Israel's ground troops are physically and operationally capable of defeating Hezbollah, but the Iranian-backed militia has waged a psychological war of such effectiveness that the IDF soldiers feel deterred from believing in their capacities against them.
That's the view expressed recently by former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, and his observation has far-reaching consequences for the next ground and aerial war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Indeed, fear is Hezbollah’s most potent weapon. For 37 years, the group has used fear to deter Israel from ever fully attempting to uproot the group.
Hezbollah’s skillful use of propaganda has allowed it to remain a relatively small group that wages war effectively, but cheaply. The organization has learned to adeptly amplify its threats in such a manner that they become military "achievements" in and of themselves.
In fact, in a future conflict, Hezbollah will leverage the deterrence effect of its nightmarish threats - such organization to achieve the results of nightmarish threats beyond its current capabilities – like conquering the Galilee, showering Israel with precision missiles, or striking Haifa’s ammonia tanks or Dimona’s nuclear reactor - without even carrying them out, or carrying them out only partially.
More than its rockets or fighting prowess, propaganda and theatricality will once again guarantee Hezbollah victory and continued growth.
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Hezbollah’s exaggerated threats are meant to prevent Israel from exploiting the group's overextension in Syria to deal it a fatal blow. That way, the group can initiate a future conflict on its own terms, at a time of its choosing, when it is stronger and can take the initiative. Hezbollah's key interest is to terrify Israeli society about the costs and consequences of war, in order to build public opposition to lifting the restraints on IDF measures against the group.
And Israel's media, military, and political figures are playing into this - by uncritically repeating the group’s threats. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah himself once called this an Israel's "fatal error" in the realm of psychological warfare: Israel has created an echo chamber for Hezbollah's rhetoric which, Nasrallah said, "does all our work for us."
Hezbollah similarly exploited the Israeli fear of casualties to survive the 1985-2000 war of attrition with Israel in southern Lebanon. During those 15 years, the group killed a relatively small number of Israeli soldiers - 235 dead in 6,058 operations. However, it amplified their impact by broadcasting edited videos of its attacks exaggerating its successes, which Israeli media then replayed.
Hezbollah thus convinced Israeli society that south Lebanon was the IDF’s graveyard, with a constant trickle of casualties. This, in turn, prevented the IDF from ever taking the necessary, albeit costly, steps to uproot the group.
That constraining fear of casualties - not Hezbollah’s overblown fighting abilities - was the most important factor that led to Israel’s defeat in the South Lebanon Conflict, and, together with the fear of getting bogged down in an endless occupation in Lebanon, deterred it from conducting a massive ground invasion in the 2006 war.
However, Hezbollah isn’t completely bluffing. If a future war erupts, the group will likely carry out more modest versions of its threats, to erode Israeli morale and prompt a premature ceasefire. Hezbollah has repeatedly used minimal effort and half-successes tailored for maximum psychological impact to make Israelis feel like they were losing the war – like its 1994 attack on the IDF’s Pumpkin outpost in south Lebanon, its 2006 strike on the INS Hanit or its lone M-302 missile strike on Hadera the same year.
Rather than precision missiles, Hezbollah will once shower northern Israel with the short-range, low-impact, and highly inaccurate Katyusha rockets. As weapons, they’re relatively ineffective. But Hezbollah can put them to devastating psychological use.
Hezbollah has acquired sufficient quantities of these cheap rockets to overwhelm Israel's anti-missile system, Iron Dome, designed to protect the home front. Their mobility will again allow the group to fire them into Israel until the last day of a war, as the IDF hunts down their elusive launch sites.
Between the 1,500 daily Katyushas Hezbollah is projected to fire, and Iron Dome’s 86-92 percent interception rate, approximately 120-210 rockets will land in northern Israel daily, recreating the Second Lebanon War’s chaos and disruption to civilian life. Now, it would have the added psychological impact of breaking through the protective canopy of the Iron Dome system.
Hezbollah is likely also only planning a limited incursion into the Galilee. Anything beyond that is beyond its capabilities, and the six tunnels barely penetrating Israeli territory that have been recently unearthed can’t transport a conquering force into Israel. However, the group only needs to seize several Israeli border military positions or small towns, kidnap or kill hostages, and broadcast its flag being planted on Israeli soil.
Hezbollah wants Israelis to believe that only a ceasefire - not the concrete barrier on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier, or a multi-billion-dollar and multi-tiered missile defense system, or a massive Israeli invasion of Lebanon - will make them safe again. It will succeed in doing so if it pulls off enough of these attacks.
Moreover, IDF soldiers will also be demoralized, feeling their war-effort is useless to protect Israeli civilians. Dispirited and shaken, they’ll call on their government to end the war. And even if Israelis society once again proves resilient during a war, the memory of these attacks will serve as a deterrent against a future conflict with an undefeated Hezbollah.
But Hezbollah’s propaganda places the bar for Israeli victory impossibly high. If the IDF isn’t decisively victorious, and obviously so to Israelis and Lebanese alike, then the group will claim victory. And that victorious image is essential for Hezbollah to recoup its losses and continue growing.
If the group can’t defend Lebanon against Israel – which is how Hezbollah justifies its private army and its de facto sovereignty in south Lebanon to the Lebanese – then the number of Lebanese questioning its need for arms and its territorial writ will grow, including within its Shiite base.
But by appearing victorious against Israel - which it will be able to do by successfully executing its threats against the Jewish state in some form - Hezbollah will be able to maintain Lebanese support, or at least acquiescence, for its unchecked military and social growth.
Understanding Hezbollah’s use of psychological warfare begins with understanding that, despite its fiery rhetoric, the group is neither capable of destroying Israel, nor currently seeking to do so. It doesn’t see its war with the Jewish state as being limited to a single cataclysmic battle. Instead, Hezbollah is opting for the long-game.
Hezbollah wants to gradually grow its strength until it and the rest of the Iran-led "Resistance Axis" can change the regional balance of power, and collectively engage Israel in a slow war of attrition towards its destruction, blow by blow eroding its national will. In the meantime, it is seeking to survive to continue that trajectory.
By projecting outsized power to restrain Israel, Hezbollah is gradually moving towards its annihilationalist goal - with minimal resistance from Israelis.
David Daoud is a research analyst on Lebanon and Hezbollah at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Twitter: @DavidADaoud