Hezbollah-Israel conflict: Two young fighters assess it from opposite sides

Their worldviews, formed less than 200 miles apart, illustrate the clashing religious beliefs, ideologies, and military doctrines that led to war 10 years ago Tuesday – and may well again.

Maruf Khatib/Reuters/File
A Hezbollah missile strike on January 28, 2015, the biggest attack on Israeli forces by the Lebanese militant group since a the 2006 war, wounded four Israeli soldiers. Israeli artillery fired at least 22 shells into open farmland in southern Lebanon after the strike, a Lebanese security source said.

Since the end of a brutal month-long war between Israel and Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah organization, which began 10 years ago today, the traditionally volatile border has enjoyed near unprecedented calm.

But on both sides of the frontier, the two bitter enemies have been busy preparing for another encounter, recruiting and training soldiers and fighters, developing new tactics, gathering intelligence, and acquiring ever more sophisticated weaponry.

“Our enemies to the north examine us all the time. I am sure that in the moment of truth, we will stand firm and prove that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is a ready, powerful and decisive military,” said Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of Israel army, in a statement Sunday marking the anniversary of the 2006 war.

Ten years is a long time in the career of a soldier, and if another war breaks out between Israel and Hezbollah, the chances are that most of the combatants will not have directly fought each other before.

Two potential adversaries in any next war are Abbas, a 24-year-old Shiite from southern Beirut, a member of Hezbollah who has been fighting in Syria’s civil war, and Elazar Symon, also 24, a Jerusalem native and a reservist in the Israeli army who saw action in the 2014 war in Gaza.

Other than their ages, they also share a deep faith in their respective religions and have undertaken religious studies – Symon taught by rabbis in a West Bank settlement yeshiva and Abbas by Hezbollah clerics in a Beirut classroom.

There the similarities end.

Abbas, who asked that his last name not be used as he was not authorized to speak to the press, views Israel as “an illegal entity that occupies Arab land and commits massacres” and must be confronted. He is willing to embrace martyrdom for the cause, believing that the act of self-sacrifice serves as a paramount demonstration of faith in God.

Symon, on the other hand, regards Hezbollah as a “terror organization that wants to banish me from my country and destroy it.”

“It thinks I don’t have the right to live here. I would love for it to be destroyed and disappear,” he says.

Their very different worldviews, formed over the same lifetime less than 200 miles apart, illustrate the chasm between the religious beliefs, ideologies, and military doctrines of those fighting on each side – and help to explain their willingness to engage in another war, which both sides see as a near certainty, even if neither side presently seeks a fresh conflict. 

Yeshiva: ‘Never an atmosphere of revenge’

In September 2011, Symon joined the IDF’s hesder track, a five-year program combining rigorous religious studies and military service, typically in combat units. His yeshiva was in Otniel, a small settlement south of Hebron in the West Bank. An agreement between the Israeli military and some 70 hesder yeshivas across Israel sees 1,500 students annually conscripted to “religious only” units where they serve 16 months of active duty, roughly half the service time of their secular counterparts.

While many IDF soldiers do not share Symon's faith, religious soldiers have taken on an increasingly outsized role in recent years.

Symon says he was initially torn about his shorter service, but eventually conceded, having realized during his studies that “the strength of society is measured not only by physical parameters, but by spiritual ones as well.”

In December 2002, during the second intifada, two Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad stormed the Otniel yeshiva and shot dead four students and wounded seven others. The trauma of that attack still permeates the religious institution. Two other teachers have been killed in similar attacks over the past decade. Last week, Michael Mark, the yeshiva’s manager, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

But Symon says the violence has not spoiled the humanistic Judaism he was taught at Otniel.

“There was never an atmosphere of revenge,” he says. “To me, the world isn’t divided into Jews and Arabs, but into gentle people who want to be nice, and others who are rough and evil. That’s the basic division.”

Hezbollah: Background check and secret bus ride

In a small home in southern Beirut, 170 miles north of Otniel, sits Abbas, Symon’s counterpart in Hezbollah. A builder by profession, the lean, angular faced young man grew up within the milieu of Hezbollah, applauding its battlefield achievements against Israel, watching the party’s Al-Manar television channel, listening to the speeches of its leaders, and supporting friends and relatives who joined the organization.

The catalyst that led Abbas to join the party almost a year ago was the war in neighboring Syria where Hezbollah has dispatched thousands of fighters to help protect the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and battle extremist groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra.

“We have the ideology of Ahl al-Bayt,” he says, referring to the prophet Muhammad’s family line through Imam Ali that is followed by Shiites. “In our belief, our enemies are Israel and the Takfiris.” Takfiri is a term used to describe extremist Sunnis, such as the self-declared Islamic State, who view as apostates all those who do not follow their strict interpretation of Islam.

Hezbollah’s recruitment process is arduous and thorough. Initially, Abbas was subjected to a stringent background check to make sure he would not represent a security risk. Religious studies quickly followed. Hezbollah clerics taught Abbas the principles of Iran's theocratic system of rule, which Hezbollah follows; enmity toward Israel; and the Islamic texts according to their interpretation.

Then he underwent a 45-day training program at a camp in the Bekaa Valley in east Lebanon. Abbas was transported by bus with blacked out windows to mask the route to the training camp. Once there, he was one of around 50 new recruits, all Shiites, from various parts of Lebanon.

“It was very extreme and harsh,” he says of the training. “But we were preparing to go to war and you can’t go to war without good training.”

Hezbollah training sessions usually include rigorous marches across rugged mountains, weapons training, and mock battles in which instructors fire live ammunition near the recruits.

From Gaza war to five tours in Syria

Symon’s military service began in 2013 when he was drafted into the Israeli army’s Nahal infantry brigade. That was followed by eight months of basic training in the Negev Desert. Once, at the peak of the toughest week of training, Symon motivated his friends as they lay among the dry thorns of the desert. He said that their suffering could be compared to a sacrifice to God, bearing deep religious meaning.

“Historically, if my property were a cow, I would have sacrificed that. Now, my action is lying here in the thorns for a week. If that is what I have to give, that is what I give.”

Decorated as an outstanding soldier during training, Symon trained as squad commander before returning to his unit’s training base to command a new cohort of fresh recruits.

Following the outbreak in July 2014 of Operation Protective Edge, a 51-day war between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement, Symon, now a sergeant, found himself defending a unit inside Gaza that was exposing an attack tunnel leading into Israeli territory. Army bulldozers had created a sand berm from where Symon and his friends guarded the heavy machinery and crew.

“It was a tiresome routine of constant guard duty,” he says.    

But even during the Gaza war, Symon and his fellow religious soldiers observed the Sabbath. From sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday, soldiers can observe traditional prayers, stand head-covered for the blessing over wine, and dine on festive three-course meals.

“Shabbat is a real ray of light, a salvation. I have no idea how a soldier can get through the army without Shabbat, it seems like a nightmare,” he says.

And then there were the moral issues. Once, at an abandoned home his unit had occupied outside Gaza, Symon noticed one of his subordinates firing at a water tank atop a pile of debris.

“I came and asked him why he’d shot at that,” Symon says. “I told him: ‘When the owner returns at some point, he’ll find his entire home in ruins and hate us anyway. Not that it makes much difference, but this water tank survived. Why destroy it too?’ The soldier was a good guy and took my point. He said he hadn't thought about it.”

While Symon’s wartime service closed with the cease-fire that brought Operation Protective Edge to a halt, Abbas’s battlefield experiences continue. He has served five tours so far in Syria, mainly in Aleppo and Hama provinces. Abbas admits he was frightened the first time in combat, much of it consisting of infantry assaults with barely 50 yards separating him from his enemy.

“The older fighters told me to keep firing my gun and move forward. It was frightening, but I have grown used to combat and now I am ready to go to Syria at any time,” he says.

‘I know what it’s like to shoot and kill’

Hezbollah built its martial reputation on fighting Israel, first resisting the Jewish state’s 18-year occupation of south Lebanon and then fighting it to a standstill in 2006. But Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria dwarfs any of its earlier wars with Israel.

It has fought nonstop for around four years with between 5,000 to 10,000 cadres in Syria at any one time; it has lost in excess of 1,200 fighters compared with about 1,500 in wars with Israel between 1982 and 2006. Instead of confronting Jewish soldiers in a conventional army, Hezbollah is fighting irregular forces of fellow Arab Muslims, albeit Sunnis rather than Shiites.

Yet, paradoxically, Abbas and other committed Hezbollah fighters view the war in Syria as an extension of the older conflict with Israel. They believe that Israel and the West are backing the effort to unseat Mr. Assad to weaken the regional alliance grouping Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria.

“The Takfiris and the Israelis are brothers. They are a group together,” Abbas says. “When I am fighting in Syria, I feel as though I am fighting Israel. Daesh [ISIS] are soldiers of Israel.”

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah presently seeks another war, both being wary that the scale of the next conflict would be far greater than in 2006. Instead of remaining geographically limited to south Lebanon and north Israel as in past conflicts, the next one would probably cover the entire territories of both countries. It likely would also witness Hezbollah’s guided missiles slamming into Tel Aviv and extensive ground operations by the Israeli army in Lebanon.

While the Syria war has taken a toll on Hezbollah in terms of casualties and growing war fatigue among supporters, Israeli military leaders acknowledge that it also has given the Lebanese organization valuable new war-fighting skills. In particular, a new generation of Hezbollah fighters has gained critical combat experience in the bloodiest conflict in the world.

“We have gained huge experience in Syria. I know what it’s like to shoot and kill and to be shot at. And I know how I behave in this situation. The more times I go to Syria, the better I become as a fighter,” says Abbas.

‘Motivated by the powers of life’

During Symon’s basic training in the Negev, he was taught about Hezbollah’s advanced military capabilities and warned against complacency in any future conflict with the organization.

“We will be fighting a real army, so we must be very professional,” he says.

Abbas concedes that he could be killed in Syria, but says it would be “an honor to become a martyr.” He says he intends to continue fighting in Syria for as long as it takes for victory.

“We are fighting to the end, and when it is over we will wait until the next war,” he says.

Symon, however, disagrees with a frequent claim that a soldier willing to sacrifice his own life would necessarily be more effective on the battlefield.

“I've never felt disadvantaged [before] an enemy willing to commit suicide for his cause," Symon says. "On the contrary, I feel stronger for being motivated by the powers of life rather than the power of death.”

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