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Hezbollah’s psychological warfare with Israel

The two have established an uneasy, though credible deterrence with one another

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Nearly a decade has elapsed since Israel and the Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite Muslim movement, clashed directly in the battlefield. The two have established an uneasy, though credible deterrence with one another. They keep their animosity just short of an all-out war, confining it to vitriolic verbal attacks and restricted targeted military operations that do not force either of sides to escalate the situation into a full force conflict.

Much has changed since the bloody thirty-four days of summer 2006. Whether Hassan Nasrallah, the movement’s leader, admits it, his main concerns are with his organization’s involvement in the civil war in Syria in support of the Assad regime. Moreover, he increasingly faces criticism from within Lebanon for undermining the political system and for serving the Iranian interests rather than those of the Lebanese.

Israel, despite spreading wide-range destruction during its Second Lebanon War, 10 years ago, came out of the war with major question marks hanging over its flawed strategy and war tactics, not to mention its morality. Both sides licked their wounds in the years that followed. Nasrallah spends most of the time in hiding, fearing for his life, and the premiership of Ehud Olmert and his government suffered a major blow to their credibility.

Interestingly enough Israeli strategists perceive the Hezbollah as one of their major sources of threat, second only to a nuclearized Iran. The experience of a constant barrage of rockets hitting the north of Israel ten years ago left a lasting scar. To make things worse, the Hezbollah has increased its capabilities since then manifold. It is estimated to have stockpiled around 100,000 missiles and rockets, supplied mainly by Iran and Syria, and according to some publications of late also by Russia.

While the Hezbollah has increased its capabilities in terms of hardware and experience, due to its involvement in the war in Syria, it also sustained many casualties

Yossi Mekelberg

Potentially these rockets and missiles can reach most Israeli major urban centers. Recently Nasrallah, utilizing inflammatory language, threatened to hit the ammonia storage facilities in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. This can be seen as a combination of provocation, an effort to establish deterrence with the Jewish state, fear of a preemptive strike by Israel and a means of scoring political points among public opinion at home and in the region.

Nasrallah’s threats against Israel are hardly a novelty. Nevertheless, suggesting a nuclear-like impact by hitting ammonia tanks deep in Israel in a future confrontation with Israel, resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties, is a clear provocation and escalation—at least a verbal one. It also reflects that the Hezbollah has very carefully studied Israeli sensitivities and vulnerabilities.

A decade ago the north of Israel was nearly evacuated as a result of the rocket attacks by the Iranian backed militia on civilian targets. Nasrallah reminds Israelis of this as a means to deter a fresh Israeli attack. Last time around Israel’s massive attacks in Lebanon hit the Hezbollah hard, but also led to many innocent casualties and spread wide destruction to Lebanon’s infrastructure.

Potential conflict

A further round of violence is likely to be very similar in nature, though potentially with even more casualties on both sides. While the Hezbollah has increased its capabilities in terms of hardware and experience, due to its involvement in the war in Syria, it also sustained many casualties. It lost up to 1,500 of its fighting force with many other combatants sustaining injuries. Despite Nasrallah’s acerbic language it is doubtful whether his organization has any interest or can afford at this point in time another cycle of bloodshed with Israel.

To be sure Israel has no more appetite than Hezbollah to enter into a fresh round of hostilities. There is very little that it could gain. However, it works on the assumption that at some point in the future it will have to face Hezbollah in the battlefield. Hence “allowing” it to amass weaponry might mean biding time in the short term at the expense of facing an even more powerful enemy later. To a large extent this threat is mitigated by the Israeli development of three different of anti-rocket and anti-missile systems.

The Iron Dome anti-rocket system was tried and tested successfully in the last conflict with Hamas in Gaza in 2014, and the Arrow and David’s Sling anti-missile defence systems proved effective in testing. In the meantime the decision makers in Jerusalem may pursue a policy which relies on the continuous development of defensive capabilities, while continuing to target the Hezbollah in Syria, the way it has done in recent years.

The assassination of Imad and Jihad Mughniyeh and Samir Qantar for instance, and attacking convoys transferring weapons from Syria to the hands of the Hezbollah, became major features in Israel’s semi-covert war with the Hezbollah.

Nasrallah’s recent speech to mark “The Loyalty to Martyrs and Leaders" day, did not focus only on Israel. It was also an exercise in criticizing some of the major Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, accusing them of serving Israeli interests in the conflict in Syria. It was an obvious bid to present Shiite Muslims, led by his organization and Iran as the only ones confronting Israel and supporting the Palestinians, in contrast to the rest of the Arab countries.

As there is growing criticism in Lebanon of the role of the Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Syria, which questions their commitment to the well-being of their own country, a bit of bravado vis-à-vis Israel could be seen by Nasrallah as useful in garnering support from public opinion.

Squaring to each other with rousing speeches might seem as of little harm, but when it is accompanied by matching capabilities the end result might still be a miscalculated war, in which either or both of the sides is led to believe it has no other option. It is a risk that both sides should weigh very carefully.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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