By Aurelie Daher
Reacting to the January 28 Hezbollah attack that killed two Israeli soldiers and injured seven more, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened retaliation, declaring, “Whoever tries to challenge Israel on its borders will find out that we are ready to react with force… Those who play with fire get burned.”
Aside from the fact that the attack took place in what Lebanese consider their own territory, which remains under Israeli occupation, Hezbollah’s action has to be understood as a tit-for-tat response to the Israeli bombing 10 days earlier in Syria that killed six members of the Lebanese group and one Iranian general. The key question now is whether Israel really wants and can lead a new large-scale war against its northern adversary.
For now, a nervous calm prevails. But if there is war, it will be Israel’s decision.
The Rules of the Game
In May 2000, after 22 years of an Israeli occupation that featured harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, expulsions, deportations, torture, and other abuses, Hezbollah’s resistance was vindicated when Israeli troops abruptly packed their bags and withdrew from Lebanon in four days. Their departure set off delirious celebrations in the region and an explosion in the popularity of the militant group.
Israeli troops did not, however, evacuate a small area of a few square kilometers known as the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shuba bluff where the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel converge. Occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, the area is considered Syrian by Tel Aviv and the United Nations and thus falls outside UN Security Council Resolution 425, which requires Israel to withdraw from all Lebanese territory.
Bolstered by title deeds and other documents regarding ownership of the Shebaa Farms, the Lebanese government and Hezbollah—as well as the Syrian government itself—have long insisted that this small area is Lebanese. For Hezbollah, the task of liberating all of Lebanese territory from Israel is thus not yet complete, and it thus views an attack on the Israeli army in the area as legitimate.
Despite the departure from most of southern Lebanon by Tel Aviv’s forces, Hezbollah has organized ambushes against Israeli patrols and planted anti-tank mines on their routes with the regularity of Swiss clockwork since the early 2000s. For its part, Israel would sometimes carry out attacks of its own, but each time neither of the belligerents wanted to escalate.
Moreover, the April Accords between Hezbollah and Tel Aviv that ended Israel’s 1996 Grapes of Wrath campaign stipulated that the two belligerents should confine themselves to making war in occupied Lebanese territory. As long as Israel refrained from carrying out attacks in civilian and liberated zones in Lebanon, Hezbollah would refrain from bombing Israeli territory. In general, both sides have respected this understanding.
But in July 2006, after claiming that Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in Israeli territory—Hezbollah, backed by the Lebanese army and the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL), insisted that the site was Lebanese—the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched a major offensive. For 33 days and nights, Israel rained down shells and bombs—an estimated 40,000-100,000, many of them cluster munitions—across large swathes of Lebanon. Lacking an air force, Hezbollah necessarily limited its action to shelling northern Israel mainly with Katusha rockets at the rate of 150-250 rockets a day—far short, for example, of the 2,000 shells that Israel fired on the single village of Aytarun in a single day. In total, Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets extending up to 60 miles into Israel, effectively establishing its ability to thoroughly disrupt normal life there, if not pose a very real threat to the region. In all, the death toll in Lebanon reached 1,200 people, about a third of whom were younger than 12 years old, while 4,500 more were injured, and an estimated 200,000 people lost their homes. Hezbollah claimed losses of only 150 of its fighters, while about 120 Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Hezbollah’s leaders later conceded that they were surprised by the magnitude of Israel’s reaction. After the war, the organization effectively adopted a new rule, which it had actually observed for the most part before 2006. Hezbollah would not initiate any confrontation: “Israel initiates, Hezbollah may reply.” In fact, since 2006 Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and territorial integrity take place virtually every day in many forms—incursions by Israeli patrols, installations of surveillance platforms, abductions of civilians, sending balloons covered or filled with toxic powder or gas over Lebanese territory—and Hezbollah responds only rarely.
In early August 2010 for instance, Israeli army units entered Lebanese territory to cut down trees and install monitoring devices, ignoring UNIFIL’s efforts to push them back. When they continued their advance, the Lebanese army fired warning shots. Israeli tanks responded with shellfire. In the end, two Lebanese soldiers, one Lebanese journalist, and one Israeli officer were killed. Fifteen other Lebanese were injured. The incident elicited no response from Hezbollah beyond a warning that Israel should not do it again. This reaction caused immense satisfaction in Tel Aviv, including claims that Hezbollah “had lost its bite” and that the 2006 offensive had been vindicated.
However, when a Hezbollah fighter was killed in early September last year while defusing an Israeli surveillance device located in uncontested Lebanese territory, the group hit back several weeks later by installing an anti-tank weapon along the route regularly used by Israeli patrols in the Shebaa Farms area. Israel replied in turn by firing 30 shells into southern Lebanon. But, once again, the two sides decided to avoid further escalation.
Breaking the Rules
Israel’s January 18 attack on a group of Hezbollah fighters in Syrian territory is not only a test of Hezbollah’s will to respond. Although it took place outside the geographical boundaries of the conflict, it also represented a break in the rules of the game. Hezbollah could not not respond. It felt the need not only to challenge the Israeli narrative about Hezbollah having lost its bite but also to reassure its own constituency. Moreover, a general in Iran’s Pasdaran had just been assassinated, so this was also seen as a direct attack by Israel against Tehran (despite statements by Israeli officials that they didn’t know who was in the target group, assertions that the Lebanese do not consider credible). The fact that Hezbollah chose not to respond in or from Syria but rather in the Shebaa Farms constitutes a strong and very clear message that Hezbollah is “reframing” the confrontation by returning it to its traditional geographic setting, thus implying that, as far as the group’s leadership is concerned, the latest attack is nothing other than “business as usual” and there is no need to escalate.
The message became all the clearer last week when Hezbollah made it known to Israel via the UNIFIL channel that its leadership considered the matter “closed.” In a January 30 speech, the party’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, declared, “You tried us, don’t try us again. We don’t want war, but we’re not afraid of it. If we’re forced into war, we’ll know how to handle it and we’ll win.”
All of this has taken place against a background of media commentary that has emphasized the purported costs Hezbollah has suffered as a result of its intervention in Syria, suggesting that the real reason for its refusal to engage Israel more aggressively is its inability to fight on two fronts.
But the speculation that Hezbollah has indeed suffered serious casualties in Syria is not borne out by the on-the-ground reality. Since its initial intervention in spring 2013, Hezbollah has succeeded in each of the battles in which it was engaged. Its fighters’ experience and training are unquestionably superior to those of its foes. Indeed, the number of its dead after a year and a half in Syria is unlikely to exceed 200, and numerous reports from the field suggest a more than ample supply of Lebanese Shiite recruits, especially from the Bekaa Valley. A striking example of this state of affairs came last August when the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra launched a massive attack on the Ersal region. As the two radical Sunni groups moved beyond Ersal, particularly in and around the predominantly Shiite region, dozens of local residents took up arms and spontaneously joined Hezbollah’s call to repel the invaders.
Also, the fact that Hezbollah has not reduced its forces in Lebanon below a critical level has shown that the party’s leadership has been acutely conscious that Israel might try to take advantage of the group’s intervention in Syria to attack Lebanon. As in 2006, Hezbollah doesn’t need major battalions of fighters to confront the IDF: in the concluding days of that war, a force of about 5,000 men—if we are to believe UNIFIL observers and French military analysts—stymied the 40,000 Israeli soldiers who took part in the invasion. Moreover, Hezbollah is even better armed and equipped in 2015 than nine years ago, according to both Western and Israeli intelligence, with, among other things, longer-range missiles capable of hitting Israeli territory for the first time far beyond the Galilee. In other words, if Hezbollah prefers not to embark on a major new conflict with Israel, it is almost certainly not for fear of being destroyed.
Does Israel Want War?
The possibility of a large-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah—and thus against Lebanon—hence depends on Tel Aviv. Netanyahu is in the middle of an election campaign. His favorite campaign theme has been security and his ability to protect the Israeli people from Arab terrorism, beginning with the threat from the north, specifically Hezbollah. Indeed, a major offensive could theoretically provide Likud with a tremendous boost in the March 17 election, particularly in light of the damage Netanyahu has inflicted on relations with Washington over the past two weeks.
But the risk is not insignificant. Israel might have to manage a defeat or, at least, a less-than-satisfactory outcome. One has only to remember how Shimon Peres tried to turn the 1996 war to his political advantage: for almost three weeks that April, Israeli shells fell on Shiite areas of Lebanon as part of Grapes of Wrath. The result was 250 Lebanese civilians dead (more than 100 of them killed as they sought protection at an UNIFIL outpost at Qana), 127 wounded Israelis, and Peres’s defeat at Netanyahu’s hands in the election that followed.
But it is above all Ehud Olmert who, in the wake of the 2006 war, would learn to his dismay that war against Hezbollah is not necessarily a good idea. Israel went all out, not only to recover the two abducted Israeli soldiers but also to dismantle Hezbollah as a threat once and for all. After its missiles and air force failed to eliminate Hezbollah’s rocket fire into the Galilee, Israel launched its ground invasion with extremely disappointing results. It faced a Hezbollah protected by a complex defense of tunnels and reinforcements. The IDF suffered its biggest losses in men and material per day since the 1967 war. When a cease-fire was finally established, not only had Israel failed to recover its soldiers, but Hezbollah was still standing on its northern border, its leadership entirely intact. Olmert and his party fell sharply in the polls, and the commission that was charged with investigating the war’s failures elicited his admission that planning for the conflict had been four months in preparation, suggesting that the soldiers’ abduction was a mere pretext for launching the war. The chief of staff, Dan Haloutz, was forced to resign in disgrace.
Some Israeli hawks may well be pressing the government for war, arguing that the lessons of the 2006 conflict have been well learned and that mistakes will not be repeated. The question remains, however, what Israel’s war aims would be. Eliminate Hezbollah? But Hezbollah is a not insignificant component of the Lebanese Shiite community, the largest sectarian community in the country. Present virtually everywhere in Lebanon, its fighters are occupied with their work and daily life just like their fellow citizens. In war, as they demonstrated in 2006, they are agile guerrillas, transporting rocket-launchers into place on highly maneuverable light trucks when they’re not carrying them on their backs. And for every fighter killed in combat, two more are ready to take his place. Bombarding the Lebanese people and state institutions to try to isolate Hezbollah has obviously not worked in the past. Quite the contrary: the more Israel has resorted to that kind of collective punishment for Lebanese support of Hezbollah, the more the party’s popular support increases, particularly when Hezbollah’s clinics and hospitals treat the wounded without charge and its construction companies rebuild homes after the last bombing campaign. Intensive bombing by Israel’s air force and navy only reinforces the resentment against it.
With or without preparation, the Israeli army can’t achieve anything conclusive against Hezbollah. Even Netanyahu—perhaps especially Netanyahu in light of the bitter experience of his predecessors—knows that. Neither side has anything to gain from a new war.