Ten years ago, Israel unexpectedly found itself at war with an entrenched and dangerous enemy: Hezbollah. The war cost the lives of 121 IDF soldiers (including dear friends and familiar faces) and another 44 Israeli civilians, cut down by the missile fire that pounded the Galilee. Exiting Lebanon after thirty-four days of fighting, many felt that the country’s political and military leadership failed to prepare the IDF for combat.
In anticipation of the war’s anniversary, a tremendous amount of media coverage has been dedicated to remembering the fallen heroes, reinvestigating the fateful strategic, operational, and tactical decisions of the campaign, and analyzing the likelihood of a future war with Hezbollah. Tormented by what feels like an unfinished legacy and an inescapable future in Lebanon, public discourse has been reduced to a cyclical debate over the merits and dangers of another war.
Unsurprisingly, Israeli and Hezbollah officials have used the occasion of the war’s anniversary as an opportunity to saber-rattle. In February and March, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that in the event of war Israel’s nuclear and chemical facilities would be targeted, causing unprecedented destruction. Responding at the Herzliya Conference in June, IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi countered that war would reduce Lebanon to a refugee state. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz reinforced Halevi’s point: “A war in Lebanon and an attack on the Israeli home front will bring about the ousting of [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and will bring ruin to Lebanon.”
For many former combat soldiers like myself, these public displays of braggadocio are a reminder that actions always speak louder than words, and there are good reasons why the Blue Line has experienced relative calm over the last decade.
To begin with, Hezbollah is knee-deep in the Syrian civil war, playing a crucial role in supporting the Assad regime. According to reports, one-third of Hezbollah’s ranks have been killed or wounded in Syria, among them the infamous commanders Mustafa Badreddine and Samir Kuntar. As Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war has increased, so have tensions with the Sunni states supporting Syria opposition forces. Within a ten-day span in March, Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and finally the Arab League all labeled the Shi’a group a terror organization, deepening the sectarian tensions driving regional conflict but also putting more pressure on Hezbollah to keep its focus on its Sunni tormentors. The influx of over one million Syria refugees, placing enormous strain on Lebanon’s ever-fragile domestic security and stability, is only adding to Hezbollah’s growing list of concerns.
This may be a difficult balance for Hezbollah, but those who would interpret the organization’s current headaches as an opportunity to strike should take caution. Despite being mired in Syria, Nasrallah still has one eye fixated on Israel.
Not every byproduct of the Syrian civil war has worked exclusively in Israel’s favor. Having endured the cauldron of war, Hezbollah’s forces are more battle-hardened than ever. And despite the mayhem, Hezbollah managed to transfer unprecedented quantities of rockets and missiles into Lebanon. Estimates of the terror organization’s arsenal range anywhere between 100,000 and 150,000, and now include the Fateh-110, Scud D – missiles with the range and accuracy to strike right into the heart of Israel. According to one report, Hezbollah succeeded in smuggling in a Russian-made SA-17 missile battery that will give its air defense capabilities a crucial boost.
There is also the Russian angle, which for the moment is working in Israel’s favor. Ever since Moscow intervened in Syria last autumn, Israel has worked diligently to keep the Kremlin apprised of its intentions to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry into Hezbollah’s hands. So far, Russia hasn’t interfered; as viewed by Moscow, Hezbollah’s activities against Israel are a potential risk to the primary mission of salvaging the Assad regime.
But how would Russia respond if Israel were to preemptively launch a military campaign against Hezbollah? It is difficult to imagine a scenario where Moscow looks the other way as the Israeli air force cripples a necessary partner in Syria. With Russian S-400 missile defense systems (capable of tracking shooting down targets as far as 250 miles away) currently deployed in Syria, Israel must seriously consider the ramifications of its actions in a space where it no longer holds absolute air superiority.
And even if Israel is preparing for war, don’t expect Netanyahu to make the first move. Yes, the prime minister admitted that Israel is engaged in both an open and covert campaign to prevent the transfer of “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah, but he knows (and he knows that Nasrallah knows) that a protracted conflict in Lebanon would be one of the costliest in Israel’s history and the riskiest move of his risk-averse political career. Wars in Lebanon tend to bring out the worst in Israeli leadership – why would this time be any different, with an inexperienced yet ambitious defense minister, an increasingly critical security establishment, and half a dozen rivals waiting in the wings?
These developments could explain IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot’s sober assessment of the situation. In an open letter to the army published in advance of the war’s 10th anniversary, Eizenkot (who served as chief of operations during the war) described how the shortcomings of 2006 triggered necessary institutional reforms within the military. Today’s IDF, he promised, is better prepared to protect the homefront from whatever threat Hezbollah may pose.
Eizenkot’s letter also suggested – in a break from the popular assertion that the IDF failed to achieve its objections in 2006 – that the 2nd Lebanon war “reestablished Israeli deterrence…that is a boon to civilians on both sides of the border.”
There is certainly evidence to support this claim. Israeli communities within two kilometers of the Lebanese border have witnessed a 50% population increase over the last decade. Similar trends are taking place on the other side of the fence as well; due to inexpensive land costs, southern Lebanon is fast becoming a popular spot for newly constructed vacation homes.
But residents along this fault line know they should enjoy the quiet while it lasts. As long as political discourse on both sides regards war as inevitable then it is only a matter of time before Israeli and Hezbollah officials decide to fulfill their own prophecies and send young men once more to die in the hills of Lebanon.