Online videos may be today’s most efficient information vector. They are the closest thing to a real-life event happening in front of your eyes, as opposed to pictures, texts, or even a combination of both. Nevertheless, the emergence of maliciously altered videos and deepfakes puts us at risk of being dangerously misinformed. To counter this, sound forensic methods supported by specifically designed signal processing tools and artificial intelligence are being used to detect most falsifications.
Yet often, misinformation conducted via video does not rely on a technical alteration but rather on false claims that accompany the footage. This could be achieved through a misleading title, a falsely alleged geographical location, or through anachronism, which consists in attributing filmed events to a false period. Anachronism can also include the resurfacing of older videos that not only add to the spread of fake news but affect open source research.
The following investigation shows how an unaltered video, which depicted a real event that happened at an originally correctly claimed date, confused the audience and online investigators by re-surfacing under a different title during a significantly more susceptible political context.
I randomly came across this video on Facebook, after it was published by Zrarieh (الزرارية), a pro-Hezbollah page, on August 15, 2018 at 09:57 GMT, sparking my curiosity about the report’s accuracy.
This was the title : “For the first time… Hezbollah shares live scenes of a military operation against Israel inside the occupied lands.” (“لأول مرة… “حزب الله” يعرض مشاهد حية لعملية عسكرية ضد إسرائيل داخل الأراضي المحتلة”)
The video received substantial engagement, registering 26,000 reactions (such as Like and Love) and 6,300 comments, including intense debates as to whether Hezbollah is capable of infiltrating Israel and conducting a military operation on foot, or whether the events happened somewhere else, perhaps in Lebanon or Syria.
In order to understand the context and legitimacy of the claims made about this video, this investigation will address the following: the source of the video and its online proliferation, the location of the events depicted in the video, and the authenticity of the operation as well as its actors.
Who Shared This Video Initially? How Did It Spread Online?
The first detected publishing of the video is by Hezbollah-owned media outlet Al Manar (قناة المنار), which seems to have been given exclusivity on August 12, 2018, in commemoration of the death of Mohamad Kanso. A Hezbollah-affiliated web forum ahlamontada.net (انشاء منتدى) describes Kanso as a senior Jihadi (fighting since 1983), nicknamed Sajed Al Doueir, who participated in the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers that helped spark the August 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
The same page reports that Kanso was killed in the last week of the August 2006 war while leading the defensive in the village of Bint Jbeil in south Lebanon. The filmed operation must have therefore been carried out prior to this date, which is consistent with Al Manar’s dating of the event to 2005.
Hezbollah’s channel did not allude to any border crossing (i.e. from Lebanon to Israel) in their original title. However, they described the events as a raid on the village of Al Ghajar’s Eastern [Israeli] military post (نشر الاعلام الحربي صورا تعرض للمرة الاولى للشهيد خلال اقتحامه الموقع الشرقي من قرية الغجر الحدودية، التي نفذتها المقاومة في العام 2005).
On August 13, 2018, the day after Al Manar put up the video, the video was then shared on the website central-media.org. The media group behind it (الإعلام الحربي المركزي) seems to be the group that documents and shares the activities of Iran’s paramilitary forces on all their active Middle-Eastern battlegrounds (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen).
This website’s domain was registered using a French Cloud computing (BookMyName) and a web hosting company (online SAS) that is a subsidiary of the French Iliad Telecom group. More importantly, its server’s IP address — 188.8.131.52 — hosts at least six other websites that are directly linked to Hezbollah and to Lebanese-Iranian relations. See below:
Interestingly, the video disappeared from the aforementioned Zrarieh (الزرارية) Facebook page on Wednesday, March 3, 2019, but not before it spread across a number of prominent platforms including Facebook and YouTube. Different titles were used, with some going as far as to say that the battle happened in the heart of Israel’s second most populous city: Tel Aviv.
All of this served to portray Hezbollah as capable of sending its foot soldiers deep inside Israel rather than engaging in defensive asymmetric warfare, which until present has been the long-standing belief. It was also an attack on Israel’s reputation as far as defending its borders is concerned.
What Political Context Affected The Video’s Reach And Title Changes?
“We have this capability [to enter Israel]. Yes, without a doubt. We have had the capabilities for years. Following the experience from Syria, it became much easier for us than we thought.”
This was Hezbollah’s current secretary general Hassan Nasrallah’s reply about his group’s infiltration capabilities in a televised interview on January 26, 2019.
Nasrallah even alluded at Hezbollah’s intention to invade the Galilee in the next war. A number of reporters suggested a link between such capabilities and the Quranic verse “Enter in peace, secure (ادخلوها بسلامٍ آمنين), which hung behind the secretary general during the interview on a calligraphic plaque.
The message came as recent moves from Israel and the United States struck very close to Hezbollah’s core. The Israeli air force has repeatedly attacked Iranian and pro-Iranian bases, fighters, and assets in Syrian territory. It did so nearly 100 times from 2013 until 2017, without an advertised counter-response, which in turn created an image of Hezbollah and their allies as weak and cornered.
On December 4, 2018, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a campaign called Operation Northern Shield, which consisted of dismantling a network of trans-border tunnels that were allegedly built by Iran and Hezbollah over the past ten years. On November 5, 2018, the United States imposed the toughest sanctions on Iran since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal) waived them. Iran’s economy was drastically hit as a result, especially in the energy, financial, and shipping sectors.
Were The Events Filmed Inside Tel Aviv, As Some Users Claimed?
No. There is no evidence to support this.
Did The Operation Take Place In Al Ghajar, As Initially Stated By Hezbollah’s Al Manar?
Yes. I geolocated the video to a specific street in the village of Al Ghajar.
I began with the identification of a public school called Salman Al Khatib that appeared multiple times in the video. It was compared with an online reference image of the school dating back to October 10, 2012, and showed matching elements that included the number and location of windows, their arched design, the columns between two of these windows, the walls and stairs that were still under construction at the time of the operation, and finally the yellow and red painted curb that is parallel to a blue and white one.
The peculiar design of the street lamps as well as the curb’s color combination (red and white) also matched with another online reference image of Al Ghajar — see the red arrows in the comparison below. The image on the right includes a building with a central partition that is still under construction at the time of the operation. It will later be located on the same street as that of the previously identified public school.
The combatants’ final positions were geolocated to this street in Al Ghajar. The identification of the street were the combat action took place was performed using a satellite image (Google Earth) that was taken in 2014. Matching elements include the landscape, the roads and constructions, as well as the blue and white curb that seems to be uniquely placed in front of the public school — it’s seven blue bands alternating with eight white bands.
Hezbollah’s unit most probably drove South coming from the Lebanese part of the town and reached the street facing the public school. They are seen engaging in battle before turning left, aiming eastward. Mohamad Kanso is later seen in a ready to shoot ducking position with the public school in the background, while four of his men are already in a more advanced position behind the building with the central partition.
The street was also pictured in a Foreign Policy article dating to February 2, 2010 (image below). It shows the color combinations of three curbs, the road taken by Hezbollah’s special unit to reach the street, and the building with the central partition, which now includes a red tiled roof also visible in the previous Google Earth image.
Did Hezbollah Cross Lebanon’s Border With Israel To Conduct This Operation?
This is a tricky one.
The village of Al Ghajar represents a tripoint oddity that exists on the Israel-Lebanon-Syria border. A number of scholars have investigated it, but studies have expectedly been influenced by the authors’ school of thought, nationality, and personal opinion. Geographically, the village falls between the Golan Heights and Lebanon’s southern border. It was Syrian until the IDF captured it in 1967.
When Israel’s occupation of Lebanon ended in 2000, the UN drew what is known as the Blue Line, which supposedly corresponds to the original borders between the two countries. In this process, the village of Al Ghajar was cut in two, with the northern two thirds inside Lebanon, and the southern third inside of Israel.
Was The Operation Carried Out Inside The Israeli Part Of Al Ghajar?
The three types of curbs that were previously spotted suggest that the events were filmed on Israeli roads. Online tourist guides describe that red and white markings mean “no parking” in Israel, red and yellow designate a bus or public transport stop, while the blue and white designate parking possibility for a fee or for permit-carrying local residents. This colour-coded system is not replicated in Lebanon or Syria.
Moreover, an IDF Memugan M1113 Humvee that is designed for special operations and as a carrier and shelter for communications is seen driving on the street where the combat action took place in the Foreign Policy article’s image.
Additionally, a yellow plate number that appeared in the video on a white marked vehicle is registered in Israel. While yellow plate numbers may also be found on Lebanese diplomatic and on Syrian transit vehicles, the digits’ position and language eliminate the possibility of registration in these two countries. Both Lebanon and Syria include Arabic numbers on the right side of yellow plates (figure below).
The color combinations on the curbs, the IDF’s Humvee, and the plate number are elements that support but cannot confirm the hypothesis of the operation being carried out on the Israeli side of Al Ghajar.
It should be noted that the roads might have been designed prior to Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The type of Humvee is an Expanded Capacity Vehicle: it has a gun ring on its roof that would normally fit a MAG-58 or a 40 mm grenade launcher. It usually has an extended and armoured grill on the sides (not visible in the picture) and can be equipped with a cellular telephone jammer as well as IED countermeasures. This type of vehicle is often sent outside of the IDF’s comfort zones to patrol borders (see Hezbollah’s kidnapping operation on July 12, 2006). Finally, the yellow plate number cannot precisely confirm a location because of the civilian cars’ mobility across borders.
What Do Maps Say About The Location Of The Event?
If we consider the UN’s Blue Line as the real border between the two countries, Hezbollah’s combatants technically crossed the Lebanese border a few meters into Israel. This previously geolocated street is Lebanese on its North West side and Israeli in its South East side.
Importantly, the Blue Line was kept unbarricaded and left virtually open inside Al Ghajar. In fact, the IDF built their physical borders on the adjacent East and South sides of the village instead of going through it — as seen in the image below.
The official reason for keeping the borders open along the Blue Line in Al Ghajar was to keep families united. However, further research showed that Israel saw grave security threats that pushed for such a decision: A permanent fixed position inside and at this level of the village carries high risks. This represents one example where the Blue Line is not strictly respected on the ground.
Side note: The opposite scenario where Israel encroaches on Lebanese soil rather than backing up behind the Blue Line was previously reported in numerous positions, including the following three military posts: Jabal Summaqa, Roweisat Allam, and the “Radar” (for more, see Nicholas Blanford’s 2016 case study).
What About So-Called Alternative Borders?
The “operation across the border” hypothesis becomes less likely if we rely on the interactive map that is used by Hezbollah’s run website: central-media.org. You can find an embedded Google MyMaps entitled “Maps of control … the war’s central media – خرائط السيطرة .. الإعلام الحربي المركزي” with colored layers, lines, and markers that detail actual military control in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
There, the Lebanon-Israel border is slightly different from the UN Blue Line (seen as a black line in the image below). Ironically, this redrawing of the borders places the operation inside Lebanon and contradicts the “inside occupied lands” title. This is reinforced by the map’s colors that code for areas of control between different militaries. While red denotes the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and black suggests the IDF, both colors overlap above the located combat street and the combatants positions in the video.
According to the map of the central-media.org, which appears to be run by Hezbollah, the operation happened in the Lebanese part of Al Ghajar in an area of dual control between the LAF and the IDF.
Was It A Real Hezbollah Paramilitary Operation?
Hezbollah fighters are reported to use unmarked civilian vehicles for their transport and, once close to their targets, they generally discard them to fight on foot. The video shows that a similar tactic was adopted.
The camera starts filming from outside the window of a white civilian SUV that turns left and then, in a different scene, unloads a number of armed men.
The first combatant that is seen stepping down from the car was identified as group leader Mohamad Kanso, a.k.a. Sajed Al Doueir.
Later in the video, a red motorcycle that is most probably a Honda XL350R dust motorcycle, is used by another combatant.
Such bikes have proved useful in guerrilla-warfare for their agility and their off-road capacity. They were reportedly used by Hezbollah’s fighters in a number of operations and during the 2006 war. A Kawasaki KDX 250 coupled with a RPG-7 for example, were exhibited in the Hezbollah’ established Mleeta’s resistance museum in Lebanon.
Kanso was seen carrying a M16-A1 US designed assault rifle that is coupled with a M203 grenade launcher. One of his men was carrying a PK-pattern variant light machine gun while the other was carrying an RPG-7. Such weaponry is considered typical of the group’s small and light weapons arsenal.
Additionally, an open-source database of camouflage patterns, camopedia.org, was used to corroborate the camouflage worn by the men in the video with the U.S. Army issue woodland camouflage utilities, BDU, that is associated with Hezbollah’s uniform in the database.
The video’s original publishers, Al Manar and central-media.org, rightly mentioned that the operation took place in Al Ghajar in 2005. While they described it as a raid on Israel’s “Eastern military post,” other reports added that it was a failed attempt at abducting IDF soldiers on November 21, 2005. They also mention the killing of four of the attackers.
Summary Of Findings
- The video was first posted by Hezbollah-owned channel Al Manar on August 12, 2018, followed by a post by central-media.org, that seems tightly associated with Hezbollah.
- These media outlets mentioned that the operation occurred in Al Ghajar in 2005 and that it was led by Mohamad Kanso, which is consistent with our findings. It did not claim that the militants crossed the Lebanese borders into Israel.
- On the other hand, the video had widely spread online and the titles quickly changed into ones that claim a border crossing “inside occupied lands,” or that Hezbollah reached Tel Aviv on foot “in the Heart of Tel Aviv,” etc.
- Our findings suggest that the operation was carried by a Hezbollah unit which reached a street in Al Ghajar that separates the Lebanese side from the Israeli side of the divided village.
- According to the Blue Line (drawn in 2000 by the UN), the combatants’ final position in the video was on the Israeli side of the street.
- According to Hezbollah’s modification of the Blue Line, the operation was on the Lebanese side of the street.
- In all cases, the village of Al Ghajar is not barricaded as the Israeli physical borders circumvent the village instead of cutting through it.