Book review: Israel’s evolving response to Hezbollah

From dealing with a terrorist group to confronting Lebanon’s landlord

LEBANON’S HEZBOLLAH leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif earlier this year. (photo credit: HEZBOLLAH MEDIA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
LEBANON’S HEZBOLLAH leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif earlier this year.
With Israel consumed with speculation about yet another full-blown war with the Lebanese terrorist movement Hezbollah erupting at any moment, Raphael D. Marcus’s war book Israel’s Long War with Hezbollah should command our utmost attention.
On August 24, the Israel Air Force eliminated an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force cell in Syria led by two Hezbollah operatives who had planned to launch explosive-laden drones against the Jewish state.
Hours later, two drones appeared over the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh − a Shi’ite and Hezbollah stronghold. One of the unmanned aerial vehicles reportedly damaged or destroyed an Iranian-made mixer used to make solid rocket fuel, and a computerized control mechanism that could turn simple rockets into precision missiles. Hezbollah attributed the drone strike to Israel and promised to attack Israel in response.
Marcus provides an extraordinary granular account of the inner workings, from war planning to military tactics in the field, of the interplay between the jihadi Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces. He occasionally invokes dialectics to explain how flawed military strategies are changed in the face of ongoing challenges. Hence the subtitle of the book, Military Innovation and Adaptation Under Fire.
The introductory chapter debunks the widespread fallacy that Hezbollah was established as a reaction to Israel’s Operation Peace for Galilee, also known as the First Lebanon War, in 1982. “The 1979 Iranian Revolution, referred to as ‘the earthquake’ by the Hezbollah ideologue Mohammad Hussein Fadallah, is the most significant catalyzing event of the period and acted as a potent and inspirational model for realizing Shi’ite empowerment and revolutionary activism,” writes Marcus.
As my colleague and Hezbollah expert Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in a March 2019 Tablet magazine article: “Hezbollah is not merely a recipient of Iranian support; it is part of the Iranian command structure.” Badran convincingly argues that “Lebanon is run by a terrorist group [Hezbollah] tied to Iran.”
The US State Department classifies the Islamic Republic of Iran as the leading state-sponsor of terrorism.
Marcus, to his credit, cites Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem’s statement rejecting foreign, particularly European, attempts to bifurcate the terrorist movement into political and military branches. The EU proscribed Hezbollah’s so-called military wing as a terrorist entity in 2013 after Hezbollah operatives blew up an Israeli tour bus in 2012 in Burgas, Bulgaria, murdering five Israelis and their Bulgarian Muslim bus driver.
While European leaders – especially in Germany, where 1,050 Hezbollah operatives raise funds, recruit members and spread their jihadi ideology – believe Hezbollah can be housebroken, Marcus outlines terrorist organization’s infamous 1985 manifesto demanding Israel’s “obliteration from existence.”
One quibble I have with the book is the lack of attention to the eliminatory antisemitism that animates Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his followers. Marcus might also have dealt at greater length with the role of jihadi Shi’ite ideology in Hezbollah’s movement. These are minor criticisms.
MARCUS’S DEPARTURE point is, however, the mechanics of war. He succeeds in showing the evolution of IDF thinking about Hezbollah. A telling example is Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin, who led the IDF Northern Command from 1994-1998 and re-characterized Hezbollah as a “guerrilla army” rather than a “terrorist army.”
Marcus notes, “By the time the IDF conceptually adapted and reclassified Hezbollah as a guerrilla force in the late 1990s, Hezbollah had already adapted its warfighting concept even beyond that.” Israel’s overemphasis on conventional military threats hampered its ability to understand Hezbollah’s structure, argues Marcus.
One key takeaway is that – given Hezbollah’s asymmetrical warfare, including hiding its missiles and terrorists among civilians – Israel needs to think without boxes as opposed to just thinking outside of the box.
Then-Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens introduced a new form of deterrence in 1999. Arens, Marcus writes, “proposed placing direct responsibility on the Lebanese government by attacking government infrastructure” in response to Hezbollah attacks.
A mere two years after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, former national security adviser Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland urged the Jewish state to declare, “The next war will be between Israel and Lebanon, and not between Israel and Hezbollah.”
Israel’s military worldview is based on the concept of core deterrence. Arens’s approach has resurfaced in 2019, in light of the fact that Hezbollah is integral to the Lebanese state and politics. Marcus brilliantly covers Israel’s withdrawal from its Lebanon security zone in 2000 under then-prime minister Ehud Barak. The opposition to Barak’s withdrawal provides a window into the thinking of some distinguished military figures.
Marcus recognizes his access to Hezbollah is limited, due to its secretive structure and the fact that it is a terrorist movement. Nasrallah delivers his threats against Israel from a bunker. Nevertheless, Marcus did visit Hezbollah sites in southern Lebanon, and he parses Nasrallah’s belligerent speeches.
One of the scores of insights from Israeli generals about Hezbollah connected to the 2006 war comes from Brig.-Gen. (res.) Itai Brun, ex-head of IDF Intelligence Analysis, who said, “We used to plan for military decision, and deterrence was the outcome. Now we’re planning for deterrence. That’s the change.”
One hopes this book will be translated into Hebrew and read by Israeli lawmakers, policy makers, and members of the defense and security establishment. However, Marcus cites a prescient comment from T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame: “I hope you have kept the enemy always in the picture. War books so often leave them out.” Lawrence, a British intelligence officer, famously played a key role in the desert insurgency to topple the Ottoman Empire’s rule over the Islamic heartland.
Marcus’s work is also invaluable for a general audience. It shows one of Israel’s chief enemies not as a group of social workers in Beirut, as they are presented in many European political and diplomatic circles, but rather as a jihadi movement that seeks to destroy Israel.
Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.