Lessons Learned From the Second Lebanon War
Fourteen years have passed since the eruption of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Now is an appropriate time to assess the conflict.
While the Middle East has dramatically changed in the intervening years, the risk of a future Israel-Hezbollah war remains.
Looking back, it is clear that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah did not anticipate a war would result from the kidnapping raid on IDF reservists patrolling the northern border that he ordered. He merely hoped to increase pressure on Israel, which was in the midst of a separate military operation inside the Gaza Strip.
The kidnapped IDF reservists, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were on their last day of duty. They were ambushed in a vulnerable spot in the sector they patrolled, and Hezbollah’s attack was well prepared. A deadly, unforeseen chain reaction followed, leading to the Second Lebanon War.
At its start, neither side had planned for war. By its end, both were claiming victory.
Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, was intended to serve as a deterrent against an Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear program. It was not intended to initiate regional conflicts. As far as the Iranians were concerned, the war was a disruption to its original plans. But Iran could console itself with its tightened control over the terror group — a result of the conflict.
The war consisted of two phases: The first prioritized IDF air and artillery power in lieu of a ground offensive. The second phase saw the deployment of ground forces into Lebanon in order to battle Hezbollah.
The first stage witnessed highly effective IDF operations.
The Israeli Air Force launched a massive bombing campaign against an extensive list of targets, stunning Hezbollah. Israel suffered few civilian casualties as a result of a well-organized home front. After one week, Hezbollah was seeking a ceasefire.
That success generated vigorous debate within the IDF General Staff and the Israeli government. The first side of the debate viewed Hezbollah’s northern border raid as a local incident. The two kidnapped reservists had not survived the raid. Their view was that Israel should limit the conflagration to the air power and artillery firepower already expended, reaching an end state that was to their advantage if they did so. That view did not prevail.
Israel’s decision to push forward resulted in two developments, both of which impeded the IDF’s momentum.
First, the Air Force ran out of targets, even as Hezbollah continued to fire its rockets, paralyzing the Israeli home front.
Secondly, when the ground offensive took shape, a series of operational mistakes occurred, and Israel began absorbing casualties. As those numbers mounted, the Israeli government became less and less inclined to stop the conflict while in a weakened position.
Israel’s war planning thus became unbalanced. It was initially predicated upon achieving victory by way of air power, but the ground offensive continued.
Additionally, prior to the war, the IDF had engaged in more than five years of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations in the West Bank. Israeli ground forces had not been prepared for a ground maneuver of the nature required in the Lebanese arena. But a ground maneuver was ordered nonetheless.
But Israeli infantry and armored units struggled to deal with Hezbollah’s Kornet anti-tank guided missiles. In the battle of Wadi Saluki, Hezbollah cells, armed with anti-tank missiles, faced off against Merkava tanks from the IDF’s 162 Division, resulting in a relatively high number of IDF casualties.
Paratrooper reservists also absorbed many casualties in firefights with Hezbollah. Those events soured Israeli public opinion against the war.
Though the IDF succeeded territorially, the tone felt by many Israelis was one of failure. As that sense increased, Israel requested a ceasefire. A key lesson from the conflict is that when flooded with enemy rockets, the ability of Israel’s home front to continue to function is extremely finite.
In the months and years that followed, struggles were waged over how to assess the war.
Some Israeli political figures sought to present it as a failure, a characterization further fueled by Hezbollah’s own description of their ability to merely survive an Israeli military campaign as a “divine victory.”
But today, with the passage of time, we know that Hezbollah was far more damaged than was believed in 2006.
We also know that Israel achieved a significant level of deterrence, which remains in place to this day. Hezbollah’s chief remains confined to a bunker.
Yet the aftermath of that war is still central to the IDF’s planning in 2020.
Last year’s public dispute between former IDF ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, and then IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, over the readiness of the ground forces, is an example of that.
The IDF has purchased advanced new armored personnel carriers and tanks, and installed active defenses on its armored vehicles. But most of the army still relies on old equipment and would have to conduct a maneuver without such protection.
Since — and as a result of — the war, Hezbollah has tripled its projectile arsenal. It has placed strong emphasis on building up its stockpile of precision-guided missiles. Israel is combating that build up, primarily on Syrian soil and in Syrian skies.
While neither Hezbollah nor Israel are interested in entering into a conflict in the near term, the central lesson of the Second Lebanon War is that such a war can occur even if no one desires it.
The IDF’s mission is to ensure readiness, maintain full alert on Israel’s northern border, and prevent war if possible. But if it erupts, Israel is prepared to do what is needed in order to achieve a rapid and decisive victory, including raining down destruction throughout Lebanon.
Major General Noam Tibon (Ret.) is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute and the former Commander of the Northern Formation, Lebanon Front.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold standard tours of the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.