Hizballah and Lebanon's official military – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) - are increasingly cooperating with one another, Israeli military sources say, and this relationship is helping the Iranian-backed terrorist organization run southern Lebanon.
"We actually see them working together," an IDF official said earlier this month during a briefing to reporters near the Lebanese border. "We see them go the same villages together. We know who is who. Sometimes the Hizballah personnel wear LAF uniforms. The LAF, of course, are allowed to be here."
The cooperation also takes the form of joint vehicle patrols, and the LAF never enters a southern Lebanese village without gaining prior Hizballah approval.
This relationship helps Hizballah get around UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which forbids it from moving armed units into south Lebanon.
Resolution 1701 does, however, permit the LAF to be in the area, enabling the Lebanese military to act as a cover for Hizballah's activities.
With the Syrian civil war beginning to wind down, Hizballah, armed with a formidable rocket and missile arsenal, is preparing to bring its highly trained units in Syria back home to Lebanon. Many will head to the southern Lebanese front with Israel, according to IDF assessments.
The close cooperation with the LAF could allow the Shi'ite organization to deploy its forces even more effectively, as they prepare for potential war with Israel.
"The LAF has lost its independence a long time ago," Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former IDF Military Intelligence research division chief, and a former director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
"Not just LAF – but all of the Lebanese security apparatus – has lost independence. We see it in ongoing cooperation in intelligence, operational, and security activities – in all of these fields. This is an area of concern," he said.
Many in the international community "want to think about the LAF as a body that is part of the system that can be worked with, and which is not contaminated by terrorism," Kuperwasser said. "But in reality, there are many doubts that this is in fact the situation. That should worry everyone, because no one wants to see Hizballah get more capabilities than it already has."
Kuperwasser noted that, despite their growing cooperation, Hizballah and the LAF do not view everything eye to eye. The LAF has a commitment to the Lebanese state, while Hizballah has many identities, he noted, including Lebanese, Shi'ite, jihadist, and Iranian, as well as being heavily invested in Syria.
"Hizballah operates on many fronts. Hence, as soon as it becomes connected with the LAF, this projects on the LAF's conduct," the intelligence expert said.
"We see an Iranian willingness to assist the LAF. We see that the LAF is supposed to be the organization deployed in southern Lebanon, according to Resolution 1701, and ensures that there is no Hizballah presence in the area. But in actuality, because of the cooperation with Hizballah, this has turned into a fiction," he added.
Due to such trends, Israel has repeatedly warned that it can no longer make a clear distinction between Hizballah and the Lebanese state or the LAF.
Should any potential security escalation occur, the IDF source said during the briefing earlier this month, the IDF's response would "mostly depend on how the LAF behaves."
"If we see the LAF move back and give us space, we will not attack them. If they take part in hostilities, we will have to attack," he cautioned.
On a regional level, the Hizballah/LAF cooperation has also caused significant damage to Lebanon's relationship with the Sunni Arab powers, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah maintains cooperation with Yemen's Houthis forces, who are engaged in a major armed conflict with the Saudis.
"Nasrallah does not care about the Lebanese state. From Lebanon, he operates in a way that endangers the Sunni moderate states, and the U.S.," said Kuperwasser. "And all of this happens in Lebanon with the knowledge of the LAF. This must cast a shadow on the willingness of the West and the pragmatic Arab states to cooperate with Lebanon."
Hopes that further cooperation with Lebanon can "save the situation, and foster a different attitude, making the LAF act differently" still exist in the international community, said Kuperwasser. "But Hizballah does not read the situation this way, and neither do the Lebanese, who are continuing their cooperation with Hizballah."
Hizballah's three components
Hizballah's cooperation with the LAF is just one aspect of its larger Lebanese military operations, which are made up of three main components.
The first involves defensive units, embedded in every southern Lebanese village, and in open areas. These units are tasked with challenging a potential Israeli ground offensive and also have access to underground bunkers and tunnels. The units maintain war readiness, equipment, and weapons.
A second component is Hizballah's offensive firepower, which is estimated to exceed 120,000 missiles, making it one of the largest collections in the world. This arsenal places almost every area in Israel within range. Hizballah is expected to focus its heaviest firepower on northern Israeli border regions and Israeli military targets, but it can fire thousands of rockets at greater Tel Aviv, and beyond, paralyzing the Israeli home front.
Its third component is an elite ground attack force, called "Radwan," which would seek to use newly gained battle experience from Syria, and cross the border into Israel, where, according to IDF assessments, its mission would be "to kill as much as they can in villages and bases, and symbolically attack in Israel, so that after the war, Hezbollah can claim: 'We won.'"
The IDF is closely studying these threats and drawing up preparations of its own, designed to crush Hizballah in an unprecedented manner should a conflict erupt.
The fate of the LAF, it would seem, in any such scenario, would depend on its ability to stay out of the fighting.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane's Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.