
“The Israeli response will be military but not in the sense of direct retaliation against Hezbollah, because the priority is Iran,” said Salem. “I think they will respond by increasing their ability to control their airspace to better protect themselves from this type of intrusion.”