Seeing Red Along the Blue Line
Five years after the end of the Israel-Hezbollah war, both sides are furiously preparing for another round.
On July 30, 2006, an Israeli warplane dropped its deadly munitions on an apartment building in the southern Lebanese town of Qana as part of its military operations against Hezbollah during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. The aerial bombardment buried two large Lebanese families beneath the rubble — killing 28 civilians, including 16 children. The attack carried grim echoes of the 1996 Israeli shelling of a U.N. compound in Qana, which killed 106 Lebanese civilians and wounded 116 more.
Israeli officials, just as they had after the 1996 attack, immediately expressed regret for the bombing and claimed once again that it was a tragic mistake. The ensuing international outrage prompted the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to suspend its military campaign in Lebanon for two days to allow for an investigation into the event.
The 2006 war ended inconclusively two weeks later with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that provided for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon and the introduction of Lebanese army forces and additional U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon. In the five years since the second Qana massacre and the war’s conclusion, Lebanon and Israel have enjoyed a rare calm along their border. But both sides are aware that the possibility of renewed conflict remains high and have been furiously updating their weaponry and tactics in anticipation of another round.
Should another war happen, we believe that it will be even larger and bloodier than the 2006 conflict. Our judgment is based on extensive field research in Lebanon covering the military preparations of both sides and analyzing their own assessments of the likelihood and nature of a future war. Over the past five years, we interviewed and spoke with dozens of Hezbollah members, including political leaders, advisors, commanders, IT specialists, and foot soldiers.
Although Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah claimed that the 2006 war constituted a "divine victory," his organization suffered substantial — but sustainable — losses during the fighting, and the truce that ended the war cost the party its autonomy and entire military infrastructure in south Lebanon. In the five years since, Hezbollah has responded by swelling its ranks with dedicated cadres and reviving its multi-sectarian reservist units. It has also acquired long-range rockets fitted with guidance systems, which enable it to develop a target list of specific military and infrastructure sites in Israel. The organization is also believed to have received training on more advanced air-defense systems that could pose a threat to low-flying Israeli air assets, such as helicopters and drones.
With the support of Iran, Hezbollah has made further advances in its signals intelligence and communications capabilities, which play an increasingly vital role in its ability to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah is expected to use these upgraded capabilities to attempt to take the offensive in a future conflict, extending the fight into Israel through land and seaborne commando raids. The next war’s battlefield will therefore likely be larger than the traditional theater of southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
Israel had planned to crush Hezbollah militarily and drive a wedge between the group and non-Shiite members of Lebanese society. But it was unable to achieve these goals in full and instead settled for more limited gains, including the destruction of what Israel claimed was all of Hezbollah’s stock of long-range missiles. The IDF’s poor performance on multiple levels — leadership, coordination, logistics, and fighting capabilities — undermined Israel’s much-prized deterrent factor.
In response to its failures, the IDF has instituted greater logistical autonomy and sustainability in its combat units and has strengthened the ability of its ground forces, navy, and air force to carry out joint operations. It has trained its forces extensively in large-scale ground operations, emphasizing rapid maneuver techniques. The military created several urban-warfare centers shortly after the 2006 war — the largest of which, the Urban Warfare Training Center, simulates a variety of Lebanese villages, towns, and refugee camps.
The Israeli military has also introduced a number of new technologies that it is expected to employ in any new conflict with Hezbollah. These include a multi-tiered missile defense shield to intercept and destroy both Hezbollah’s short-range rockets and Iran’s ballistic missiles. Also, all new tanks are now fitted with the Trophy defense system to protect against anti-armor projectiles. How these new systems will cope against Hezbollah’s rocket barrages and anti-armor tactics remains to be seen.
Mutual deterrence has so far prevented another war, but there is no shortage of flashpoints that could reignite the conflict. The most recent dispute concerns the maritime border separating Israel from Lebanon — with the discovery of two large natural gas fields off the countries’ coasts, the placement of the border could have dramatic economic consequences. Hezbollah’s leaders have warned Israel not to develop the gas fields and have vowed that the resistance would restore the sovereignty of Lebanon’s waters in the face of what it alleges is Israeli theft.
The bloody uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime could also undermine the fragile calm along the Lebanon-Israel border. If the Assad regime believes that it faces imminent collapse, it could ignite a limited conflict with Israel in the Golan Heights as part of a diversionary war. Such a conflict, however, could quickly escalate and broaden to include Hezbollah, even against the party’s will. Alternatively, if Assad’s regime falls and the new leadership in Damascus decides to abandon its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah (not an inevitable scenario), Israel may attempt to seize on Hezbollah’s weakened position by launching an attack intended to permanently neutralize the party.
As the Arab Spring convulses the Middle East, it is critically important that the international community does everything in its power to prevent a nascent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah from erupting. Given that an accidental trigger would be the most likely cause of the next war, diplomatic efforts should focus on ways to prevent misunderstandings from developing into conflict. In this context, the monthly tripartite meetings hosted by the UNIFIL peacekeeping force commander, which group Israeli and Lebanese military representatives in Naqoura, Lebanon, have proved to be an effective means of resolving issues linked to the United Nations-delineated Blue Line and a forum for advancing and addressing concerns voiced by either side, including the ongoing maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel. There also exists an emergency communications facility between the Lebanese Army and the IDF, with the UNIFIL commander as a go-between to resolve any pressing problems that cannot wait for the next tripartite session.
Yet, as long as the underlying political issues between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel are not addressed, as long as Iran continues to enrich uranium and build an extensive military infrastructure in Lebanon, and as long as Hezbollah and Israel aggressively prepare for another war, the chances of another more deadly and destructive conflict breaking out remains all too high.