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Israel Can No Longer Ignore Hezbollah’s Force Build-Up

avatar by Shmuel Tzuker

Opinion

Israeli navy boats are seen in the Mediterranean Sea as seen from Rosh Hanikra, close to the Lebanese border. Photo: Reuters/Ammar Awad

Recent threats by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to attack Israel’s Karish offshore gas platform in the Mediterranean — if Israel starts extracting gas before reaching an agreement with Lebanon on maritime borders — remind us that a monster has emerged to Israel’s north.

Hezbollah’s force build-up includes some 150,000 projectiles, and the terror organization could fire thousands of them at Israel per day. It is no secret that Hezbollah poses a strategic threat to Israel. It is armed with between 500 to 700 precision-guided missiles, and the combination of these two capabilities can undoubtedly bring the State of Israel to a halt.

This raises questions about the extent of Hezbollah’s ability to influence Israeli decision-making at the Karish gas platform. Would Israel proceed with extracting gas in its economic waters in the absence of an agreement?

Hezbollah’s firepower capabilities have reached deeply disturbing levels, while Israel’s home front is far from being prepared for this level of assault.

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The combination of Hezbollah’s offensive capabilities and the increasingly aggressive tone of its leadership raises a key question: Is Israel obligated to sit and wait to be attacked?

The only time Israel conducted a clear preemptive strike and took the initiative at the strategic level (not including small-scale tactical operations in Gaza) was at the start of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Preemptive action is based on the idea of seeing the potential for tragedy, such as the deployment of an enemy army or the stockpiling of dangerous weapons by an adversary, and realizing that time is of the essence — and that waiting is not an option.

Preemptive doctrine is surprisingly foreign to Israeli military doctrine, since most wars and conflicts it has fought have been reactionary in nature and not preventative.

The threat posed by Hezbollah to Israel is different from the one posed by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and it could fall under the category of preemptive action justification.

Hezbollah’s firepower could, for a time, eliminate Israel’s ability to conduct sovereign state functions due to its inability to deal with the damage. Even the IDF may struggle to implement its plans. The country would have to deal with massive fires, destruction of infrastructure, and paralysis at multiple levels. These are events that have never been experienced by the Israeli home front, though the deadly 2010 Carmel fire disaster, which brought the Haifa area to a standstill, provides a hint of the scale of the issue.

In light of the above, Israel must in principle reserve the right of preemptive action.

At the same time, the Israeli government must fast-track preparations on the home front, such as the construction of rocket-proof safe rooms and bomb shelters, and preparing selected northern populations for the option of evacuation.

With Hezbollah becoming a significant menace, Israeli decision-makers must also grapple with the uncomfortable question of which side is more deterred in the “balance of deterrence” in place between Israel and Hezbollah.

This is an important question. Israel is a major regional power, and Hezbollah seems to have been intimidated by the prospect of fighting it since the end of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. But the fact of the matter is that Israel is also deterred by Hezbollah. It does not seek a conflict with it because it understands the consequences of a new war. Beyond the human and material losses that Israel would incur, such a war would inflict significant economic harm as well.

Businesses could fail due to infrastructure degradation, and the consequences for many civilians would be troubling. It is difficult for many Israeli civilians to internalize the scope of the threat, since the home front has never absorbed such firepower directed against it in the past.

The Israeli public is familiar with the “Gaza benchmark,” in which Hamas targeted mainly southern Israel, and to a lesser degree central Israel, with projectiles, while the Iron Dome offered Israelis a good level of protection.

A war with Hezbollah would not resemble such precedents. Not only would Hezbollah’s arsenal overwhelm Israeli air defenses, but a Lebanese front in the north could be joined by Hamas rocket attacks from the south, and internal mass disturbances by sections of the Arab Israeli community throughout Israel. Such disturbances, combined with the massive quantities of weapons that circulate in the Arab Israeli community, could leave the country facing an extraordinary event.

The extent of deterrence in place against Israel is visible when its policies in Syria are compared to those in Lebanon. In Syria, Israel pursues an active campaign to disrupt Iranian entrenchment and arms smuggling. Every few days, reports surface of air strikes on targets in Syria, mainly to halt precision-guided missile production lines and to prevent a new Syria-based Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite militia front from developing against Israel.

Yet Lebanon is the focal point of the threat. There are numerous production lines of advanced weapons in existence in Lebanon — and Israel is doing nothing about them.

Even in Gaza, in between rounds of escalation, Israel does not challenge Hamas force build-ups, unless an escalation erupts. Israel simply does not want to be “dragged” into conflict against enemies that can fire rockets at its cities.

Those who ask what would follow a war with Hezbollah appear to be following a rational line of questioning, but the questions also paralyze Israel to an extent, since the same questions are posed by those who always seek to dodge conflict with Hezbollah and never to use Israel’s power against it. In the event of a war with Hezbollah, which would of course be a deeply undesirable development, Israel’s goal will be to take the wind out of the terror army’s sails, and to make it clear to it that it spent all that money and all those years building up a force for nothing. This will make it doubly more difficult for Hezbollah to start the force build-up process all over again.

Israel can unleash major destruction on Hezbollah and Lebanon, but now is the time for Israeli decision-makers to decide on the targets that will help shorten the war — something that Israel failed to do in its conflict against Hamas in 2014, striking the most sensitive targets (residential towers used by Hamas’s officers in northern Gaza) only at the end of the conflict.

Similarly, there can be no hesitation about activating Israeli ground forces, despite the “addiction” the government has developed to the use of air power. No less importantly, Israel must now check the ability of its home front to deal with such a scenario, and make decisions without delay to boost its readiness. Nasrallah’s threats serve as a timely reminder that these preparations can no longer be delayed.

While the maritime border dispute may be resolved diplomatically, the threat posed by Hezbollah’s firepower remains.

Brig Gen. Shmuel Tzuker (IDF, Ret.) is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. He is the former Deputy Director General of the Directorate of Production and Procurement in the Ministry of Defense, Israel. During his military career he served as Commander of the Gaza Division, Commander of the Lebanon Division, and Commander of Judea & Samaria Division.

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 trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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