ISRAEL'S NEXT HEZBOLLAH WAR
By Andrew HArrod
August 15, 2016
Between Israel and Hezbollah, "another conflict is all but inevitable," wrote retired Israeli Brigadier General Yakov Shaharabani. "It will be far more destructive and harmful than any other war Israel has fought in recent memory." The former Israeli Air Force Intelligence chief thus introduced a sobering Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies report a decade after Israel's last clash with the Lebanese terrorist organization.
Shaharabani said that the July 2006 Lebanon War "was the longest Israel had experienced since its War of Independence in 1948," but any future clash with Hezbollah will make those destructive 34 days pale by comparison. According to his FDD coauthors, the Israeli government estimates that Hezbollah has approximately 150,000 rockets today as opposed to the mere 14,000 it possessed prior to the 2006 conflict. Writing for the Weekly Standard, Vanderbilt University law professor Willy Stern said that this gives Hezbollah a "bigger arsenal than all NATO countries -- except the United States -- combined."
Stern elaborated that Hezbollah's state sponsor Iran has "supplied its favorite terrorist organization with other top-of-the-line weaponry," including advanced Russian-made anti-tank and anti-ship missiles and air defense systems. The FDD report noted that sanctions relief for Iran under the recent nuclear agreement will only darken this picture, for "Iran's massive windfall is expected to trickle down to its most important and valuable proxy: Hezbollah." Additionally, "Hezbollah has gained significant experience during five years of fighting in Syria" for the embattled Bashar Assad dictatorship.
Israeli Defense Forces leaders have presented Stern with grim scenarios in which "elite Hezbollah commandos will almost certainly be able to slip into Israel and may wreak havoc among Israeli villages in the north." Given Hezbollah's "capacity to shoot 1,500 missiles per day, Israel's high-tech missile-defense system will be 'lucky' to shoot down 90 percent of incoming rockets, missiles and mortars." Accordingly, "IDF planners quietly acknowledge that 'as many as hundreds' of Israeli noncombatants might be killed per day in the first week or two of the conflict."
The FDD report documented Shaharabani's prediction that the "next Lebanon war could actually devolve into a regional war." With Hezbollah's expanding into Syria, "Hezbollah and Iran plan to connect the Golan Heights to the terror group's south Lebanese stronghold -- to make it one contiguous front against Israel. Iran can also unleash violence on Israel through its Palestinian proxies," meaning, for example, that Hamas rockets "could force the Israelis to divert Iron Dome and other anti-missile batteries to the southern front with Gaza." As Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "was already embedded with Hezbollah during the last conflict, there is the very real possibility that Iranian forces could join Hezbollah in battle during the next confrontation."
The FDD report noted that recurrent Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria raise the dangers of killing Russian advisers or coming into combat with Russian warplanes now supporting Assad against the Syrian rebels. Israeli consultations with Russia seek to avoid these clashes, but scholar Michael Doran warned at his Hudson Institute's July 26 panel discussing the report that the "potential for friction there is enormous." Recent American coordination plans with Russia in striking jihadist groups like the Islamic State would enable the Assad coalition to approach Israel's borders, implicating an Israeli "red line" concerning the IRGC there.
Experts agree that a future Hezbollah-Israel conflict's havoc will engulf as well Lebanon, termed at the Hudson Institute as "Hezbollahstan" by the Israeli embassy's Deputy Head of Mission Reuven Azar. "The IDF no longer distinguishes between the sovereign nation of Lebanon and Hezbollah," Stern has written, now that the Shiite-based organization has expanded its influence beyond its south Lebanon stronghold to countrywide domination. Simultaneously, "Hezbollah cleverly places its arsenal where any Israeli military response -- even legal, carefully planned, narrowly targeted, proportionate measures -- will lead to huge civilian casualties among Lebanese." As report author Jonathan Schanzer noted at a July 25 FDD event, Hezbollah has "turned Shia villages into essentially missile silos."
"We are not in the business of trying to provoke a new round," Azar said, echoing certain arguments in the FDD report, yet several factors indicate that Israel will accept a decisive challenge with Hezbollah if it comes. While report author Tony Badran noted at the Hudson Institute that Hezbollah "is not even comparable to what it was in 2006," the coming years "risk seeing a Hezbollah that is infinitely more capable in terms of its weapon systems. This time period of the Iran nuclear agreement also portends an Iran that is unleashed, that is probably by that point a threshold nuclear state with a legalized industrial scale program and recognized regional primacy in Iraq and Syria." As the FDD report stated, the nuclear deal "has placed Iran on a patient pathway to a nuclear weapon. The clock is ticking. Israel's window of opportunity to defeat Hezbollah in the shadow of the nuclear deal cannot be ignored."
Not surprisingly, the FDD report cited Israeli assessments of Hezbollah as Israel's greatest threat, a view confirmed by Schanzer's past three years of meetings with Israeli officials. While Shaharabani at FDD discussed how Hezbollah would view not losing a future conflict with Israel as a victory, Israel would desire a short, yet decisive campaign against a growing threat, however contradictory these two goals. As he wrote, "Israel may find out very quickly that deterring Hezbollah is not a sufficient strategic goal. Therefore, defeating Hezbollah (or forcing it to leave Lebanon) might become its strategic objective."
Although Shaharabani's remarks noted that the more extensive Israel's actions against Hezbollah, the likelier the intervention by Iran and others, the FDD report remained resolute. "Should war break out, the United State should actively delay the imposition of a premature ceasefire in order to buy the Israelis as much time as needed to complete their military campaign," it read. This no substitute for victory approach makes eminent sense if, as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Joseph Bahout judged at FDD, Israel's war with Hezbollah is unavoidable, only the "question is when and under which circumstances."
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