The Terrorist Semi-States of Hamas and Hezbollah
The terrorist threat that Israel faces is an unusual one because the terrorist organizations seeking to destroy it control their own territory, making them a kind of semi-state.
The armed fundamentalist entities situated on Israel’s borders have control over their own land and they govern populations. This creates an inherent contradiction between their hardline Islamist ideologies on the one hand and self-preservation on the other.
This paradox is playing out most visibly in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is trying to relieve the security blockade of its enclave, using a range of violent pressure tactics to achieve this goal, as it tries to avoid an economic meltdown in Gaza. Yet it is unwilling to stop enlarging its arsenal of offensive weapons that it points at Israel, meaning that Gaza’s economy remains dysfunctional.
Hamas has failed to prioritize Gaza’s civilian needs, despite being its government. Instead of tackling unemployment or doing whatever it takes to ensure a steady electricity supply, it is trying to intimidate Israel and pressure the Palestinian Authority and Egypt into rescuing Gaza’s economy. Unemployment in Gaza is at 44% and more than 60% for young people, many of whom have university degrees. Most of Gaza’s estimated two million residents have access to about four hours of electricity per day and its water sources face depletion in the coming years.
If there is one thing that Hamas fears most, it is a popular Gazan uprising against its regime, which an economic collapse could spark. Despite this possibility, it is unwilling to cease converting Gaza into a heavily armed Islamist attack base.
This dissonance is creating significant regional instability, and tensions between Hamas and Israel are now at their highest since the 2014 armed conflict. The two sides traded fire last weekend, with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad firing 200 short-range rockets and mortars at southern Israeli towns, and the Israeli Air Force responding with strikes against more than 40 high-value military targets in the Gaza Strip. An Egyptian-brokered truce has since gone into effect, but it is shaky.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, Hezbollah, a Shiite terror organization with one of the world’s largest arsenals of surface-to-surface projectiles, continues to prepare for war with Israel. Hezbollah’s monstrous arsenal is a clear sign of who really runs Lebanon; estimates say one out of every 10 buildings in Lebanon has a rocket concealed in it. This arsenal is made up of Iranian-produced weapons smuggled into Lebanese villages and towns, especially in south Lebanon, home to 200 Shiite villages, which Hezbollah has turned into bases of attack.
This contravenes UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans the presence of armed forces in south Lebanon except the official Lebanese military and a UN peacekeeping force. But since Hezbollah controls this territory, it is free to flout international law with little consequence. At the same time, Hezbollah is diligently sticking to a 12-year ceasefire with Israel, showing no interest in sparking a conflict at this time.
This situation both reflects Hezbollah’s massive military power, which the international community has been powerless to do anything about, and its vulnerability.
Hezbollah was heavily involved in the Syrian civil war, acting as an Iranian regional army sent to rescue the Assad regime. Yet Hezbollah lost between 1,500 to 2,000 fighters in its intervention, and thousands more were injured, spawning growing pressure from the organization’s south Lebanese support base, home to most of those casualties. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly had to justify the organization’s presence in Syria. For example, Nasrallah told his base that if the Assad regime falls in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon will fall with it. Hezbollah’s war in Syria has led to a crisis in morale and funding, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said last year.
Nevertheless, Eisenkot said, this Iranian-backed terror organization remains a formidable threat to Israel.
Hezbollah’s political and military domination of Lebanon shows its strength, but also helps explain its restraint, for Hezbollah is reluctant to expose itself to Israel’s firepower and lose control of its turf.
A war with Israel would endanger both the survivability of Hezbollah’s senior leadership and its grip on Lebanon, factors that help hold it back. “Hezbollah is deterred,” former IDF Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, said in 2014, adding that it “knows what will happen if it gets into conflict with us, and that this will set Lebanon back decades.”
Semi-states, but not normal states
In some ways, Hamas and Hezbollah have come to resemble states, with their own hierarchical armed forces, political power, media outlets, and defined borders. Yet in other ways, they are anything but ordinary states, viewing their lands as bases of attack and their civilians as human shields. Their commitment to a long-term radical ideology of conflict with Israel, punctuated by opportunistic truces, remains paramount.
Their freedom to run their own areas also forces them to factor in risks. This has allowed Israel to influence and deter the decision-making processes of its foes and prolong periods of truce in recent years by deterring them. The ability to deter semi-state terrorist actors is key to understanding Israel’s security.
“Our role is to first of all ensure the security of the citizens of the State of Israel, and to prevent wars as much as possible. And that occurs, first and foremost, through strengthening deterrence,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last year.
The Israeli defense establishment has used the quiet time to adapt the military to Middle Eastern hybrid forces. They are hybrid because they are part army, part guerrilla force, and part “classic” terror organization all rolled into one. Such is the nature of terror organizations with territory.
The ensuing reality is that terror organizations in this area of the world now have weapons, such as GPS-guided missiles, that were once reserved for the great world powers. The flip side is that they can also be deterred from using them.
This complex reality is what faces Israel’s defense establishment day in and day out as it seeks to protect the country’s civilians, prolong periods of calm, and prepare intensively for the day that conflict erupts. According to Israeli intelligence assessments, these actors’ self-preservation calculations mean they have no interest in deliberately triggering a full-scale conflict with Israel at this time. Yet the unstable and unpredictable nature of the region means that even small incidents can uncontrollably snowball into wars, whether anyone wants them or not.
Once hostilities begin, Hezbollah and Hamas can both fire projectiles at Israeli cities, while engaging in high-level urban warfare tactics against incoming Israeli forces in their own lands.
The situation is made significantly more complex by the direct state-backing that Iran provides Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Hamas, as well as to the second largest armed faction in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
As the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, recently boasted, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute, Iran has created a “mighty power” in Lebanon, which points more than 100,000 rockets and missiles at Israel.
Salami also referred to Iran’s ongoing efforts to build up a second armed force in Syria made up of Shiite militias, which he referred to as “the Islamic Army of Syria.”
To deal with this threat, Israel has developed a well-organized, hi-tech military to defend itself, which is currently busy adapting itself to the hybrid threat lurking on the other side of the border. The key to this adaptation lies in combining superior intelligence with precision firepower — a combination that the IDF is upgrading continuously.
In the meantime, Israel is sticking to its policy of deterring such actors, taking advantage of their vulnerability to make it clear to them that they should hold their fire.
This will not cause them to change their radical ideological DNA. Nor will it solve the dissonance that lies at the heart of a terrorist faction that has its own land. But it might put off a bloody conflict and prevent suffering on both sides for as long as possible.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book The Virtual Caliphate explores the online jihadist presence. This article was originally published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.