Israel's biggest challenge: Hybrid wars with non-state actors - opinion

All in all, hybrid wars with non-state organizations have replaced high-intensity wars like the 1967 Six Day War, as Israel’s biggest challenge.

 A MEMBER of Hezbollah watches as two Lebanese soldiers are posted on a lookout tower near the border with Israel, 2018. Israel can’t annihilate Hamas, let alone Hezbollah, due to its elusiveness, strength and the cost for Israel, says the writer.  (photo credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90)
A MEMBER of Hezbollah watches as two Lebanese soldiers are posted on a lookout tower near the border with Israel, 2018. Israel can’t annihilate Hamas, let alone Hezbollah, due to its elusiveness, strength and the cost for Israel, says the writer.
(photo credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90)

We now mark the anniversary of the Six Day War, a swift Israeli victory. In about a week the IDF defeated three Arab militaries (those of Egypt, Syria and Jordan) and seized vast territory; the biggest one was the Sinai Peninsula (60,000 sq. km). 

The next war, in 1973, was much harder. In recent decades, following the peace with Egypt and Jordan, and the sharp decline of Syria and Iraq, there was a low probability of a high-intensity war like the one that occurred in 1967. Instead, Israel had to fight non-state organizations, mostly Hamas and Hezbollah.

After the War of Independence in 1948-1949 and until the 1980s, Israel faced a major Arab threat, due to the lack of balance between the two sides regarding the size of the populations, land and natural resources. Arab states also had an overwhelming advantage, in the numbers of weapon systems such as tanks, aircraft etc., and in the number of troops. 

The IDF enjoyed some advantages such as high-quality manpower, but it might not have been enough in a high-intensity war. In certain circumstances, Arab militaries could have won and seized part of Israel and even destroyed Israel. This nightmare is gone. Israel does not face such a danger anymore.

In 1967, Israel had friendly ties with Iran, but since 1979 Iran became an enemy of Israel. In recent decades, Iran positioned itself as Israel’s nemesis. Iran provides support to its proxies and partners, non-state organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas, and mainly Hezbollah, are the most powerful groups among Iran’s allies that are around Israel. 

 Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, gather as they carry flags, marking the commemoration of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, in Adaisseh village near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon, May 25, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER) Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, gather as they carry flags, marking the commemoration of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, in Adaisseh village near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon, May 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)

However, a much more concerning problem is Iran’s nuclear program, since it might be used to produce nuclear weapons, which might be the biggest threat Israel ever faced.

ARAB NON-state organizations pose a serious problem to Israel. The latter should not underestimate Hamas, let alone Hezbollah, which is stronger than Hamas. Hezbollah has up to 150,000 rockets and missiles. They might be fired at a rate of 1,500 a day, during a war, inflicting substantial losses and damages. 

However, those groups can’t capture any part of Israel or defeat the IDF, even in the worst scenario for Israel. This is a huge difference compared with the era when Israel faced Arab militaries, as in the 1967 war.

In 1967, the IDF worried about Arab air forces, mostly Egypt’s, since the latter had bombers that could have hit Israeli cities. Israel’s air defense was not able to stop them, so the IDF relied on the IAF to storm Arab airfields, destroying Arab aircraft on the ground. This plan worked very well. 

The main challenge

The main challenge today would be to reduce as much as possible the fire of rockets and missiles, including at the Israeli rear. The IDF has air defense that could intercept some of the rockets and missiles, but not all of them. Therefore, as in 1967, the IDF would rely on aircraft to launch accurate bombardments in hostile territory.

In the years prior to the 1967 war, the IDF ran major exercises, which prepared the troops to fight Arab militaries. The IDF has been doing the same regarding Arab non-state organizations, such as the major exercise that was conducted in May and early June. 

In the last two decades, new ways were developed to monitor how well troops are doing during drills. The nature of the exercises also changed dramatically. In the 1960s the IDF trained in overcoming fortified posts and defeating large armor forces. Now the IDF focuses on urban warfare and dealing with anti-tank measures.

The IDF launched a preemptive strike in the 1967 war, in the air and on the ground as well. It was especially essential to strike them from the air since it resulted in neutralizing three Arab air forces in less than a day. 

Israel might consider a preemptive strike against Hezbollah, if the latter produces massive amounts of accurate missiles; were about to start a war; and if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear sites, which might bring Hezbollah to confront Israel. 

In all those situations Israel might conclude it has to hit Hezbollah hard, before the latter attacks Israel. As in 1967, it would be particularly effective if the foe, Hezbollah in this case, is caught off guard.

THE 1967 war was an impressive victory, but despite its humiliating defeat, Egypt initiated a war of attrition, and later a high-intensity war, in 1973. It took more than a decade for Israel and Egypt to sign a peace treaty. 

The conflict between Israel and Syria has not ended. Israel can’t annihilate Hamas, let alone Hezbollah, due to its elusiveness, strength, and the cost for Israel if it strives to annihilate Hezbollah once and for all. The conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas would continue even if the IDF inflicted them with a severe blow. Hezbollah and Hamas, unlike Egypt, would never accept peace with Israel.  

All in all, hybrid wars with non-state organizations have replaced high-intensity wars like the 1967 Six Day War, as Israel’s biggest challenge. It has been a huge change that has been overall in Israel’s favor. Despite the capabilities of Arab non-state organizations, the risk is much lower compared with the danger Israel faced in high-intensity wars. In that sense, Israel is in a much better place than it was in 1967.

The writer has been studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years, and has worked in the Defense Ministry as a researcher. His latest book is Israeli Strategies in the Middle East: The Case of Iran (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).