When the Second Lebanon War ended on August 14, 2006, and UN Security Council Resolution 1701 went into effect, Israel did more than just lay down its arms. It stopped flying. Not over Israel. Over Lebanon.
Israel didn’t have much of a choice. The 34-day war had come to an end with the resolution, the deployment of a beefed-up force of UN peacekeepers, and a call for both sides to respect the Israeli-Lebanese border, otherwise known as the Blue Line.
So for a few months Israel did not fly over Lebanon, something it had been doing regularly before and during the war. But Israel stopped – even though it came at a price – because it did not want to be the side that was violating the freshly brokered ceasefire.
The suspension didn’t last long. Israel started flying again just a few months later, after learning that Hezbollah was once again moving weapons throughout southern Lebanon, in direct violation of the resolution that called for the area north of the Blue Line and south of the Litani River to be free of any illegal weapons.
In the 14-and-a-half years since, those flights have been crucial for Israel in tracking Hezbollah activities throughout Lebanon. The flights happen daily – some might say hourly – and are carried out mostly by Israeli drones, the long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles like Elbit’s Hermes 450 and Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron.
Flights like these are part of the reason why Israel today has a strategic target bank in the thousands in the event of a future war with Hezbollah. These are bases, homes and office buildings where Hezbollah is storing its weapons, rockets and command posts.
This compares with the fewer than 300 targets it had lined up ahead of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
All of this is important to keep in mind when thinking about what happened last Wednesday, when Hezbollah fired a surface-to-air missile (SAM) at a Hermes 450 drone patrolling the skies over southern Lebanon.
While the missile missed its target – trails of smoke were caught on camera – the incident was not without strategic consequences. What, for example, would have happened had the drone been hit? Would Israel have needed to respond? And if so, how?
These fascinating questions have yet to be fully answered, which is not surprising because they’re brand new: never before in Israeli history has the country considered military action because a robot – in this case a drone – had been destroyed. A soldier getting killed is one thing, or even a rocket striking a home. But a robot being destroyed? Israel would consider taking military action because a drone was shot out of the sky?
Apparently, yes. Senior defense officials claimed over the last week that if that drone had been hit, Israel would have needed to respond “disproportionately,” to restore deterrence and ensure that Hezbollah will not continue to attack Israeli reconnaissance drones that regular fly over Lebanon.
The risks are high. A drone is downed, Israel responds by striking Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, and Hezbollah then launches rockets into Israel. The IDF responds to the rockets, and a short conflagration suddenly turns into a much larger conflict, even if no one was really interested in one.
This has happened before. After the war in 2006, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah openly admitted that had he known that Israel would go to war, he never would have approved the cross-border raid on July 12 when his men abducted two IDF reservists.
This scenario repeating itself is not far-fetched. This past summer, the IDF spent almost two months on a heightened state of alert after Hezbollah vowed to avenge the death of one of its operatives in an airstrike attributed to Israel in Syria.
The IDF prepared by moving artillery batteries and special forces close to the border, and set up checkpoints throughout the North to prevent infiltrations. This despite IDF officers saying at the time how both Israel and Hezbollah know the “rules,” and that Israel would be able to contain what would be the group’s likely response.
While they ended up being right, they also admitted that a miscalculation was possible; and as always, that when a skirmish starts you can never really know how it is going to end.
Which is why the question has to be asked: does any of this even makes sense? Is it logical for Israel to retaliate for the downing of a drone that could escalate into a conflict – even if short – that ends with dead Israelis? Is a robot really worth that?
ON THE surface the answer seems obvious: no loss of a robot justifies the potential loss of life whether they be soldiers, or civilians who will get killed in the event of a larger-scale conflict.
But that perspective is wrong. While the lost drone is just a robot, it is important to understand what Hezbollah is trying to do. It is not about shooting down an occasional drone; the Lebanese terror group wants to create a new balance of power and deter Israel from flying over Lebanon.
In other words, this is not a battle over a simple drone. This is a war over intelligence dominance, which is so valuable for Israel – it needs intelligence to be able to accurately hurt Hezbollah in a future war – that it is even worth taking limited action that risks a potential deadly conflict.
As a result, most defense officials agree there is no question that Israel will need to respond.
“The issue is not the lives that might be lost,” explained retired general Gershon Hacohen, who until 2015 served as head of the IDF’s Northern Corps, the command that would oversee a future war in Lebanon. “There is a strategy that needs to be clean of considerations like the price. What is important is what we have been fighting for years – to be able to fly freely and collect intelligence over Lebanon.”
Which is why Israel would need to find the right balance, another former intelligence official explained, between hitting back at Hezbollah to restore deterrence and ensure aerial freedom over the Lebanon, and doing so in a way that will minimize – as much as is possible – the chance that there will be a miscalculation and a larger escalation.
Which is exactly where things get tricky. Some IDF officers said in background briefings over the past week that Israel would need to do something disproportionate to ensure that such missile fire never happens again – including taking out a number of Hezbollah targets – but others are pushing for a more moderate response, like retaliating against the specific SAM battery used to down the Israeli drone.
This will not be easy. While the Israeli Air Force is fully competent to hit that battery, the SAM systems being used by Hezbollah and provided by Syria are mobile – like the Russian-made SA-2 or SA-8 – and thus can be quickly moved and hidden in a building or underground bunker system.
What Israel will definitely want to avoid is reaching an equation with Hezbollah like it unfortunately has today with Hamas. When Hamas fired a rocket at Israel recently, the IDF response was to blow up an empty Hamas position, later revealed to be no more than a lookout post with some aluminum siding. Not exactly a strategic installation.
But this is what Israel goes after in response to rocket attacks from Gaza. As the current policy is one of containment, the IDF is careful not to stretch those margins to the point where an Israeli response could lead to a larger conflict.
Do those attacks deter Hamas from firing rockets? No. At times, they seem more about showing Israelis that the government is doing something. Hamas’s decision not to fire rockets is usually due to a wide variety of reasons.
What Israel wants to avoid is a similar situation in the North. Yes, Hezbollah has amassed large amounts of sophisticated weapons, but there are existing rules of engagement that both sides – until now – have been careful not to cross, knowing that doing so could lead to a war that neither side is believed to desire.
That could all change if Hezbollah keeps shooting missiles at Israeli drones that fly daily over Lebanon. If that happens, we might find ourselves in a new type of conflict: started because of a robot, but nevertheless fought because of the importance of Israel’s intelligence dominance.