Israel must restore its deterrence against Hezbollah

A preemptive strike could put Israel in a much better position to combat the Lebanese terror group.

Hezbollah multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) units in southern Lebanon prepare to simulate an attack on Israel, May 21, 2023. Source: Twitter.
Hezbollah multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) units in southern Lebanon prepare to simulate an attack on Israel, May 21, 2023. Source: Twitter.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shmuel Tzuker
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shmuel Tzuker
Brig. Gen. Shmuel Tzuker (Ret.) is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute. During his military career he served as commander of the IDF's Gaza Division, Lebanon Division, and Judea and Samaria Division.

Hezbollah’s disturbing escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli border in recent weeks and months reflects a simple truth: Israel has allowed itself to be deterred by its northern adversary.

To disguise this sobering fact, laundered words like “containment” are thrown around to justify Israel’s lack of response to these provocations.

Years ago, Israel’s defense establishment spoke of decisive victory as the goal when dealing with enemies. This was eventually phased out in favor of “deterrence.” Now the talk is of containment.

There is no doubt that Israel does not want to be dragged into a war with Hezbollah.  The terror group knows that this is Israel’s position, and calculates the risks it is willing to take accordingly.

While Israel is proactive in defending its security interests in Syria and even in Iran, as well as at sea, Israel simply does not dare to attack Lebanon. Even when earlier this year a Hezbollah terrorist infiltrated Israel and made it to Megiddo Junction in Israel’s north, where he planted an IED on a highway, Israel did not respond.

That terrorist could have reached Tel Aviv. No one knew of his existence until his bomb detonated, seriously injuring an Arab-Israeli driver. The driver’s injuries were tragic, but the attack could have ended in dozens of casualties.

Then, on Passover eve in April, a barrage of rockets was fired into Israel. The dominant narrative was that it was Palestinians who fired them, not Hezbollah. We convinced ourselves that this was the case and returned fire on an open field.

Now Israel is dealing with a Hezbollah tent planted on Israeli territory that houses armed operatives. This has become a strategic matter. In recent days, a Lebanese parliament member and eight others infiltrated Israel from Lebanon.

Nevertheless, Israel is in containment mode. This means that it doesn’t want to do anything.

If the recent comments made by opposition figure and Yisrael Beiteinu Party leader Avigdor Liberman are to be believed, the IDF has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s failure to respond properly to these events is eroding its deterrence—if it even existed in the first place.

Containment is merely a tactical matter and a bigger issue is at play. Israel does not feel it can respond forcefully against Hezbollah due to the risks posed by war with it—namely thousands of rockets a day fired at the Israeli home front. Hezbollah’s arsenal includes 500 precise projectiles capable of striking every location in Israel.

Northern Israel, meanwhile, faces the scenario of evacuating tens of thousands of civilians who have nowhere to go. There is no organizational plan in place for this.

As a result, the concern is that in the event of a Third Lebanon War, the Israeli government will not be able to implement its military and civilian directives. This includes infrastructure. In particular, Israel’s offshore gas rigs may have to be shut down.

Meanwhile, factions in the Israeli-Arab sector could direct large numbers of firearms at fellow citizens. The unrest that took place during the May 2021 Operation Guardian of the Walls could be a sneak peek at what a future war might look like.

Hence, Israel seeks to avoid war. Needless to say, there is an Israeli military in this equation that is far more powerful than it was during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. But when we compare the ability of Israel to absorb losses and damage to that of Hezbollah, the conclusion that emerges is problematic: Israel, it seems, is more deterred than the terror group.

All of this raises the question of the feasibility of a preemptive Israeli strike on Hezbollah.

Due to the risks posed to the Israeli home front, which could sustain thousands of casualties (including injured) and tens of thousands of homes hit by projectiles, with dysfunctional emergency service responses and civilian services severely affected, the option of a preemptive strike must be examined.

Such a strike could significantly decrease the damage sustained by Israel in a future war with Hezbollah. Furthermore, if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear program, it is clear that Hezbollah would retaliate, leaving Israel in conflict on at least two fronts.

Fighter jets would have to deal with Iran and Lebanon, and this raises the question of whether it might not be better to first decrease Hezbollah’s capabilities, allowing Israel to focus on Iran.

Should we wait for Hezbollah to take the initiative or do we take the first step after we define what an Israeli red line looks like?

Either way, it is only a matter of time before the next escalation occurs. Hezbollah won’t be able to keep stepping on Israel’s toes as it has been doing since the summer of 2022 when it threatened Israeli offshore gas rigs. Nor can it do so now when it issues new border demands and fires an anti-tank missile at an IDF patrol.

Israel can’t keep hiding under the apron of inaction.

The question is whether the IDF should wait for Hezbollah to escalate or seize on a future Hezbollah provocation at a time when Israel is prepared to attack and deal with the consequences.

In answering this question, one can’t ignore Israel’s current unprecedented domestic crisis.

Improved social cohesion will be a necessary condition for choosing the timing of a potential preemptive strike on Hezbollah. If Israel chooses this path, it must launch a strong response to any future Hezbollah attack. If Hezbollah escalates further, Israel will have no choice but to go to war.

But this time, Israel would act from an improved position due to the preemptive strike, better preparations on the home front and no domestic political crisis threatening the ability of Israeli Air Force reservists to serve.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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