by Helena Cobban
On September 1, Hizbullah fighters on Lebanon’s border with Israel fired two precision-guided missiles over the border, apparently hitting an Israeli “Wolf” armored personnel carrier (APC) and inflicting casualties of unknown severity on its occupants (see below). The strike came a day after Hizbullah head Hassan Nasrallah warned that the organization would retaliate for Israel’s killing, a few days earlier, of two Hizbullah fighters in Syria and Israel’s deployment of explosive drones against Hizbullah-related targets in eastern Lebanon and the capital, Beirut.
The Israelis responded to the attack on the Wolf by firing a number of rockets and artillery shells, seemingly at random, into uninhabited parts of southern Lebanon, with no casualties reported.
On September 2, Hizbullah released a video of the attack on the Wolf, which took place in broad daylight. The video shows Hizbullah operatives launching two guided missiles against a military vehicle, each of which causes a large explosion. Hours later, Nasrallah told his supporters that this cross-border action—the first since the extremely destructive Hizbullah-Israel war of 2006—represented a new stage in the struggle against Israel. He warned, too, that his fighters would henceforth feel free to bring down any of the scores of military drones that Israel deploys in Lebanese airspace each month.
Taken together, the events of late August through September 1 underscored that the situation of reciprocal (if highly asymmetrical) deterrence that has existed between Israel and Hizbullah since the end of the 2006 fighting remains in place.
This situation has significant impact not only for the peoples of Lebanon and Israel but also in the broader regional arena, in which the Israel-Hizbullah balance plays a key role. For though Hizbullah has always, since its emergence in 1985, been an authentic, indigenous Lebanese movement, it is also a key ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran. So if Israel, some parts of the U.S. government, and other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia are considering launching any significant military attack against Iran, then Hizbullah’s ability and willingness to join the battle by counter-striking against high-value targets inside Israel is a factor that anti-Tehran war planners have to take into account.
Iran does have, as I wrote here recently, a broader network of regional allies, of which Lebanon’s Hizbullah is only one part. But Hizbullah is unique by virtue of the special role its conflict with Israel plays in affecting strategic thinking and decision-making in Israel and elsewhere. Hizbullah, as everyone in the Middle East is aware, is the only body, governmental or non-governmental, that has been able to inflict significant military defeat on Israel—and not just once, but twice.
The first defeat became clear in May-June of 2000, when the Israeli military that had been occupying a strip of Southern Lebanon since 1978 simply pulled up its stakes and withdrew. The decisive earlier battle against Hizbullah that led PM Ehud Barak to take that decision had actually happened four years earlier. In 1996, Israel launched a scorched-earth attack against Lebanon that failed to either destroy Hizbullah or turn the Lebanese population against it. When Barak became PM, he judged, quite sensibly, that the casualties that Israel’s occupation force had continued to take in Lebanon since 1996 were all for naught.
In 2006, another Israeli PM, Ehud Olmert—who had far less military experience and military savvy than Barak—thought he would try his hand at diminishing the considerable amount of military and political power that Hizbullah had continued to accrue in Lebanon. With huge support from President George W. Bush and most European governments, Olmert launched another scorched-earth attack against Lebanon, once again aimed at either destroying Hizbullah or turning the Lebanese public against it. In the two years prior to 2006, there had been quite a lot of (Saudi-supported) anti-Hizbullah agitation in Lebanon, so perhaps Olmert hoped to gain advantage from that. If so, he failed miserably. Lebanese from all political and religious persuasions rallied strongly around Hizbullah.
That was not the only thing that went wrong with the war from Olmert’s point of view. Some three weeks into the conflict, it became clear that even the Israeli air force’s destruction of critical Lebanese infrastructure (gruesomely celebrated in Israel thereafter as the “Dahiyeh Doctrine”) could not force Hizbullah to cry “uncle.” Olmert and his advisors decided to send in Israeli ground forces. But the ground units all proved woefully ill-prepared for their task. It soon became clear that neither they nor the air force could stop Hizbullah’s well-trained rocketeers from continuing to fire missiles deep into Israel’s interior.
Thirty-three days into the campaign, both leaderships agreed it was time to stop. They negotiated a ceasefire through the mediation of the Lebanese government and the United Nations. The ceasefire’s basic structure was a return to the status-quo ante. All the Israeli troops recently deployed into Lebanon had to immediately withdraw. All hostilities and cross-border military actions had to cease. The United Nations beefed up its southern Lebanon peacekeeping force, which since 1978 had been a fairly ineffective presence along the border.
For Israel, the 2006 war was a crushing defeat—and for its ground forces, in particular, a humiliation. (One explanation for the three vicious assaults Israel launched against Gaza in 2008, 2012, and 2014 was that the country’s military leaders sought to regain from Israel’s citizens the high esteem they had always previously enjoyed—esteem that had been very badly dented in 2006.)
For Hizbullah, the 33-Day War of 2006 was unquestionably a victory, though one bought at a high price in the human and material losses suffered by all the Lebanese people.
The essential victory that Hizbullah won in 2006, as in 1996, was that it faced down Israel’s extremely hi-tech military and survived with its core military and political networks and its ability to inflict significant destruction inside Israel all intact—and without having made any political concessions. This is, of course, why Israel and its acolytes and supporters in the West all hate it so deeply.
In the limited military exchange that Hizbullah and Israel engaged in on September 1, the underlying facts about the reciprocal deterrence that has existed between them since 2000 were on full display.
For some years now, the Israeli military has been taking advantage of the chaotic situation in Syria to mount sporadic attacks against various targets there, including some that they claim are connected to Hizbullah or the Iranian military. At periodic meetings that Israeli officials have conducted with their counterparts in Russia, which has long been allied with the Syrian government, the two sides have sketched out rudimentary “rules of engagement” for such raids. In July, the Israelis extended their campaign to interrupt Iran’s export of weapons and advisors yet further, sending F-35s to attack two locations in Iraq that were allegedly being used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In July, and again in late August, it struck at Hizbullah operatives inside Syria, killing at least two of them.
Of all the targets thus attacked, only Hizbullah retaliated directly against Israel. It did so in a measured and limited way that nonetheless served to remind Israelis of their continuing vulnerability to Hizbullah’s military muscle and military/political smarts.
Israel’s reaction to the announcement Nasrallah made on August 31, that Hizbullah “would retaliate” for Israel’s killing of its operatives in Syria, was intriguing. As was widely reported in the (always military-censored) Israeli media, the Israeli military ostentatiously announced that it would pull troops back from front-line positions facing Lebanon, in what seemed like a deliberate move to de-escalate tensions.
Israel’s responses to the Wolf attack, which happened the very next day, were also intriguing. Firstly, in the military sphere, its retaliation against Hizbullah/Lebanon was notably restrained, a fact that could perhaps be attributed to PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to get Israel into yet another complex imbroglio in Lebanon with his country’s next general election coming up September 17—except that, in the context of, say, Gaza, Israeli leaders have often seemed to judge that launching an attack could be a valuable part of an election strategy.
Secondly, in the informational sphere, Netanyahu went out of his way to deny that the attack on the military vehicle had caused any casualties. The video that Hizbullah made and distributed of the incident seemed clearly to show that the vehicle was an APC, and that the two missiles that struck it caused massive explosions. Other news footage from inside Israel showed injured soldiers being carried out and evacuated to a nearby military hospital. But Israeli spokesmen, faithfully parroted by reporters from the local and foreign media—all of whom are subject to Israeli military censorship– described the vehicle as merely a military “jeep” and said the footage showing apparent medevac operations had been faked by the military, using dummies.
This strange claim seemed aimed either at reassuring Hizbullah that its operation had already “succeeded” enough that it need not launch any follow-on attacks—or, perhaps more plausibly, at damping down any desire Israelis might have had for a large-scale retaliation.
But throughout this whole episode, Israel’s leaders were still clearly signaling that they agree that “You don’t mess with Hizbullah.”
This has wider implications for the regional balance between Israel and Iran. One essential fact in that balance is that the alliance between Hizbullah and Iranian leadership goes far deeper than any mere coalition of convenience and is, in practice, unbreakable at this point. Another is that Hizbullah’s home turf and principal area of operations directly abuts Israel—and it cannot be defeated there. Remember, after all, that Hizbullah first emerged in the mid-1980s under the difficult circumstances of a harsh Israeli occupation of one third of Lebanon—and that it showed first, that it could successfully organize to throw off that occupation and, then, that it could repel the next big attempt Israel made, in 2006, to destroy it.
Much about the regional balance has changed since 2006. The biggest change has been the heartbreakingly protracted civil war in Syria, a conflict that weakened the Syrian government which had long been a key part of the Iran-led coalition and considerably weakened Damascus’s ability to protect the Syrian homeland from incursion by all manner of hostile foreign forces, including those of Israel, the United States, and Turkey. (Syria’s civil war has, however, provided Hizbullah and the IRGC with valuable opportunities to act and train in complex urban-conflict environments.) Another change has been a considerable weakening of U.S. military-political power in Iraq, with the diffusion of some U.S. military capabilities into Syria. All these changes—along with others that have taken place in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere in the region—undoubtedly affect the balance of power between Israel and Iran. But the inescapable facts, that Hizbullah can cause wide damage within Israel’s heartland and withstand the strongest counter-attacks that Israel can launch against it, still remain.