Should Israel Consider Using Devastating Weapons Against Hezbollah Missiles?

Most of Hezbollah's 100,000 missile arsenal are hidden in civilian areas. Israel should examine now the ethical and logistical consequences of its first use of extreme conventional weapons against them.

Lebanon's Hezbollah members and supporters attend the funeral of three fighters who were killed while fighting alongside the Syrian army, October 27, 2015.
Reuters

“The 100,000 missiles Hezbollah has amassed are now Israel’s number two security threat,” an Israeli representative explained in a recent meeting in Washington, DC. Speaking under Chatham House rules (which allows one to quote what was said without revealing the speaker or the venue) he elaborated: These missiles were third on the list of top Israeli security concerns, but moved to number two after Syria was forced to give up most of its chemical weapons, which used to be second on the list. (A nuclear armed Iran was and continues to be the top concern.) The representative added that Iran is providing Hezbollah with much better guidance system for these missiles, although most of them are short range. 

At a previous Herzliya conference, the Israel chief of staff revealed that most of these missiles are placed in private homes, which raise the question: If Hezbollah starts raining them down on Israel, how can these missiles be eliminated without causing massive civilian casualties?

The challenge was dramatized when a number of the participants in the Herzliya conference were invited to Base Eljakim, near Haifa, where the northern command of IDF has built a model Lebanese village.

The guests were treated to a demonstration of the way Israel plans to clear these missiles — by Israeli soldiers dashing from building to building to find them. True to the tactics of urban warfare, the IDF trainees entered the buildings through windows rather than doors, to avoid booby traps. And they were sure that once they cleared an area they still left some soldiers to hold it — because Hezbollah has built many tunnels which connect the buildings and which allow its forces to pop up in buildings that have already been cleared.

For me, a very minor event became a symbol of the whole operation. Because the IDF troops advanced in broad daylight, they needed cover, because otherwise they would make an easy target for Hezbollah snipers. They hence started their drive by throwing some smoke-producing grenades. (These grenades seemed to have changed little since 1948, when I served in the Palmach). A minor breeze came and blew the smoke away, leaving the advancing troop fully exposed.

The whole approach seemed not to make sense, on the face of it. Given the large number of missiles, to take them out one at a time, would require a very large number of Israeli troops and would very likely result in many Israeli casualties — as well as Lebanese civilians. The best face I could put on the demonstration at Eljakim was that the whole show was meant to mislead Hezbollah into believing that Israel would return to the strategy that failed during the 2006 war, at the end of which Hezbollah was successfully launching more missiles than on the first day of that war! 

What else could be done? Someone in the visiting group mentioned that Israel was charged with bombing Shia neighborhoods in Beirut in order to pressure Hezbollah to stop firing missiles at Israel. However, many studies have shown that such bombing — in Tokyo and Dresden and London — do not have the expected effect, nor did it in 2006 (assuming that such bombing actually occurred).

On returning to the U.S., I asked two American military officers what other options Israel has. They both pointed to Fuel-Air Explosives [FAE]. These are bombs that disperse an aerosol cloud of fuel which is ignited by a detonator, producing  massive explosions. The resulting rapidly expanding wave flattens all buildings within a considerable range.

Such weapons obviously would be used only after the population was given a chance to evacuate the area. Still, as we saw in Gaza, there are going to be civilian casualties. Hence, the time to raise this issue is long before Israel may be forced to use FAEs. One way this can be achieved is by inviting foreign military experts and public intellectuals, who are not known to be hostile to Israel, to participate in war games in which they would be charged with fashioning a response to massive missile attacks on Israeli high rise buildings, schools, hospitals, and air bases.

In this way, one hopes, that there be a greater understanding, if not outright acceptance, of the use of these powerful weapons, given that nothing else will do. Moreover, there is a hope (granted not a big one) that Hezbollah will be deterred from proceeding if it realizes that the response to an attack will be quite a bit stronger and more effective than visitors saw at Base Eljakim.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of "Diary of a Commando Soldier" (1952) and of "Hot Spots" and "Security First." He served in the Palmach and IDF ('46-'50). He is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, and Berkeley.