Upon examining the course of the 11-day war between Israel and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, one cannot help but understand that it was a rehearsal for what is expected on Israel’s northern front.
Gaza was a military testing ground for Iran and Hezbollah. They were able to measure Israel’s firepower, its interception capability and the limitations of its power, as expressed by the almost irrational care taken to avoid harm to population centers. Israel’s concern for innocent lives was born out of the fear of the world’s reaction, its dependence on the United States and the drift that undermined Israel’s position in world public opinion, especially among the U.S. Democratic Party.
Decision-makers in Israel, as well as politicians, army officers and academics, often repeat a statement attributed to the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He allegedly said after leaving his bunker following the 2006 Second Lebanon War that had he known that his decision to provoke Israel would cause such destruction, he would not have started the war at all. Accordingly, analysts conclude time and again that Hezbollah’s failure to act stems from Israeli deterrence.
Since 2006, Hezbollah has embarked on an unprecedented reorganization and re-arming effort with Iranian funding and training, while accumulating a rocket arsenal of more than 140,000 missiles, some of which possess extremely high accuracy. (By contrast, Hamas in Gaza had an estimated 15,000 rockets when it launched its war in May 2014.) Hezbollah analyzed Hamas’s battles against the IDF and will adopt a doctrine of warfare adapted to the new reality.
Hezbollah has also publicly announced its plan to capture the Galilee by mobilizing its elite units—the Radwan units—for the construction of a network of underground assault tunnels, command bunkers, and an extensive maze of fortifications of which only a fraction was exposed some two years ago on the Lebanese border and subsequently neutralized by the IDF. Hezbollah has developed its drone corps and naval units, that are prepared to attack Israel’s gas rigs southwest of Lebanon’s coast. In addition, as Iran’s proxy force in the region, its combat units have gained valuable operational experience in urban warfare fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, where it was sent by its commanders in Tehran.
All of the above elements have been implemented in the Gaza Strip by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to discover that Iran is behind the Palestinian war effort. Ramez Halabi, a senior member of PIJ, was interviewed on Iraqi television on May 8, 2021. He explained that every weapon in his organization’s possession was purchased with Iranian funding and that all his men were trained in Iran. Mocking Israel, he added that every missile bears the signature of the late Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander killed by the United States in Iraq in January 2020. After the fighting subsided, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who resides in Qatar, thanked Iran for the financial assistance and weaponry it has extended to Hamas.
From the Palestinian perspective, the war proved that the “Israeli demon” was not as frightening as it used to be. In fact, Israel’s last military victory was in 1982, which eventually resulted in the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 under Hezbollah’s military pressure. The 2006 war was seen as a Hezbollah victory over Israel, while 2014 demonstrated the extent of Israel’s unwillingness to initiate a massive ground entry into the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s policy of divide and rule with regard to Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority has boomeranged. The weakening of the P.A. eventually led to the strengthening of Hamas and its becoming the dominant factor vis-à-vis Israel. Furthermore, Hamas realized that Israel had wrongly assessed—until the last minute—that Hamas lacked interest in a military confrontation and was deterred. This assessment is paired with the constantly reiterated statement that Israel has no interest in a ground attack on Gaza in order to bring down Hamas. Thanks to the Iron Dome air-defense system, the assessment goes, Israel will content itself with action against Hamas from outside Gaza.
The recent confrontation between Israel and Gaza confirmed Israel’s reluctance to introduce ground forces into Gaza, both for fear of casualties and due to its lack of desire to control another two million Palestinians. These conclusions are chronicled in Tehran and Hezbollah because the parallel to the situation in Lebanon is self-evident.
It does not bode well for Israel that its weaknesses were apparent not only to the Palestinian public but also, and especially, to Hezbollah and Iran, who studied Israel’s behavior during the 11 days of fighting.
The war in Gaza must serve as a very loud wake-up call and cause Israel to rethink its policy toward its enemies in the Arab world. The rising situation requires a drastic change in Israel’s reactions: no more restraint, which is the source of all evil.
Continuing the same policy of restraint and the hesitation to use force may encourage Iran and Hezbollah to advance their plans to surprise Israel on other fronts. This could happen if they conclude that Israel will strive to avoid any frontal confrontation with Hezbollah or a ground incursion that could result in significant casualties by exposing Israel’s homefront to significant attacks.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.