The Israeli political and defense establishment has stated its intention to destroy Hezbollah in any future war. However, the strategy that same establishment has adopted will certainly fail to achieve that objective.
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Convinced Hezbollah has usurped the Lebanese state, Israel’s highest officials are threatening to target Lebanon’s institutions, army, and civilian infrastructure in its next conflict with the Shiite organization. Instead of crippling Hezbollah, this return to Israel’s past failed strategies will backfire by allowing the group to survive and reemerge stronger.
Instead, to decisively defeat Hezbollah, Israel should attack the organization in Syria.
Lebanon and Hezbollah have long had a confluence of interests in repelling Israeli attacks on the country. This led every Lebanese president, both pro-Syrian and pro-Western prime ministers and all cabinets since 1989 to defend the group’s military exploits against Israel, and the Lebanese Army to cooperate with it against the IDF’s occupation of south Lebanon.
But a confluence of interests is not symbiosis, which is why Israel’s strategy of devastating Lebanon to pressure Beirut into restraining Hezbollah failed in the 1990s and 2006. The group’s synergy with Iran made it impervious to even the most painful attacks on the Lebanese state, instead allowing it to entrench its presence by repairing the damage of each Israeli campaign.
Israel is now threatening that its future war will be the most destructive ever for Lebanon, which remains the wrong target. Rather than setting back Hezbollah, destroying Lebanon’s institutions will allow it to usurp more of Beirut’s sovereign prerogatives by recreating the governmental void that allowed it to coopt Lebanese Shiites – but on a national level.
Despite the IDF’s best efforts, the strategy will also maximize civilian casualties. Whether Israel was intentionally causing civilian suffering – like in 1993’s Operation Accountability or 1996’s Grapes of Wrath – or trying to avoid civilian harm in 2006, its threats to devastate Lebanon made the hundreds of civilian deaths seem intentional. Each time, Hezbollah benefited. Even non-Shiites rallied around the group for confronting the IDF’s assault. Threatening to destroy Lebanon, and then doing it, guarantees Israel’s protestations of military error will fall on deaf Lebanese ears, and they will again flock to Hezbollah as their protector.
Even only increasing Hezbollah’s Shiite support should concern Israel. Currently, only about half the community votes for Hezbollah, the vast majority motivated by gratitude rather than ideological commitment. The support from this segment of Lebanon’s fastest-growing community is what attracts the alliances that allow Hezbollah to dominate the Lebanese government, despite its small share of only 12 out of 128 parliamentary seats and 2 out of 30 cabinet positions.
Shattering Lebanon will push even more Shiites into Hezbollah’s embrace, since it alone will be able to provide for them, reinforcing its image as their only genuine defender and caretaker. Over time, Hezbollah will turn them from soft supporters into ideologues, but meanwhile will use their increased support to grow its direct governmental power, and its alliances.
Hezbollah lacks these advantages in Syria, where it is heavily invested in saving Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and is unlikely to withdraw even after the Syrian civil war ends. If Hezbollah provokes Israel into a war, the IDF should therefore parry the group’s attacks from Lebanon with its missile defense system, and unleash its full aerial and artillery force on its assets and fighters in Syria.
Hezbollah is already deployed like a regular army in Syria, making it highly vulnerable to Israel’s attack. The group would be compelled to deploy more fighters into the Syrian side of the Golan Heights to counter the Israeli assault, where the relatively open terrain would allow the IDF to maximize the advantage of its air force and artillery – assets which Hezbollah lacks and against which it doesn’t have effective countermeasures – to decimate Hezbollah’s forces while minimizing civilian harm and deaths. Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force could destroy its longer-range missiles deeper in Syria.
Hezbollah also lacks a supportive civilian environment – and thus societal legitimacy – in Syria. That country’s majority Sunni population has seen its true brutality and none of its benevolence, and won’t oppose an Israeli campaign against the group so long as they are largely unharmed. That would also help Israel capitalize on Sunni Arab fury against Hezbollah’s presence in Syria to delay a ceasefire – denying the group the ability to survive and rebuild – instead of losing that support as the death toll and destruction inevitably mounts in Lebanon’s dense, urban environment.
Alternatively, if Hezbollah insists on rocketing Israel from Lebanon, its claim of defending the country would be exposed as a sham, and it wouldn’t be able to maintain or boost its support.
Hezbollah cannot be allowed to survive the next war. Otherwise the group will again reemerge stronger after a decade or two of deceptive quiet, posing an even greater threat to Israel and its civilians. The Jewish state must therefore deny Hezbollah the ability to fall back onto a supportive civilian environment, which will provide it the cover to rebuild its arsenal and fighting ranks. Israel must spare Lebanon.
David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), focusing on Hezbollah and Lebanon