Changed calculations between Israel and Hezbollah
BEIRUT - Israel’s military conducted a nationwide Home Front exercise in September that simulated a massive missile onslaught by Iran’s powerful Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, which generals say will hammer the Jewish state’s civilian population harder than ever before.
A decade after their 2006 war, in which Israel failed to crush Hezbollah as a strategic threat, there is no sign that a new conflict is imminent.
Hezbollah has become a powerful military force in the region since then but is bogged down in the savage war in neighbouring Syria. Israel is not looking for another fight, although it wants to avenge being fought to a standstill in 2006 by what was then a ragtag bunch of Islamic zealots.
There are those in the region, however, who are convinced that as the hair-trigger Middle East becomes ever-more unstable, the next war may not be too long in coming.
The objective of Operation Standing Firm was to prepare Israel’s civilians for a multi-front war involving Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah in Syria’s Golan Heights and possibly even Iran itself.
Hezbollah has become a very different enemy than the one Israel fought in the summer of 2006. It may have suffered heavy casualties fighting in Syria since 2012 but it has also learned how to fight conventional wars, with armour and artillery and manoeuvring big battalions rather than the small-scale actions that constituted most of its combat against Israel between 1982 and 2000.
The Israelis are convinced they would win the next war but they acknowledge that the cost in casualties and destruction of their cities, pounded by up to 1,500 missiles and rockets a day — probably for weeks — would be much greater than any of the six major wars and countless smaller engagements they have fought since the state was formed in 1948.
The military anticipates that 250-500 people would be killed in a prolonged missile bombardment. David Daoud, an Arabic-language analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a right-wing Washington think-tank, observed in September that those statistics “while not catastrophic, will still be the highest suffered by the Jewish state since… 1948.
“Such a steep price will only be bearable if the (Israeli military) succeeds in dealing Hezbollah a critical blow during their next confrontation.”
With the exception of the 2006 war, in which Hezbollah fired an unprecedented 4,000 missiles — 160 a day — into Israel and a salvo of Scud missiles unleashed on Tel Aviv by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in a vain bid to drag Israel into the 1990-91 Gulf War, the Jewish state’s home front has never faced such a potentially lethal threat, one that could conceivably draw in Iran and its ballistic missiles.
Israel estimates that Hezbollah possesses, courtesy of Syria and Iran, as many as 150,000 missiles and rockets, at least 5% of them long-range precision weapons capable of reaching all the Jewish state’s cities and military bases and the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert south of Tel Aviv.
Spurred by Hezbollah’s ground-breaking bombardment in 2006, Israel has developed a multilayered missile defence system. It concedes that many missiles will penetrate these defences in a prolonged conflict probably fought on several fronts but the majority of these — a recent assessment listed only 95% — will be limited-range weapons that cannot hit populated areas.
Major-General Gadi Eizenkot, the Israeli chief of staff who commanded the northern front against Hezbollah in 2006, conceded in January that the Lebanese movement is the Jewish state’s “main enemy” and “posed the most serious threat to Israel”.
Although there is no threat of an imminent conflict with Hezbollah, both sides regard 2006 as unfinished business. Some Israeli generals favour hammering Hezbollah before Iran develops nuclear weapons.
They are preparing for what they deem to be the inevitable next war, a prospect enhanced by Iran’s expansionist ambitions to lead a Shia-dominated Islamic crescent stretching from the Gulf to the Mediterranean to upend 1,400 years of Sunni control.
The key battleground, Israel’s northern border, has been quiet for a decade but it remains volatile. Now Syria’s southern border with Israel in the war-divided Golan Heights is increasingly becoming a potential flashpoint as the IRGC and Hezbollah seek to confront Israel there as well, extending the long-established Lebanese front onto the strategic plateau that overlooks northern Israel, the country’s breadbasket.
“Alarmingly, the potential for conflict is now constant,” the FDD observed in a July analysis. “Hezbollah continues to exploit the chaos of the Syrian civil war to augment its already formidable arsenal with what Israeli military officials call ‘game-changing weapons’.”
These reportedly include surface-to-air missiles that challenge Israel’s long-held supremacy of the skies and anti-ship missiles that threaten the Jewish state’s offshore gas fields.
Israel “has declared this a red line and in response had repeatedly carried out air strikes to prevent these arms transfers,” the FDD noted.
“Hezbollah has absorbed these blows silently but the group’s leadership has occasionally felt compelled to respond, even if the response has been only symbolic. Every skirmish, however, small, runs the risk of sparking a larger conflict that neither side intends.”
If Hezbollah does strike, it will undoubtedly be at Iran’s command. Tehran was taken by surprise when the 2006 conflict was triggered by a Hezbollah attack and the arsenal of missiles and rockets Iran had stockpiled with Hezbollah for use as a strategic retaliation against Israel if it launched pre-emptive attacks on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities was uncovered.
Tehran does not plan to be exposed like that again. “Hezbollah is and always was an instrument of Iranian power — its forward base on the Mediterranean,” the FDD noted. “Iranian officials regularly speak of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal as their own…
“The Israelis… may seek to pre-empt a Hezbollah strike. The perceived need to do so grows as Iran amassed power across the region. However, Israeli officials generally believe that the next conflict will be one that results from an unexpected skirmish that gives way to rapid escalation…
“When another war does eventually erupt, even under the best scenarios, the conflict will almost certainly be more devastating to both sides than before, leading to widespread destruction and loss of civilian life.”
Recent efforts by Iran and Hezbollah to take control of the Syrian sector of the Golan to deploy missiles aimed at the Jewish state appear to have been blocked by Israel.
But the implications are clear: The next war “will not be confined to northern Israel and southern Lebanon as in the past,” said Beirut-based analyst Nicholas Blanford, a specialist on Hezbollah and author of the 2011 book Warriors of God. “Next time, the territories of both countries will become a war zone…
“An aerial… bombing campaign alone will be insufficient and Israeli troops will have to be sent into Lebanon” in substantial numbers, as they were in Israel’s 1982 invasion that drove Yasser Arafat’s Palestinians out of Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s long-range missiles give it a reach it never had before during its 34-year conflict with Israel. It is also expected to launch a ground offensive into Israel’s northern Galilee region.
Such an operation would be the first Arab military thrust into the Jewish state since it was founded in 1948 and even if it failed would constitute a powerful psychological triumph over the long-impregnable Jewish fortress state.
If such a landmark operation takes place, the Israelis will be expected to unleash a retaliatory firestorm that would encompass all of Lebanon.
Eizenkot has long waited to avenge the humiliation of his troops by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s agile warriors in the southern Lebanon panhandle in 2006 and in the aftermath formulated the so-called Dahiya Doctrine for all-out war.
“We will apply disproportionate force… and cause great damage and destruction,” Eizenkot explained.
This doctrine is named after Israel’s ferocious 2006 aerial blitz of Beirut’s Dahiya district where Hezbollah had its command centre. The objective is to hold all Lebanese accountable for Hezbollah’s actions.
The 2006 war cost Lebanon 1,200 — mostly civilians — dead and $2 billion to rebuild its ruined infrastructure.
If Hezbollah does invade Israel, doing what no Muslim army has achieved in nearly 70 years, there may not be much left standing in Lebanon after Israel exacts its revenge.