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The expectation for another major war between Israel and Hezbollah waxes and wanes periodically as the two conduct a continuous very low intensity war between them. In the background a 'Cold War' is simmering between Israel and Hezbollah's patron Iran. The purpose of this article is to examine the probable rival strategies if the fighting escalates.
Strategy serves policy, so the first issue to be addressed must be: Why another major war between Israel and Hezbollah?
Israel has no political objectives vis-à-vis Lebanon other than maintaining the quiet it achieved in what Israelis call the 'Second Lebanon War'. Israel has admitted to conducting occasional strikes on Hezbollah assets in Syria over the past five or so years, mostly to deny passage of advanced weaponry from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah, but also in response to a number of Hezbollah attacks on Israel's border with Syria, but it has no political interest in escalating the fighting. Therefore, the political initiative for another major war rests solely with Hezbollah or, more likely, its patron – Iran, though the military initiative might be an Israeli pre-emptive operation.
A religious political Lebanese movement – in that order, Hezbollah was created, organized, funded, equipped and trained by Iran. It therefore holds two allegiances – to Iran and the ideology that drives it and to the Lebanese Shiite population from which it mobilizes its manpower and political base in Lebanon. Though it now has some independent sources of funding (including involvement in the narcotics trade from South America to the USA), its main source by far is still Iran, and without Iranian financial support it would lose much of its appeal to the Lebanese Shiite population that gradually shifted its support to Hezbollah from the secular AMAL movement. AMAL had been the dominant Lebanese Shiite party in the 1970s and 1980s, but had not been able to compete with Hezbollah's ability to fund welfare, education and health-care programs, provide jobs to the Shiite community and compel the Lebanese government to fund more. In the late 1980s, when AMAL still held a political and military advantage, it defeated Hezbollah in an intra-ethnic war, but was forced by Syria to desist from destroying Hezbollah and to give Hezbollah carte-blanche in southern Lebanon.[i]
Hezbollah's political objectives vis-à-vis Israel are ideological – an off-shoot of the religious ideological movement that rules Iran. One of the precepts of that movement is that there should not exist a Jewish state in the Middle East.[ii] Ever since the revolution that brought it to power, Iran's religious regime has repeatedly declared that one of its goals is the eradication of Israel. In a public speech in 2015 Iran's supreme religious and political leader, Khamanei, even set a dead-line for achieving that goal: by 2040 there will be no Israel.[iii] In 2017 the Iranian regime set up a clock in a public square in Tehran counting down the days to the fulfillment of that goal. In many of his televised speeches, Hezbollah leader, Nasrallah, has committed his group to a similar objective – though not yet to the deadline.[iv]
The exact match that will light the fuze to the next war is not predictable. The Second Lebanon War in 2006 was ignited by a Hezbollah raid on an Israeli border patrol. By the end of that skirmish 10 Israelis had been killed, the bodies of two had been taken by Hezbollah. Other than the number of Israeli casualties in a single day, this attack was not unique – from the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 Hezbollah had conducted at least 200 attacks on Israel (artillery fire, cross-border raids, proxy-terrorist attacks inside Israel),[v] however, this time the Israeli government decided on a large-scale air-strike in response. Hezbollah responded with rocket fire into Israeli villages and towns and the tit-for-tat gradually escalated into a medium-intensity war which ended 38 days later. Neither side had decided to fight a war. In fact, both had initially been certain the fighting would cease after only a limited exchange of fire.
A future conflagration could be set off in just as unanticipated a manner. Over the years since the end of the Second Lebanon War a number of important Hezbollah personnel have been killed in covert attacks Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Also, as noted above, Israel has repeatedly struck Hezbollah convoys carrying new weapons from Iran via Syria airports to Lebanon in accordance with the declared Israeli policy of not allowing certain "game-changing" weapon types enter the Lebanese theater. So far, Hezbollah has not retaliated openly to these Israeli actions except on one occasion. While eschewing action on Israel's border with Lebanon since the end of the Second Lebanon War, in 2013 – 2014 Hezbollah exploited the Syrian Civil War to initiate a series of attacks on Israel's border with Syria. Israel countered by attacking the Hezbollah personnel involved. In January 2015 one Israeli strike killed a number of high-ranking members of Hezbollah and Iranian officers organizing these operations. Hezbollah responded to these deaths a couple of weeks later by firing a number of anti-tank missiles at Israeli military vehicles driving near the Lebanese border – the first and, so far, only overt Hezbollah attack on that front since 2006.[vi] 2 Israeli soldiers died. Israel's military response was low-key, a brief bombardment on a number of Hezbollah bases in Lebanon, and both sides decided not to escalate. No more Hezbollah attacks have occurred from either Lebanon or Syria. However, in the continuing cycle of small strikes and small counter-strikes, any one of these actions, by either side, has the potential of again creating a reciprocal escalation as in 2006. Moreover, this dynamic may actually be exploited deliberately to justify an escalation while hiding the underlying decision to initiate a full-scale war.
So, given its political objective of maintaining the quiet border with Lebanon, why might Israel decide to initiate a war there? Given Israel's security doctrine and past behaviour, the probable reasons would be either a response to a Hezbollah instigated escalation of attacks from Lebanon or Syria, in order to break the trend, or a pre-emptive attack following an intelligence alert of an intention by Hezbollah to conduct a large-scale attack.
As to a Hezbollah/Iranian initiative – though many Western analysts often downplay religious and other ideological motivations as merely window-dressing, Middle-Easterners often do decide to act for these reasons. That does not nullify rational or pragmatic thinking in implementing the ideology, neither in appraising the chances for success nor in choosing the method of implementation. Iran has certainly proven that though it believes its actions are ordained by Allah, it conducts them according to sober political and military calculations. Israel has defeated more powerful coalitions than the current military capabilities of Hezbollah (even with the assistance of the Lebanese army), the Syrian regime and Iran's expeditionary and proxy forces in Syria. So an Iranian decision to initiate a major war with Israel would not be likely be made off the cuff. Two likely options are that this would be a response to an attempt by Israel and/or the USA to physically destroy Iran's nuclear armaments program,[vii] or be part of a longer-term strategy, a major war waged for limited gains – inflict a psychological blow against Israel, very similar to the Egyptian President Sadat's concept in 1973, aimed at making Israelis lose faith in the viability of living in Israel. Israel cannot afford Pyrrhic victories.
One important factor is the nuclear weapons issue. Iran, like most of the world, believes Israel has nuclear weapons and will use them if faced with a certain level of threat. Iran is pursuing its own nuclear weapons to match. The nuclear agreement with Iran ostensibly stopped this program. In fact, at most, it only delayed it. In any case, Iran is unlikely to try to manufacture a single nuclear warhead before it has the capability of 'burst'-manufacturing a large number and has the capability of mounting them all on reliable delivery systems. Once such a capability exists the likelihood of more aggressive Iranian actions against Israel increases. Until then, it is likely that Iran will prefer to be more circumspect in its direct actions.
Historically, Hezbollah's main offensive weapon against Israel for major confrontations has been artillery rockets. The number currently in its arsenal is estimated to be approximately 130,000. Though the vast majority can reach only into northern Israel, there is a growing proportion of longer range types, including some that can reach right across Israel to its southernmost tip. Also, though the vast majority are unguided, Hezbollah is acquiring a growing number of guided rockets that enable hitting specific installations with high accuracy. Nasrallah has declared that all of Israel is vulnerable and Hezbollah can destroy national infrastructure – including stockpiles of dangerous industrial chemicals that can create deadly chemical clouds across adjacent inhabited areas.[viii] In addition to the artillery rockets, Hezbollah has accumulated an arsenal of shore-to-sea missiles that can be used to attack Israel's newly built gas-extraction rigs in the Mediterranean and threaten commercial shipping sailing to and from Israel's ports. At least one of the air strikes Israel allegedly conducted in Syria was to destroy a convoy of Yakhont shore-to-sea missiles, that from Lebanon could cover Israel's entire coastline. So, in addition to bombarding Israel's civilians as it has in the past, Hezbollah can now also strike Israel's economy – shutting down its sea and air communications with the world, directly and indirectly cutting a major portion of its electricity production, damaging factories and other essential economic facilities. In essence, Hezbollah can, with rocket artillery and missiles in lieu of aircraft, conduct a strategic bombardment à la Gulio Douhet.
Israel's anti-rocket defences proved very effective against Hamas bombardments numbering from 100 to 150 rockets per day, but Hezbollah is assessed to be capable of launching up to ten times that – 1,000 to 1,500 per day,[ix] and, if its launcher teams and stores are not destroyed by Israeli offensive action, can maintain fire for a few months. Israel would need to purchase tens of thousands of the very expensive interceptors to counter this capability or find an alternative solution.
In recent years Hezbollah chief Nasrallah, has been declaring a new component to Hezbollah's offensive strategy: liberating the Galilee, the northern third of Israel.[x] A notional plan was even released to Lebanese newspapers, describing a force of 5,000 men, organized in five infantry brigades, invading northern Israel and their geographical objectives.[xi] This suggests that, contrary to the Second Lebanon War, in the next, Hezbollah is planning to attack Israel not only with long-range rockets, but also on the ground.
When it was established by Iranian mentors in the early 1980s Hezbollah's military capability amounted to few hundred part-time fighters, highly motivated but poorly trained. The number and quality grew over time – during the 1990s Hezbollah maintained perhaps 500 permanent, Iranian trained, soldiers reinforced as needed by a militia numbering a few times that number. Though often termed guerrillas, many of the operations of the permanent force in the Israeli Security Zone, were similar in fact to special-operations raids conducted by professional armies. By 2006, increased funding, training and equipment had increased the manpower to approximately 10,000, of whom about 3,000 were permanent troops and the rest had begun reorganizing from a militia into an army-reserve. As of summer 2017 Hezbollah military forces amounted to 45,000 men, approximately half permanent-service and half reserves. Setting aside a portion for administration and logistics, Hezbollah can probably, for a limited time, field a maximum strength of 30,000 combatants – the numerical equivalent of the combat troops of five typical infantry divisions, albeit without most of the administration and logistic personnel typical to Western infantry divisions.[xii]
Hezbollah began practicing large-scale offensive actions in 2012 at the latest,[xiii] and has gained considerable practical experience in conducting such actions via rotation of its commanders and troops in the Syrian Civil War (at any one moment approximately 5,000 to 8,000 Hezbollah troops were deployed in Syria). In at least some of the battles in Syria, Hezbollah commanders and staff-officers actually employed forces equivalent to divisions in size – combining units from Hezbollah and the Syrian army.[xiv] They have gained practical experience in planning air-strikes with Syrian and Russian aircraft and operated tanks and other armoured vehicles. These are less useful skills in connection with a war in Syria, but provide them insights on the advantages and disadvantages of these weapons, which are central to Israeli doctrine. Hezbollah has also developed a drone-based airforce capable of reconnaissance and light tactical bombing missions.
However, fighting against the Israeli military will not be the same as fighting against the various anti-regime forces in Syria. Therefore, hyperbole aside and though the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) seem to be taking this threat seriously,[xv] in the foreseeable future a Hezbollah ground offensive is more likely to attempt shallow gains against Israeli towns and villages adjacent to the border, with perhaps small units infiltrating further south to conduct terror and commando attacks in order to disorient and dishearten Israel's public, government and military. The chief objective would be less to "liberate" land occupied by the Zionists, than to inflict as many casualties as possible and gain a psychological victory that would continue to reverberate in the Israeli public's mind even after the IDF retakes any ground taken by Hezbollah.
Rather than offensive ground operations, it seems more likely that the majority of Hezbollah's ground forces would be involved in defensive operations against an expected IDF ground offensive into Lebanon. The main objective of these forces would be to prevent the IDF ground forces from interfering with the strategic artillery bombardment of Israel's civilian rear.
The terrain of southern Lebanon is characterized by steep-sloped ridges, some narrower some wider, separated by deep ravines. The population lives mostly atop the ridges, thus blocking virtually all the natural travel routes with a couple of hundred built-up areas of varying size: small villages, large villages and towns. In many areas there are buildings scattered along the roads connecting the separate villages, gradually joining them together into one contiguous built-up area. The population of southern Lebanon is mostly Shiites – Hezbollah's people. Hezbollah has been preparing almost every Shiite village in southern Lebanon (approximately 160 in total), to serve as fortified areas – digging shelters underneath the houses to provide protection for men, equipment and munitions, preparing combat positions, accumulating combat and logistic stores.[xvi] Each village is manned by varying numbers of men – from 30 to 200 each – depending on its location and tactical importance.[xvii] In and around these villages are scattered thousands of rocket launchers and tens of thousands of rockets. To command these forces Hezbollah has divided southern Lebanon into three regional commands.[xviii] Given the objective, to prevent access to the rocket-launcher units, and the way they conducted this mission, fairly successfully, in 2006, one can assume that Hezbollah forces will fight to hold each village and deny passage through it. Defence of each village will be aggressive and mobile, utilizing underground shelters and positions, moving from house to house and counter-attacking whenever possible. However, Israeli control of the air will make the transfer of troops from one fortified village to another a very slow, possibly very expensive, process.
To this point I have focused on Hezbollah and Lebanon, however, the next war will not necessarily be confined to that front alone. Hezbollah is not alone. Iranian forces and even more so, other Iranian proxies are available in Syria in large numbers. As time passes, and assuming no sudden turnabout in the current trends of the wars in Syria and in Iraq, the availability of these proxies to fight against Israel will increase and so will their numbers. Iranian proxies in Iraq are gradually carving a direct ground route controlled by them from Iran to Syria. Syrian forces are gradually fighting towards this route from central Syria towards Iraq.[xix] Though there is no doubt that the Hezbollah forces are the most capable of the Iranian proxies, the addition of more forces and a second front, even if less powerful, will require Israeli attention. Assad, after surviving mainly due to Iran's support, will be hard-put to deny them access to the border with Israel and might even find it necessary to participate actively in the ensuing conflagration. Given sufficient time, there is no reason to suppose that the Iranians cannot accumulate enough rocket artillery and proxy forces to conduct a similar strategy from Syria as they have Hezbollah conducting in Lebanon.
There are however two main differences between Lebanon and Syria. The first – political: the latter has a sizable Russian presence and Russian interests could be impacted by a war there, so the Israelis and the Iranians and Assad will have to take that into account. The second – tactical: the terrain in Syria, especially near the border with Israel, is much more open and easy for massed mechanized maneuver, thus making the defending of the rocket artillery much harder.
A third front that Israel will have to take into account is Gaza. Despite their religious differences – Iran the Shiite power and Hamas a member of the rival Sunni movement – Hamas and Iran have found common ground in the common enemy, Israel. Iran supplied Hamas with funds and weapons until 2012, when Hamas publicly supported the Sunni rebels in Syria. Recently, as Hamas struggles to recover from the blows it has suffered after the fall of its Muslim Brotherhood benefactors in Egypt, its multiple defeats by Israel and the fiscal restrictions imposed on it by the Palestinian Authority government, controlled by its rival Fatah, there have been reports of Hamas swallowing its ideological pride to attempt rapprochement with Iran.[xx]
Given its past experience, would Hamas go so far as to escalate the intermittent fighting along Gaza's border with Israel to a level requiring Israel to invest considerable forces on this front too? Hamas's current artillery capabilities, perhaps one tenth that of Hezbollah and of considerably lower quality,[xxi] would add very little to Hezbollah's, but, given the length of the Gaza front and the size of Hamas combat forces (up to 30,000 men)[xxii] and of other Palestinian organizations in Gaza (some thousands more), a solid Israeli ground defence would require the IDF to reinforce that front, reducing its available forces facing the northern fronts. Given its past experience and probable lessons-learned, Hamas strategy will probably still be focused on an artillery bombardment of Israeli towns and villages near the border with Gaza, but there is probably going to be an increased emphasis on attempting cross-border raids. No obstacle is perfect, but the anti-tunnel obstacle being built by Israel along the border will require Hamas to dig much more expensive, therefore fewer, offensive-tunnels or find an alternative means of conducting cross-border raids into Israel. Thus, for example, after the 2014 war, Hamas greatly reinforced its naval-commando unit.[xxiii]
To sum up.
In the event of another major war between Israel and Hezbollah, for whatever reason it breaks out, it is very likely to be a multi-front war, with Iran assisting Hezbollah with other proxy forces, perhaps also Iranian forces and Syrian forces, on the Syrian front. In addition, Iran will very likely tempt Hamas to exploit the opportunity that Israel's military attention is focused elsewhere, in order to open a third front.
The details of the strategy employed will of course vary with the immediate political goal and the characteristics of each front, but in all likelihood the main strategic effort will be to Psychologically Exhaust Israel's civilian population with an artillery bombardment aimed at residential areas, civilian infrastructure and economic targets all across Israel.[xxiv] Banking on massed salvos and a massive store of rockets to penetrate and eventually exhaust Israel's anti-rocket defences. Military targets will probably include Israeli air force bases to reduce the effectiveness of the air force, with higher headquarters and similar installations mostly as symbolic achievements. As a secondary effort, a portion of Hezbollah's ground forces will attempt to attack into northern Israel – not as squad or platoon level raids, but with much larger forces, aiming to capture entire villages near the border and perhaps infiltrate smaller teams further south to inflict casualties and mayhem in support of the artillery offensive. Despite bluster on 'liberating' the entire Galilee, for the foreseeable future these ground operations will be fairly shallow and more for the in-war and post-war psychological effect than for actually retaining the captured areas.
Whereas Iran and Hezbollah aspire to the complete demise of the state of Israel, basing their strategy on gradual psychological exhaustion of its population, Israel's policy and strategy are the reverse – aspiring to exhaust the Iran's and Hezbollah's belief in their ability to achieve their political goal (as happened to Egypt and Jordan) by inflicting physical defeats in each encounter with their military forces. These physical defeats are to be achieved either by a rapid destruction of a significant portion of the opposing forces in the field (as achieved against Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the 1967 Six Day War) or by attrition over a longer period in time (as achieved in the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah and Operation 'Protective Edge' against Hamas).
Israel cannot annihilate Hezbollah and it certainly cannot annihilate Iran or any of the proxy organizations threatening it, just as it could never annihilate any of the other enemies it has faced in the past and is still facing today or in the foreseeable future. It has neither the political nor the military capability to achieve a result similar to that of the Allies against Germany in the Second Word War. Therefore, in all its confrontations, small or large, Israel's political objective has always been the same: defeat the aggressor time after time and gradually convince the enemy that they cannot destroy Israel, or that to do so would be prohibitively expensive for them – in brief, create or recreate deterrence.
Each confrontation must end in a result that improves Israel's security not only relative to the particular threat that induced the fighting, but also in the eyes of other potential aggressors not involved in that particular confrontation. So, for example, while fighting Hamas in Gaza in Operation 'Cast Lead' (December 2008 – January 2009), some of Israel's actions were in fact aimed at Hezbollah viewers – the message: see how we have corrected the tactical weaknesses revealed in the Second Lebanon War (July – August 2006).
Deterrence is a fickle objective. It can be measured only in hindsight – something you did not want to happen did not happen…
Deterrence is rarely, in Israel's case – has never been, complete. Deterring one foe might not deter the other and deterring from a particular behaviour might not deter from another. There has never been a period in Israel's history in which it was not under attack,[xxvi] the attackers at any one moment varied as did the intensity of the attacks from sporadic small attacks on civilians and military targets to all-out offensives of large forces. Furthermore, deterrence is contextual – an action that might create deterrence in one context, might create the opposite effect, escalation, in another. Thirdly, deterrence is a perishable commodity – it has an expiration date, but, unlike groceries or medication, that date is not known in advance. The expiration date is discovered, often only at the last minute, when a hostile activity suddenly escalates.
Therefore, Deterrence must be created, maintained, enhanced and recreated.
Defeating the immediate threat to its civilians and recreating deterrence will be Israel's goals also in the next war with Hezbollah and its allies.
Apart from the obvious defensive deployment along its borders and hinterland, Israeli strategy for achieving these goals has employed two separate but inter-related offensive activities – a series of small raids by ground and air forces, punctuated occasionally with major offensive operations. The emphasis on air or ground forces in dominating offensive actions has varied over time to adapt to the political and military contexts, but since the mid-1980s, for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article, there has been a growing emphasis on the use of air power and reduction in the use of ground forces. Some Israelis advocated a steep reduction in the size of the ground forces as well as reorganizing them into what is basically merely a counter-guerrilla or counter-terror force only. Peaking in the late 1990s and early 2000s this trend faltered in the 2000 – 2006 War with the Palestinians. However, it took the Second Lebanon War to reignite the debate in the IDF on the necessity of redeveloping major offensive capabilities in the ground forces. In summer 2015 the IDF published, for the first time, an unclassified version of its current strategic doctrine.[xxvii] After describing Israel's strategic environment, this document reiterated the need for a large offensive-capable ground force. The 'Gideon' force build-up program that followed, replacing in mid-stride the previous 2013 program which still advocated reduced ground forces with less regular warfare capability and more emphasis on aerial, commando and cyber capabilities, does not reverse the reduction of the ground forces, but it does emphasize more their ability to conduct major offensive operations by improving their equipment and training.[xxviii]
Given the political goals, the IDF now recognizes again that achieving them in a major confrontation, especially in the Hezbollah-Iran context, will not be possible with air power and commando raids alone. A decisive defeat of Hezbollah forces will require also a major ground offensive – if only to reach a large proportion of the launch sites and thus drastically reduce Hezbollah's short-range rocket capability, which is still the vast majority of its arsenal, and inflict prohibitive casualties to Hezbollah's combat units. However, achieving this will require time and during that time Hezbollah's strategic artillery will bombard Israel's population and infrastructure. Therefore, whereas in the major wars from 1956 to 1982 the IDF was able to concentrate almost only on offensive action, the next war will require also a large defensive component.
The strategy to achieve these goals will probably include four separate but complementary operations – two defensive and two offensive:
- Anti rocket defences based on the Israel's unique rocket interception systems, with or without assistance from the United States.[xxix] Active defence is complemented by passive defence – bomb shelters built into most buildings in Israel. In the Second Lebanon War and Operation 'Cast Lead', prior to Israel's fielding of its rocket interception systems, about a quarter of the thousands of unguided rockets fired into Israel exploded in residential areas. During Operations 'Defensive Pillar' and 'Protective Edge' a similar proportion would have exploded in residential areas had the Israelis not employed their new Iron Dome interception system. Iron Dome reduced the actual number of strikes in residential areas to less than 5% of the total number launched. Given the total number of rockets likely to be fired by Hezbollah and its allies and the addition of thousands of guided rockets to their arsenal, it is very likely that the percentage of successful rocket launches will increase significantly. Ultimately, the success or failure of the anti-rocket defence will be impacted, even determined, by the success or failure of Israel's offensive operations – see below.
- Ground defence of Israel's borders with Lebanon and Syria. Given the length of the borders, the complexity of the terrain (especially the scrub covered mountainous terrain of the Israel-Lebanon border) and the proximity of Israeli villages and towns to the border (many of them literally within hand-grenade tossing range or dominated by high ground in Lebanese territory), preventing penetration of Hezbollah infantry forces into northern Israel will require a much larger complement of ground forces deployed defensively along that border. The population of those villages will have to be evacuated both for their own safety and to enable freedom of action for the Israeli forces – releasing troops from defensive to offensive missions and allowing freer rules of engagement.[xxx]
An aerial offensive operation aiming to strike two complementary target sets:
1. Hezbollah's artillery forces in order to reduce the amount of rockets being shot into Israel.
2. A wide variety of strategic targets to illustrate the cost of the war to Hezbollah's local supporters.
In 2006 the Israeli Air Force's first mission was the destruction of Hezbollah's entire medium range rocket arsenal. This was achieved almost completely – much to the surprise and consternation of Hezbollah's leaders who had thought the storage locations were secret. Striking the long and medium range arsenal will be the first mission in the next war too – whether Israel's intelligence picture is as good as in 2006 is the decisive unknown. Strategic targets include Hezbollah headquarters, national infrastructure (electricity, bridges etc.) serving the Hezbollah and its supporters. In 2006 the IDF ordered the populations living above or near Hezbollah facilities and combat positions to move out to diminish civilian casualties, but the buildings themselves were demolished in air strikes attacking the facilities inside or beneath them.[xxxi]
- A ground offensive aiming to break through the Hezbollah defensive system to locate and destroy as many of the rocket launchers and rocket arsenals as possible. The time factor will be essential, so the IDF will deploy as many ground forces as possible to try to 'blanket' as much of southern Lebanon as possible in a short a time as possible.
To sum up.
In the event of another major war between Israel and Hezbollah, for whatever reason it breaks out, Israel's strategy will most likely focus on Physical Destruction of a large a portion of Hezbollah's combat forces as is possible. Merely outmaneuvering Hezbollah forces will not suffice – they are organized and trained to fight as 'islands'. Total destruction of Hezbollah is impossible, but, if a large enough proportion can be destroyed, Hezbollah leadership will be pressed to concede the war and prefer a ceasefire. In 2006 this point was reached when Hezbollah casualties accumulated to more than 10%, perhaps more than 15%, of its total force.[xxxii] How many will be required to achieve the strategic and political objectives in the next war is moot. In 2006 the IDF spent 38 days to achieve this goal and throughout that time Hezbollah continued to bombard Israel's northern towns and villages. Given the extremely reinforced bombardment capability of Hezbollah (they can fire in four days what they fired then in 38), the IDF will very likely attempt to reduce the time, and that would require a very large force conducting a simultaneous attack across all of southern Lebanon. However, another important factor is the ratio of casualties – what it would cost Israel and how this would inhibit Israeli commanders.
I have focused on the Lebanese front because, given that Hezbollah is the main military adversary, its geographic focus and its strength relative to other organizations allied to it, even in a multi-front war it will be the main front. Operations on the other fronts, Syria and perhaps Gaza, will be smaller versions of operations on the Lebanese front and the measure and timing of efforts there will depend on what the IDF thinks it needs to defeat Hezbollah and what it has left over from that mission.
A final word of caution: prediction is difficult and predicting the future is even more difficult, quipped Danish scientist Niels Bohr.The above analysis is based on a narrow set of current trends, any of which might undergo a drastic twist, changing a few, many or most of the underlying assumptions.
[i] From 1976 till 2005 Syria maintained a sizeable military presence in Lebanon and dominated the political scene there.
[ii] The official term is 'Zionist State', but since Zionism means the existence of a Jewish Nation-State, that is merely a ploy to hide the meaning.
[iii] Islamic Republic News Agency, 9 September 2015, http://www.irna.ir/en/News/81753808
[iv] For a typical example: https://www.memri.org/reports/hizbullah-secretary-general-hassan-nasrallah-al-quds-day-israel-must-be-wiped-out-existence
[v] From June 2000, after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, until, but not including, this attack in July 2006, more than 20 Israelis had been killed and more than 100 had been wounded by Hezbollah attacks into Israel. The exact number of Hezbollah attacks and Israeli casualties is difficult to ascertain since some were conducted by Palestinian proxies and blended into the approximately 26,000 attacks by Palestinians during this same period.
[vi] There have been a handful of other attacks by other groups, almost all Palestinians in Lebanon, but apparently Hezbollah was not involved except, perhaps, in turning a blind eye to these actions.
[viii] See for example: http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/interview-granted-hassan-nasrallah-intended-reinforce-deterrent-message-towards-israel-emphasizing-hezbollahs-military-capabilities-especially-high-precision-missiles-enabli/, http://www.foxnews.com/story/2010/02/16/hezbollah-warns-retaliation-if-israel-strikes.html, http://www.thetower.org/2971-nasrallah-threatens-attack-on-israeli-chemical-plant-which-could-kill-tens-of-thousands/
[ix] http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/The-third-Lebanon-war-scenario-406193, https://www.upi.com/Top_News/Voices/2017/02/20/Israel-boosts-missile-defenses-against-Hezbollah/6251487596746/
[x] See for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkEdgrK5AdM
[xii] The typical infantry division has about 5,000 infantry combatants and another 1,500 to 2,000 combatants from other arms (artillery, engineers, scouts, etc.). Note that while Western-style Divisions typically have a ratio of approximately two administrative or logistics personnel per one combatant, Soviet Divisions had a ratio of only one per one combatant. If it conducts mostly static battles, Hezbollah will be able to pare down this overhead.
[xiii] http://news.walla.co.il/item/2560837 (Hebrew).
[xiv] The Battle for Al-Qusayr in 2013 was probably the first such example, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-battle-for-qusayr-how-the-syrian-regime-and-hizb-allah-tipped-the-balance/
[xv] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4700232,00.html, http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/dr20161122-israel-fortifies-northern-defenses-against-future-hezbollah-attacks
[xvi] http://high-level-military-group.org/pdf/hlmg-hizballahs-terror-army.pdf pg 12.
[xvii] https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.1210853 (Hebrew).
[xviii] https://wikileaks.org/gifiles/attach/15/15025_HezbollahBackgroundPresentation.ppt, slide 21.
[xxi] Numerically Hamas may have succeeded in replenishing its pre-2014 stock, but not with the more advanced and longer ranged rockets it used to acquire from Iran. Smuggling such weapons into Gaza has become much more difficult because of the hostility of the current regime in Egypt, so Hamas has to make-do with the shorter range locally manufactured models. https://news.walla.co.il/item/2940541 (Hebrew).
[xxii] Hamas published this number officially in 2014 – https://www.memri.org/reports/izz-al-din-al-qassam-brigades-weapons-and-units; and again in March 2018 - http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/hamass-military-wing-conducted-large-scale-military-maneuver/. Even if it was an exaggeration then, it is very likely to be approximately accurate today. This does not include the organization's administrative and logistic personnel – many of whom are meshed into the civilian governmental infrastructure.
[xxiii] https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4692519,00.html (Hebrew). During the 2014 war Hamas frogmen conducted two amphibious raids into Israel. Both were defeated, but apparently Hamas believes in the potential of this tactic.
[xxiv] Psychological Exhaustion does not mean there will be no casualties, only that Hezbollah expects the Israeli population to break psychologically from the anxiety and having to live in bomb-shelters long before casualties accumulate in large numbers.
[xxv] For all the tactical failings of the IDF in 2006, it achieved its strategic objective, and the political goal it was serving, albeit, because of the tactical failures, for a price higher than acceptable to the Israeli government and public.
[xxvi] Since 1920 there have been only 5 years in which not a single Israeli Jew was killed by hostile Arab action, the last of those was 1935.
[xxvii] For a translation of the document into English see: https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/IDF%20doctrine%20translation%20-%20web%20final2.pdf. For an analysis of the doctrine by a retired Israeli Brigadier-General see: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/new-idf-strategy-goes-public
[xxviii] https://www.idf.il/מאמרים/כתבות/שנתיים-וחצי-לתרש-גדעון (Hebrew).
[xxix] Active American participation in Israel's anti-rocket defences was practiced in a recent exercise. https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5150725,00.html
[xxx] https://www.mako.co.il/news-military/security-q2_2016/Article-d9a70e7e6f45551004.htm (Hebrew)
[xxxi] Not everyone moved out, resulting in civilian casualties though at least half the 1,200 Lebanese fatalities published by the Lebanese government were actually Hezbollah combatants.
[xxxii] The exact casualty figure is not known – some 600 Hezbollah personnel, perhaps more, were killed (Hezbollah denies this figure, but the IDF has the names of most of them), and it is safe to assume that the number of wounded was at least the same, probably more than that.