Although the chances that war will break out between Israel and one of its neighbors have dramatically declined over the past few years, all the intelligence branches' assessments indicate that a chance still remains of an unforeseen and unchecked conflagration, which is liable to be the result of general instability in the region.
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Among these scenarios, the most likely and worrying one for the Israel Defense Forces involves a confrontation with Hezbollah. While a balance of mutual deterrence has prevailed since the end of the Second Lebanon War nearly eight years ago, it is enough to look at the events of the past year — an air strike against a weapons convoy in Lebanon and the assassination of a senior Hezbollah figure, which the terrorist organization attributes to Israel, growing threats by the Hezbollah leadership, an explosive charge on Mount Dov and a series of terror attacks in the Golan Heights that Israel suspects are tied to Hezbollah — to bear witness that the quiet on the border won’t necessarily last long.
How would a third Lebanon war look, if and when it erupted? The conventional wisdom in the IDF is that Hezbollah would pursue the same strategy that delivered a virtual tie with Israel in 2006: winning by not losing. The organization considered itself victorious given the fact that it fired rockets on Israel for all 34 days of the fighting and never raised the white flag before the advancing IDF in southern Lebanon. So, it’s reasonable to presume that Hezbollah will try to repeat the feat, waging a war of attrition against Israel’s rear guard by firing tens of thousands of rockets over a relatively long period while it slows down the IDF’s progress in Lebanon to prevent total victory by Israel.
Thinking the unthinkable
An article by a lieutenant colonel in intelligence, published in the military magazine Maarachot presented an alternative scenario. The officer, N., argued Israel should take into account the possibility that Hezbollah changed its strategy to something completely different. He wrote there are signs Hezbollah is weighing trying to shorten the next campaign through ground operations in Israel. He referred to comments by Hezbollah leadership about “conquering the Galilee.” While these declarations sound arrogant, perhaps unrealistic, Israel should give them weight, because they might reflect Hezbollah’s intentions.
N. wrote Hezbollah’s 2006 strategy reflected its deep understanding of Israel’s technological, intelligence and air superiority as well as of Israel’s weak spots: high sensitivity to casualties, aversion to a long campaign and the need for clear victory.
So, Hezbollah improved its ability to absorb hits, attacked civilian targets and used explosive devices and anti-tank missiles to slow down the IDF. Hezbollah has kept acquiring these means since 2006, while Israel has sought ways to shorten the next war by hitting more targets more accurately and more quickly while reducing Hezbollah’s ability to hit civilian targets.
But in 2011, Hezbollah indicated its possible new strategy when it published on its website a presentation entitled “The Galilee — the next place of confrontation with the enemy.” In August 2012, Hezbollah held a military exercise with 10,000 fighters, and Lebanese newspapers reported that the exercise included a scenario of an attack on the Galilee.
Know thy enemy
N. believes the IDF should not be asking whether Hezbollah is capable of attacking the Galilee but what it means that it is entertaining this idea. He sees a warning light, indicating a paradigm change. He attributes the change to developments that are forcing Hezbollah to change its goal from trying to drag out the campaign to making it as short as possible.
According to N., Hezbollah would rather stick to its old strategy, which led to the IDF withdrawing from Lebanon in 2000 and its achievements in 2006. However, the organization has since become established in Lebanese politics, making it more responsible for whatever happens in the country if Israel attacked.
Moreover, Hezbollah used to rely on the outlook expressed by its leader Hassan Nasrallah after Israel’s 2000 withdrawal that Israel was weaker than a spider web and unable to absorb losses. This outlook was challenged by Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008. The organization also believes less in the possibility that the international community will intervene to stop the fighting and has lost the support of Syria, which is too busy fighting its own civil war.
There is a silver lining for Hezbollah: It has amassed a lot of experience in the battles in Syria and is now capable of waging a wider war. N. believes that participating in the war in Syria brings Hezbollah closer to adopting an offensive strategy against Israel as well. The significance is that Hezbollah is liable to strive for a different kind of confrontation: Instead of reacting to an Israeli initiative and standing in the breach, taking the initiative and making a ground offensive and multi-pronged attack on Israeli territory.
If Hezbollah does change its strategy, it will have substantial consequences for Israel. The IDF will have to take into account the possibility that Hezbollah will try to shorten the war by creating facts on the ground like an attack on the Galilee. It will have to prepare civilians for such an offensive and prepare for the option of Hezbollah launching a surprise attack in an attempt to end the war before it even begins.