And What If We Did Not Deter Hizbollah?

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Deter HizbollahThe consensus in Israel is that Hizbollah was deterred as a result of the Second Lebanon War, that because of the damage sustained by the group and its supporters, it refrained from fighting against Israel, and that quiet that has reigned on the northern border was a result of the war. In fact, most of the arguments supposedly proving that Hizbollah was deterred are less clear-cut than they appear. The majority of Hizbollah’s actions, both before and after the war, can be explained by other factors – domestic Lebaneseand international—over which Israel has a very limited degree of control or influence. It is thus necessary to carefully examine the assumption of deterrence, and in particular, to avoid complacency based on this assumption.

Who Will Deter Whom?

Following a rocket salvo fired at Kiryat Shmona in 2013, a senior officer in the Northern Command noted that the rockets were intended to draw Israel into a response against Hizbollah. After the Second Lebanon War, Hizbollah began to rebuild its strength and repair the damage sustained. Within two years, the organization had tripled its weapons stockpile to some 40,000 missiles and rockets, some of them heavier and with a longer range than those it previously possessed, and turned villages into fortified compounds. In July 2010, Israel mapped the ammunition storage facilities, fortifications, and headquarters built by Hizbollah in the town of al-Hiyam in southern Lebanon. In September of that year, an ammunition storage facility belonging to the organization in al-Shahabiya in southern Lebanon exploded. The IDF spokesperson reported that documentation of the explosion was “a fact that embarrassed Hizbollah,” but it turned out that the embarrassment was rather limited (if at all). When an explosion took place in Tair Harfa about two years later, Hizbollah members openly blocked off the area and, according to reports, even prevented UNIFIL personnel from approaching it. Israel, for its part, did not openly attack Hizbollah for its renewed buildup, but rather approached the United Nations.

Hizbollah’s reluctance to confront Israel during its rebuilding effort could be interpreted not as fear of Israel or as a result of deterrence but as a tactical measure intended not to disturb the buildup. While Hizbollah refrained from direct and open action against Israel until 2013, it is believed that the group was responsible for several incidents on the Israeli-Lebanese border during those years.

In January 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, four Katyushas were shot at the Galilee (two of them fell in Israeli territory). Israel held Hizbollah responsible, but the organization denied involvement. In July of that year, a group of unarmed civilians infiltrated an abandoned IDF outpost on Mount Dov and hung the flags of Hizbollah and Lebanon. The IDF responded with threats but decided not to take action because the civilians were unarmed. In October 2012, Hizbollah sent a drone over Israeli territory, which was shot down in the area of the Yatir Forest, and in April of the following year, Israel shot down a drone believed to have been sent by Hizbollah, although the organization denied responsibility.

In contrast, when four IDF soldiers were wounded near the border with Lebanon in August 2013, Hizbollah (for the first time since the Second Lebanon War) claimed responsibility and said that it had ambushed IDF soldiers operating in Lebanese territory. In April 2014, Nasrallah claimed responsibility for an explosive device used against IDF soldiers on Mount Dov.

After the Second Lebanon War, Hizbollah increasingly resumed its international terrorist operations. In this context, some claim the group has been operating in Iraq since 2006 and that it planned large-scale terrorist attacks, particularly against Israeli targets in Cyprus, Egypt, Thailand, and Europe, with a nearly total lack of success, until 2012, when it carried out an attack in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed six people, including five Israelis. This is reminiscent of the actions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) after the ceasefire in 1981, when it believed it could act against Israel abroad without a response in Lebanon.

Of course, one could argue that Hizbollah’s attempts to operate against Israel from locations other than the Lebanese border were the result of successful deterrence. However, it is possible that they stemmed from considerations of convenience and not deterrence. Even if it they were, in fact, a result of Israeli deterrence, they show its limitations.

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Thus, for example, in the 1990s, Hizbollah operated almost exclusively in the security zone in southern Lebanon, and it generally did not attempt to infiltrate Israel (in contrast to the Palestinian organizations). This was not a reflection of Israeli deterrence but of an understanding that targeting Israel in the security zone was no less effective than infiltrating into Israel, and much more convenient. An army’s choice to attack at one point does not indicate that it is deterred from attacking in other places, but that it is seeking a more convenient point, which holds true for a terrorist organization as well.

Nasrallah himself has recently raised his profile. Although for the first five years after the Second Lebanon War, he appeared in public only twice (in January 2008 and December 2011), in the past two years, he has appeared in public at least four times (September 2012, August 2013, November 2013, and July 2014). His threats have not become more moderate. In 2011, he announced an operational plan to conquer the Galilee. In August 2012, Hizbollah reported a large exercise and as befits a modern terrorist organization, even published an interactive presentation in broken English, ostensibly showing the next war, including occupation of northern Israel up to the Haifa-Afula-Bet She’an line. Nasrallah also threatened to “turn the lives of millions of Israelis into hell” if Israel attacked Iran; declared that the destruction of Israel is a Lebanese, Arab, and Muslim interest, and not just a Palestinian one; and threatened to assassinate Israeli officials in revenge for the assassination of Hizbollah official Imad Mughniyeh. In addition, he promised that “Israel would be punished” for killing another Hizbollah official, Hassan al-Lakis, in December 2013, even though a Sunni organization took responsibility (and some claimed that Hizbollah itself was responsible).

The conventional interpretation in Israel tends to be that Hizbollah’s case, there are several questions: Why did Hizbollah send drones over Israeli territory? Why did Nasrallah, for the first time in several years, claim responsibility for attacking IDF soldiers, precisely when his organization had become deeply entangled in the civil war in Syria? And why is he appearing in public more frequently than in the past and making equally impassioned speeches?

In late 2013, Hizbollah claimed that its “presence in Syria is for defending Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and the resistance against all threats facing them.” Following Operation Protective Edge (during which it made its regular threats), the organization explained that the call to intervene during the operation in support of Hamas was not serious and not official.

This shows that the absence of Hizbollah operations against Israel is not a result of Israeli deterrence but of different priorities, and that the most important thing for the group today is to fight in Syria. It appears that at this point, the extremist Sunni groups operating in Syria are more threatening to Hizbollah than Israel. A car bomb that exploded recently in one of Hizbollah’s strongholds indicates that this hypothesis has a basis. We should not conclude from the current situation that Hizbollah will not choose someday to “defend Lebanon and the Palestinian cause” more directly.

The Second Lebanon War serves as a vivid reminder that Lebanon needs Hizbollah in order to protect itself against Israel. The organization will maintain its hatred of Israel in the foreseeable future, but its priorities have changed since 2006, and not only because of the damage caused. If before the war, Hizbollah took advantage of clashes with Israel in order to gain support, today, it uses a supposed threat in order to achieve the same objective, but it does not see the need for extensive operations against Israel. Furthermore, after the war, Hizbollah became much more involved and influential in the Lebanese government than it had been previously.

We should take into account that Hizbollah’s increasing willingness to openly carry out (small) operations against Israel could mark its return to the concept that guided it before the Second Lebanon War. In any case, this appears to be on a slightly smaller and more careful scale – friction with Israel for the purpose of helping Hizbollah’s standing within Lebanon.

The question whether Hizbollah was deterred by Israel in the Second Lebanon War is not only theoretical. Israeli operational plans (against Hizbollah or against other adversaries) that are based on the assumption that the devastation Lebanon suffered during that war is what led to the quiet and deterred Hizbollah could fail if it becomes clear that this was not the case. At the same time, if Hizbollah’s failure to act against Israel is influenced primarily by factors over which Israel has no control, then a belligerent action by the group may be closer than is commonly thought.

Written by: Dr. Yagil Henkin