Hezbollah leader reveals secrets of the July 2006 war

Crowds celebrate the one year anniversary of the July 2006 War in Beirut’s southern suburbs. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

In an exclusive six-hour-long interview with Ibrahim al-Amin, Wafic Qanso, Hassan Ileik, and Maha Zureikat from Al-Akhbar, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah took the time to discuss issues ranging from Syria, the recent Gaza war, the 2006 war with Israel, domestic Lebanese issues, and his own personal habits.

Al-Akhbar is publishing the interview as a multi-part series over the next two days. In this particular section, the interview focused on the July 2006 war with Israel.

If we go back to the first day of the war, July 12, 2006, did you know that the operation to capture the two Israeli soldiers would be carried out that day? What measures did you take and how did things evolve after that?

Essentially, the decision to capture the Israeli soldiers had been taken in Hezbollah’s Shura [Council] months before the operation. In our mechanism of action, when the Shura [Council] makes a decision of this kind, the implementation and execution is tasked to the Jihad Council, which, according to the party’s system, is led by the secretary general. This council consists of leading jihad commanders. At the executive level, the matter was discussed in the Jihad Council from many angles, including the choice of the appropriate location to carry out a successful operation, the timing, the tactic, the operational plan, the participants, the commanders of the operation, and also possible reactions and the precautions that must be taken. All these issues are usually discussed in the framework of the Jihad Council, and decisions are made by consensus or near consensus, rather than being put to a vote.The location where the capture [of the soldiers] took place was chosen, the participating groups were selected, as well as the commanders for the operation. But it was not simple, and it took several months to make it happen. The men entered the area, and even into occupied Palestine, more than once. They would lurk there for a period of time and then leave, before returning again, waiting for the right opportunity. Sometimes, when targets were available, it was not always clear whether they were civilian or military. We stressed the need to capture soldiers and not settlers, lest it be said later that we kidnapped civilians. All this took time until the operation was executed. Of course, those in charge of managing the situation in Beirut, whether at the political, decision-making, or jihad [i.e. operational] levels were being apprised whenever we came close to carrying out the operation. No one was surprised. A few days before the operation was carried out, we had strong reasons to believe that the men would carry it out successfully within days.

During the operation, when the mujahideen advanced and captured the two soldiers, we were informed, and we took measures and precautions as planned in advance. The commanding group moved to the place it was supposed to be in within the first few minutes.

In the first hours after the operation, the repercussions were not major and serious. Everything predicted to happen in the first few hours and the first day was dealt with well, because we had prepared for it. After the success of the operation was verified, and that the prisoners had been taken far from the line of fire, where the enemy might advance, I moved from the operation room to the press conference. The capture of the soldiers was declared with a view to initiate indirect negotiations to secure the release of the prisoners held by the enemy.

How does the secretary general act in such moments? What is his role specifically? Did you have visions and plans on how to evacuate and move, and other arrangements?

The secretary general is a decision maker in managing jihad activities. Of course, he does not directly command jihad, combat, and field units, and does not run operations in the technical military sense. Jihad commanders, or those we call jihad lieutenants, are the ones who run operations on the field, jihad, and executive work. Of course, they coordinate with the secretary general, because the policies and decisions developed by the Shura [Council] are known to him clearly, and he has a mandate and a broad range of powers, and is apprised of the jihad situation, available capabilities, and the political situation. Therefore, the secretary general is a decision maker, even for matters that are related to the field sometimes. He makes decisions in consultation and sometimes in agreement with the members of the Jihad Council.Are there examples?

One example involves the areas we would target for bombardment inside occupied Palestine. The field [commanders] are not the ones who decide to bomb settlements today, Haifa tomorrow, and what’s beyond Haifa thereafter. This is a decision that we make. When a decision is made, the jihad commanders execute it, and coordinate between the units, the information officers, the artillery officers, and then launch rockets. That is, when we say we have entered the Haifa phase, then this is a decision we made. The type of weaponry used involves a decision. Targeting the Sa’ar 5 [corvette] is also a decision. This kind of decisions is usually made by the Jihad Council and the secretary general, in his capacity as the commander of the Jihad Council, in consultation and agreement with the brothers; it is the procedural parties that manage things [after that], while I am kept abreast.

Why do we say that this [i.e. these matters] entails a [major] decision? Because every step has its own set of circumstances. For example, attacking Sa’ar 5 meant we were attacking a high-value target with many implications. Secondly, since we were using a type of weapon for the first time, this meant that the Jihad Council had decided to reveal having a weapon not known before to be in the hands of the Resistance. After this decision, the discussion becomes technical, procedural, and executive, an aspect I have no relation to and I do not interfere in. This is a matter for specialists. Yes, when the brothers are in contact with me, they inform me if it’s “okay,” or whether there are obstacles or difficulties. But dealing with these matters is their responsibility.

There is another example related to the issue of bombing Tel Aviv. This is not a procedural issue, but a major decision. When the southern suburbs and other cities in the South and the Bekaa were being bombed, there was a serious discussion about whether we should bomb Tel Aviv or not. As a result of the discussion, we came out with the equation of bombing Tel Aviv in response to bombing Beirut. The southern suburb and other areas in the south and the Bekaa were coming under heavy bombardment anyway. We said: Let us establish a new equation. If we can, through it, protect Beirut or help protect it, for many reasons, then let it be, and it is the best course of action.

If this happened in 2006, would Tel Aviv have been bombed like it is being bombed today out of Gaza?

Certainly, and in a much stronger way. Even the Israelis know it. In the end, you’re talking about rockets of different calibers, types, and quantities. When we announced the equation of Beirut-for-Tel Aviv, it was serious. Certainly, we had the ability to strike Tel Aviv, otherwise we would not have made the threat or spoke about an equation we could not enforce.

Did you come under immediate danger during the war? If so, how close was the danger to you?

I did not come under any direct hit. The places I was in did not come under any attack. But, naturally, the [general] area we were in was bombed. This is normal.

Is it true that missiles landed near your convoy?

This is not true.

How did you spend your day in the first days of the war? We know that the executive arm was undertaking major tasks, and political negotiations had not yet started seriously. Did you continuously follow up on the progress of the war? Did you sleep well?

Not interfering in the battles means you are not running them. But you are involved in following up around the clock the developments on the battlefield: in the South, in the forward positions, and in other areas in the Bekaa, as well as the areas being bombed, the martyrs, the wounded, the displaced, the public, and the climate in the media and the political climate. All this needs close follow up.

Were you able to see your family during the war?

Yes, I saw them once.

Who was the first person you checked on when the war ended?

When the war ended, the possibility of movement was a little complicated. Remember, the war did not end with the ceasefire, but with the end of hostilities. We considered that we were still in the heart of the battle, and for this reason, directly after the war, and for a period of time, my movement remained limited.There are figures who insisted on meeting me, and I would tell them that this was risky for both myself and you. The brothers’ assessment was that the situation was dangerous, and that my appearance in a given place could put both myself and those present at risk. The only place I went to after the war was the place where the late Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah was in. I visited him with a number of brothers to thank him for his stance during the war. This was the only visit. During the war, the only people I would meet with were the brothers concerned with jihad activities.

On the home front, I would speak with Al-Manar and with the Media Relations division. Communicating within the internal network was no problem. The problem was in communicating through cellular phones or by radio. Sometimes, I would record a statement, which would then be broadcast over the radio to the men who did not have access to the internal network. This is what happened.

Did you visit the refugees displaced during the war?

The issue did not require personal visits because the nature of moving was difficult, but I was in touch with the brothers in charge of the refugees’ affairs. The party’s institution was entirely involved, and I was in touch with all officials. Thus, I had a clear daily briefing about the bombardment and destruction, and about the refugees and how their issues and problems were being dealt with. Naturally, the issue of the refugees and popular attitudes, and people and their mood, patience, and morale, was fundamental for us, and figured in our decisions.

Were you surprised by the stance of the displaced?

It was not surprising, but it was for many because they gambled on the refugees, and there was incitement in the media and elsewhere among them, in the schools and so on. Some political parties hoped that the refugees would come out in demonstrations, calling on the Resistance to stop or to disarm and surrender. There were efforts to make this happen. The great thing about the stance of the people is not just about their will, convictions, consciousness, and understanding, but it was that they still maintained all of this despite the war, destruction, displacement, death, and massacres, as well as the tremendous incitement. If there was national harmony, with everyone encouraging, supporting, and expressing solidarity, we would have given less credit to the people for their stance. But, in reality, there was a climate of demoralization, mistrust, and blaming the Resistance for everything that had happened, and attempts to induce people to come out in demonstrations; but they refused.

During the war, what was the most hurtful thing for you?

What hurt most were the massacres. The military men are usually hardened, yet our brothers, despite their courage and tenacity, were affected. Some of them would cry whenever they saw the women and children and the massacres. What hurts a lot is the targeting of civilians. Infrastructure and buildings can be rebuilt, and the displaced will return in the end, because it was clear for us that, God willing, we were going to prevail in the battle and our people would return to their homes, villages, neighborhoods, and cities. Many massacres took place, and it cannot be said that one hurt more than the other. But there was something particularly [hurtful] when the Imam al-Hassan complex was bombed, first because of the large number of martyrs there, and second, because of the rumors in Lebanon that the complex was targeted because the Israelis thought I was there. Of course, I did not go to that place at all at any moment during the war.

Who was the person you feared for?

I cannot say there was anyone specific. There was a number of brothers during the war that I worried about, including Hajj Imad [Mughniyeh], because I believed their survival was crucial to the course of the war, and I was always keen to know how they were faring.

What role did Syria have in the war, including the role of Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman? How many martyrs were there from the Syrian army during the transfer of arms [to the Resistance]?

During the war, the transfer of arms, ammunition, and aid from Syria did not stop. It was not clear how long the war was going to last, so for this reason, [we judged that] the more capabilities, weapons, and ammunitions we had, the better the situation would have been. The possibility of transporting [weapons] was still there, even though the Israelis were targeting almost all crossings. Nevertheless, no martyrs fell from the Syrian army during the transfer [of arms], because there was no bombardment inside Syria, but only on the border crossings and inside Lebanese territory.

Regarding the martyr Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, I believe that the Israelis killed him because of his role before and during the war, as he was charged by President Assad to follow up this issue. His role was excellent and very positive, so after the war, the Israelis sought out Hajj Imad Mughniyeh and Brigadier General Mohammad Suleiman in Syria. Certainly, his assassination is linked to the July War. Some Arab media outlets spoke about internal liquidations. It is very clear for us, from investigations and information from the field, that Israel is behind it. During the war, no Syrian position was hit and no Syrians were killed. Of course, as we fought on the front we were reassured, and this is important, by having a rear base called Syria, prepared to supply us with weapons, capabilities, ammunition, rockets, and so on, without any reservation. For this reason, I understand what is happening in the Gaza Strip, which is fighting while under siege.

Is it true that President Bashar al-Assad was willing to fight on the Syrian front?

The possibility of the war spreading to Syria was there, because the Israelis blamed Syria partly for the Resistance’s steadfastness and its ability to continue fighting, and because it was revealed that part of the arms were either Syrian-made or Syrian-provided. How else would Hezbollah acquire, for example, Kornet missiles? The Israelis blamed Syria for supplying the Resistance with part of its weapons, which had a qualitative effect on the course of the war. For this reason, the possibility was there during the war, as a result of developments on the field, especially when talk began about a large-scale ground operation that would take place in the direction of Hasbaya, Rashaya, the Western Bekaa, and the Central Bekaa. Back then, nearly in the second week of the assault, General Assef Shawkat, with whom we had contact during the war, sent me a message asking for my opinion about an idea being discussed in Damascus, which held that in the event of a large-scale ground operation, Syria could find itself forced to intervene alongside the Resistance in the war. I do not claim that such a decision was made, but it was being discussed by the president and the decision-making group, who followed up on everything, and who had detailed information on what was going on. My answer was, after consulting with the brothers: You do not have to; things are not that dangerous, and our ability to fight a ground attack is very high. In fact, we wished for the Israelis to enter into a ground operation because then the features of the battle would have become clearer.Practically, the ground operation on the basis of which Syria would have considered entering the war did not happen, and the whole issue became moot. There was no subsequent discussion about it.


Revenge for ‘Hajj Radwan’ will be double

You keep restating that Hajj Imad Mughniyeh is behind the two victories. What does this mean in practice?

According to the hierarchy in place in the party in the late 1990s, all executive Jihad activities were under the command of Hajj Imad, with a large number of brothers assisting him. This continued until his martyrdom. Thus, when the liberation happened in 2000 and the July War in 2006, it was Hajj Imad who was responsible for commanding the jihad work, though it cannot be said that during the July War, it was this or that person who was in charge specifically. We do not give all the credit to one person, because the July War was the collective work of the Resistance and within the overall national framework. But Hajj Imad played an essential and central role in the first victory and the second victory, and if he had remained alive, we would not have said he was the leader of the two victories.

What happened to your pledge to avenge him?

This is an open-ended subject. On more than one occasion, I said that some people assume a group of people, settlers or Israelis travelling to this or that country, could be targeted, or an operation could be carried out targeting Israel in a place and that would be the end of it. In truth, we do not think like this. We believe that revenge for Hajj Imad is double. First, in the context of the continuation of the Resistance structure, its development, and the development of its capabilities and capacities and readiness for any confrontation and to be victorious in any confrontation, because the name of Hajj Imad, the spirit of Hajj Imad, and the mind of Hajj Imad are present in all of this.

The second aspect is that the Israeli occupiers know that revenge will come even if after a while. They think we are looking for a person or a target that is equivalent to him. In reality, they have no one who is equivalent, to the political and moral standing of Hajj Imad. Does this mean [the target should be] a group of people, leaders, or decision-makers? Yes. The Israelis assume that the target would be of such a magnitude. For this reason, they have tightened their security measures around the prime minister, defense minister, and both current and former army and intelligence commanders. They assume that revenge for the martyr Imad Mughniyeh cannot be any less than that, even if after some time.

Do you recall you were once asked about him and you said “we do not know him and do not know where he is”?

I never said we did not know him. I once said, in the first interview I had with Télé Liban in 1993, in response to a question about whether Hajj Imad was a Hezbollah leader, I said no. In truth, at the time, Hajj Imad was indeed not in Hezbollah. Neither he, nor other brothers who are key people in the Jihad work had entered Hezbollah’s formations. They had an independent formation through which they operated, regardless of whether that formation continues to exist or not. This is a different subject, so as not to touch on sensitive matters.

Do you place the assassination of Hajj Hassan Lakkis in the context of the assassination of Hajj Radwan [Imad Mughniyeh], or was it to enforce a new Israeli red line because Hezbollah had crossed a red line somewhere?

I believe that it was part of the open-ended intelligence war with the enemy. The issue is not one of red lines. We know that there are a number of people that Israel would not hesitate to target if Israel can reach them, and would not observe any red lines, just like we would not in the context of the issue of Hajj Imad, which we have just been discussing. For us, there is also a group of targets related to the issue of Hajj Imad Mughniyeh, and this is part of the open-ended intelligence war between the Israelis and us.

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