A decade later, are Hezbollah and Israel learning lessons?
A lasting memory of the horrendous consequences of the last round of hostilities serve, for now, as deterrence from a new military clash
Last week’s 10th anniversary of the 2006 outbreak of war between Israel and the Hezbollah was a relatively subdued one. Putting aside verbal aggression, both sides have little interest in facing each other directly in the battlefield. They are both fully aware that the consequences might be more destructive and bloodier than the one a decade ago, which is still as inconclusive in its outcome.
A lasting memory of the horrendous consequences of the last round of hostilities, combined with both sides’ new and enhanced capabilities and changing of regional political circumstances, serve, for now, as deterrence from a new and widespread military clash.
Most strikingly is the fact that the deadly violence of June 2006 was unplanned and miscalculated. In response to Hezbollah’s killing of eight Israeli soldiers and the abduction of two others, Israel unleashed not only disproportionate force on the Hezbollah, but also on the people and infrastructure of Lebanon. For the Hezbollah it was a painful and foolish miscalculation that cost the lives of hundreds of its combatants, the destruction of considerable part of its military capabilities and deepened the rifts within the Lebanese society.
Yet, its ability to maintain the firing rockets into Israel until the very end of the 34-day war, left them as a credible force to be reckoned with, despite the fact that their leader Hassan Nasrallah spends most of his time in hiding fearing for his life since then. For the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the time, the rushed decision to unleash the might of the Israeli air force and later send in ground troops, proved to be one of the catalysts that brought down his government and abruptly ended his premiership.
An official commission, appointed to investigate the Israeli failure in achieving a conclusive victory, wrote a scathing report that accused the government and the military for a deficiency of strategic thinking and operational shortcomings, including a lack of preparedness. I would hasten to say that the commission itself fell into a perceptual trap by expressing their surprise that, “A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages.”
If, when and how a future war with the Hezbollah were to take place, would also depend to a large extent on how it feeds into the Iranian-Israeli rivalry, especially as Iran’s presence is edging closer to the Israeli bordersYossi Mekelberg
Understanding of warfare
A deeper historical understanding of modern warfare, and not so modern, would have driven the message home that military superiority in manpower or technology does not guarantee either military victory or the attainment of political objectives. More alarming in the case of Israeli Defense Force (IDF), was its inability to provide an adequate response to the barrage of rockets aimed at civilians in the north of the country and consequently being able to prevent the severe disruption to daily life there.
Since 2006 Israel has found by and large an answer for rocket and missile attacks through its new and sophisticated air defense systems. Nevertheless, its flawed strategic outlook of mainly relying on its military might has not changed. In three rounds of hostilities with the Hamas in Gaza, since the end of the war in Lebanon in July 2006, a very similar approach was adopted. In both cases force was used with little or no regard to civilians’ lives.
Admittedly, both the Hezbollah and Hamas were targeting civilians, but this surely cannot serve as an excuse. A state cannot afford and should not imitate the behavior of non-state organizations, which are legally considered terrorist by large parts of the international community. Harming civilians and infrastructure in hope that the population will turn against these organizations and blame them for the pain caused by the Israelis, is unrealistic, immoral and usually achieves the exact opposite.
Increasing military capabilities on both sides, in the decade that has elapsed since the end of the war, assists in maintaining a high level of mutual deterrence, in which they are content with clashing verbally and exchange threats, but careful to prevent another all-out conflict. It is estimated that the Hezbollah possess up to 100,000 rockets and missiles, however, its embroilment in the civil war in Syria limits its capacity to provoke Israel into another war.
The Syria front
In Syria itself confrontation between the two is demarcated with very clear boundaries. Israel has reportedly assassinated a number of Hezbollah’s senior military personnel and attacked convoys of weapons intended for the organization in Lebanon, yet the organization’s response was sure to avoid escalation. The Shiite organization is building its forces both in Lebanon and along the border with Israel in the Golan Heights, but was hesitant to attack Israel, even in cases such as the killing of Samir Kuntar in December of last year.
Some in Israel attribute this hesitancy to a state of deterrence established with the Hezbollah in the 2006 war. A more feasible explanation would be that the Hezbollah was bogged down for more than five years in supporting Bashar al-Assad in the brutal civil war in Syria, in which the organization suffered an estimated loss of around 1,200 fighters. While it is committed to the conflict in Syria, it cannot afford opening another front with Israel. Israel sees a conflict between the two as inevitable, but is unsure whether it should happen sooner rather than later.
Whatever happens next between Israel and the Hezbollah, the elephant in the room is Iran, which Israel sees as its main strategic challenge. If, when and how a future war with the Hezbollah were to take place, would also depend to a large extent on how it feeds into the Iranian-Israeli rivalry, especially as Iran’s presence is edging closer to the Israeli borders.
However, the sides are better off learning the lesson of 2006 that preferring war over diplomacy rarely ends with any political achievements.
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.