Israel and Hezbollah avoiding war despite cracks in mutual deterrence

The Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah has been ‘more provocative and showing more willingness to go back to the reality that existed before 2006,’ an expert said.

Hezbollah members hold flags marking Resistance and Liberation Day, in Kfar Kila near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon, May 25, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)
Hezbollah members hold flags marking Resistance and Liberation Day, in Kfar Kila near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon, May 25, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)

When the Israel-Hezbollah war ended 16 years ago, both sides were scarred and deterred.

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The war, which erupted in the summer of 2006, resulted in the death of over a thousand Lebanese, most of them believed to be civilians. Israeli forces severely damaged infrastructure in Lebanon, with years needed to recuperate. Just over 160 Israelis were killed, most of them soldiers. The conflict is known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War, and in Lebanon as the July War.

Hezbollah is now believed to have upgraded abilities, making a war now pricier for Israel.

Recent events show that Hezbollah is shoring up its visibility toward Israel, demonstrating a chip in the deterrence that has existed for over a decade.

“There is a change in Hezbollah’s policy,” said Sarit Zehavi, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and founder of the Alma Research and Education Center, which specializes in Israel’s security challenges on its northern borders. “They are showing more presence on the border, being more provocative and in general showing more willingness to go back to the reality that existed before 2006.”

IDF soldiers are seen taking part in military drills in Israel's North to simulate a war with Hezbollah. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)IDF soldiers are seen taking part in military drills in Israel's North to simulate a war with Hezbollah. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

A major threat

“Israel has yet to make the decision to initiate a major military offensive against the armament of Hezbollah.”

Zehavi

A Shi’ite militant group that is the strongest armed force in Lebanon, Hezbollah is backed and financed by Iran.

Israel considers the organization its most dangerous and immediate enemy. Israeli intelligence officers estimate Hezbollah has accumulated around 150,000 unguided rockets, with Iranian assistance.

The multilayered Israeli air defense systems, considered to be highly sophisticated, will likely have difficulty fending off barrages of thousands of rockets every day in the event of a war with Hezbollah.

The militant organization is also believed to have improved its precision missile abilities in recent years. Israel’s air force is believed to be behind hundreds of strikes that have targeted this project. Yet the success appears to be limited, and the huge arsenal of rockets is also widely believed to be intact.

“Israel has yet to make the decision to initiate a major military offensive against the armament of Hezbollah,” said Zehavi.

Tensions between the sides have fluctuated throughout the years. Earlier this month, the Israel Defense Forces shot down three Hezbollah drones that entered the country’s airspace.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivered a televised speech in which he warned Israel that the drones were “a modest beginning.” Nasrallah was forcefully inserting himself as a major player in the negotiations going on between Israel and Lebanon on their disputed maritime border. The US is mediating in the talks.

The drones were shot down near an Israeli gas field in the Mediterranean, in the disputed area which Lebanon also claims. Israel says the field is in its economic waters.

“We will turn over the table in the face of the world,” Nasrallah threatened. His belligerent speech was given as US President Joe Biden met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem.

Israel’s response to the incidents throughout the years has been restrained, indicating an unwillingness to escalate the situation.

Lebanon is currently facing its worst economic crisis ever. Nasrallah and Hezbollah are weakened politically. The militant organization is viewed by many in Lebanon as part of the corrupt ruling class that has plunged the country into bankruptcy.

“Amid the chaos in Lebanon, Hezbollah is trying to guarantee its political survival,” said Dr. Eyal

Pinko, a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Political Studies Department and an expert on military strategy and intelligence.

Militarily, Hezbollah has only grown in strength since 2006. In addition to the arsenal of rockets and missiles, the organization is believed to have over 100 drones. Hezbollah has been fighting on the side of the Assad regime in the civil war in Syria. Once popular in Lebanon over its opposition to Israel, Hezbollah’s popularity declined due to its involvement in Syria.

Since 2011, it has sent thousands of operatives to help stabilize the regime of President Bashar Assad.

“The average Hezbollah soldier is much more experienced and trained than the average Israeli soldier,” Pinko said. “Hezbollah is a highly organized army. Israel cannot afford a war with Hezbollah, the losses will be immense. “Hezbollah’s firepower is highly significant; it is not clear at all that Israel will be able to handle it,” said Pinko.

The organization is believed to have up to 50,000 soldiers. It has lost thousands of them in Syria.

Coupled with uninterrupted Iranian backing, Nasrallah can continuously test Israel’s limits.

However, the militant leader is careful to operate against Israel in such a way that minimizes the potential to ignite a full-blown conflict. He is limited due to his movement’s political weakness in Lebanon.

“Its ability to use its force is not harmed, but its legitimacy to do so is reduced,” said Pinko.

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati expressed dismay over Hezbollah’s decision to insert itself into the maritime dispute by dispatching drones.

Israel’s army is considered to be the strongest and most modern in the Middle East. Scenes of obliterated neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital of Beirut played a major role in the deterrent effect toward Hezbollah over the past 16 years.

“Israel has managed to dissuade Hezbollah from entering a war,” Pinko said.

Nasrallah still spends most of his time in hiding, wary of assassination by Israel.

Since the 2006 war, there have been sporadic violent incidents between Hezbollah and Israel along the border. None of them escalated further, but this is only a matter of time.

As much as Israel’s prowess serves as a deterrent, Hezbollah’s regional role and domestic position play a larger role in preventing war.

According to Zehavi, the situation within Lebanon is just one of the factors currently restraining Hezbollah.

“Iran is interested in raising tensions along the border, doing so carefully,” she said. “But also, we see American weakness as Nasrallah makes threats as Biden visits the region.”

The war in Ukraine and the Russian ability to circumvent international sanctions are also being carefully monitored by Nasrallah and his patrons in Tehran.

Previous experience, and specifically the circumstances that led to the sudden eruption of the war in 2006, show that it can take just one incident to ignite a major war. Hezbollah appears to be taking calculated risks.

Residents in northern Israel report an increased visible presence of Hezbollah outposts on the border. In the immediate aftermath of the 2006 war, this was not the case. In recent years, the Israeli military has constructed a major barrier along the border with Lebanon that includes sophisticated surveillance systems.

“The potential for confrontation is rising, as there is increased friction,” Zehavi said. “Hezbollah still understands the cost of war, but it believes that the actions it is taking now will not lead to war, believing this is not taking an actual risk.”

In the interim, both sides continue to prepare for a future confrontation whose cost will undoubtedly be very high for both.