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Deter Hezbollah – or Preempt It?

Israel can't put 8 million people underground if Hezbollah utilizes its rocket arsenal. But both deterrence and preemptive strikes as strategies pose highly difficult problems | Opinion

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Hezbollah members march during a religious procession, to mark the burning of the tents that is part of the Ashura religious ceremony in Nabatiyeh, South Lebanon, October 15, 2016.
Hezbollah members march during a religious procession, to mark the burning of the tents that is part of the Ashura religious ceremony in Nabatiyeh, South Lebanon, October 15, 2016. Credit: ALI HASHISHO/REUTERS

When Joseph Shapira, the state comptroller, presented his report on the state of civil defense two weeks ago it should have surprised no one. The damning report states that Israel is woefully unprepared for a rocket onslaught by the over 100,000 rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal. By his estimate over half of Israelis lack proper bomb shelters.

We better prepare for a similar report next year. How can you prepare bomb shelters for the more than 8 million people of Israel? And possibly for nearly 3 million Palestinians in Judea and Samaria who would most likely also be hit by a massive rocket barrage aimed by Hezbollah against Israel? You can’t put the entire population underground. And what about all the structures above ground – residential buildings, industrial plants, the country’s infrastructure, and all the rest, which would be hit by a Hezbollah attack?

Of course, bomb shelters are not the only defense Israel can muster against an attack by Hezbollah rockets. Israeli engineers have mastered the ability to intercept rockets and missiles. “Iron Dome,” “David’s Sling,” and “Arrow” have the ability to shoot out of the sky short-range, mid-range, and longer-range rockets and missiles. However, they cannot provide a hermetic umbrella over Israel. A massive rocket and missile attack has the potential of saturating the defense system. Some are bound to get through.

So what is Israel’s answer to the threat posed by Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles? The preferred strategy is deterrence. Just deter them from attacking Israel. Let them know that the Israeli response would be so devastating, they better not even think about attacking Israel. Sounds simple, but it isn’t.

Deterrence as a theory was much discussed and analyzed during the Cold War, and proved to be effective. First- and second-strike capabilities developed by the U.S. and Soviet Union kept the Cold War from turning into a hot war. Aware of the second strike that was bound to follow, both were deterred from launching a first strike against the other.

But deterring Islamic terrorist organizations is another matter. They think in millennial terms, are prepared to disregard civilian casualties and lose many battles, confident of ultimate victory. Israeli deterrence failed to prevent Hezbollah rockets from being launched against Israel during the Second Lebanon War, and failed three times to stop Hamas and Islamic Jihad from launching rockets and mortars against southern Israel.

Hezbollah also functions as a political party in Lebanon and must consider the reaction of the Lebanese public to the potential consequences on Lebanon of its attack on Israel. This reaction might restrain Hezbollah from attacking Israel. That could be part of the deterrent equation. Would the possibility that Israel’s response to a Hezbollah rocket attack brought wholesale destruction of much of Lebanon deter Hezbollah from attacking Israel? But that is only a part of the deterrent equation. Hezbollah’s orders come from Tehran, and the view from Tehran is not the same as the view from Beirut. Deterring Hezbollah is problematic.

How about preempting a Hezbollah attack by attacking its arsenal of rockets in their launching sites? Here there are two problems. Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles are all embedded among civilians, and an Israeli attack would inevitably involve civilian casualties. Also, an initial Israeli strike could not be expected to neutralize the entire Hezbollah arsenal, thus leaving a residual arsenal of rockets that would be launched against Israel. Israeli interception systems might or might not be able to handle the remaining rockets. And there is the international reaction to be expected to follow such an Israeli initiative.

One might have expected that international pressure would compel Hezbollah to dismantle its rocket arsenal, whose very existence poses a danger to the civilian population in Israel and Lebanon. There should be a call for such international pressure. But is this something that concerns the international community at this time?

So Israel is left with difficult choices.