The Israel Defense Forces has gradually changed its approach to Hezbollah in recent years amid its better understanding of the Lebanese group’s improvements. When the organization’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, said he’d invade the Galilee in the next war, the IDF chiefs realized he wasn’t making empty threats.
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Hezbollah intends to make a swift incursion into Israel in the hope of taking control of a town or military base for a short time. With the experience Hezbollah has gained in the Syrian civil war, it’s now regarded by the IDF as an army in every respect, no longer a guerrilla organization.
At the moment, Hezbollah isn’t thought to be interested in another war due to its involvement in Syria and its concerns about the damage another round with Israel would wreak in Lebanon. But the IDF doesn’t think Hezbollah will suffice with a defensive stance in the next war.
Along with massive rocket fire onto the Israeli home front – all of which is now within Hezbollah’s rocket range – the group might launch an attack or counterattack along the border. Though the organization lacks the capacity to occupy the entire Galilee, it envisions simultaneous attacks on a number of bases and communities.
To that end it can deploy its Radwan special forces and focus its firepower on Israeli communities near the border. Alongside its short-range Katyusha rockets and mortar shells, Hezbollah has acquired hundreds of Burkan rockets with heavy warheads (up to half a ton) that can travel several kilometers.
To Hezbollah, a successful offensive would represent a psychological coup, one the IDF would have a hard time reversing even if it hit back hard. A sudden attack would also interfere with IDF troop movements along the border and could delay the call-up of reserve units and their progress toward the front.
Some of Hezbollah’s operational insights may have been inspired by the final days of the 2014 Gaza war. Although Hamas had difficulty chalking up successes and its rocket fire into central Israel caused few casualties, during the war’s final days it focused on mortar fire at border communities. In the bombardments near the Gaza border fence, two kibbutz members and a 4-year-old boy were killed.
The shelling severely depleted morale on the local kibbutzim and moshavim and triggered a mass exodus until the war was over. Hezbollah’s offensive capability is far greater than Hamas’, but the two organizations think in similar ways.
So the IDF is rethinking its plans in the north. Since the 2006 Second Lebanon War – especially in the last few years – the main effort has been in improving offensive capabilities. The quality and scope of the IDF’s intelligence on Hezbollah’s military deployments have significantly improved, and the army and air force have developed new ways to cooperate. The aim is to improve both the accuracy and speed of attacks.
Also, the beginning of Gadi Eisenkot’s tenure as chief of staff in February 2015 marked a key change. For the first time in many years, the IDF is taking pains to improve its ground capabilities.
But all these measures also require defensive efforts, which usually suffer from two weaknesses. First, armies by their nature tend to focus on offense. Second, planning for defense means acknowledging that the enemy might hurt you – and in extreme cases even force you to retreat. In a conflict between a strong army and a smaller organization, admitting this is no simple matter.
Still, for almost two years now, Northern Command chief Aviv Kochavi has been improving the defense on the border against Hezbollah. The IDF has dug obstacles while fortifying communities against fire by snipers, antitank guns, rocket launchers and mortars. And local civilian forces are being trained to defend the towns, kibbutzim and moshavim.