“Operation Northern Shield,” encompassing the Israel Defense Forces’ efforts to uncover and destroy Hezbollah attack tunnels crossing under the Israel-Lebanon border, has been made possible by technological advancements and accurate intelligence gathering.
The operation followed a detailed plan outlined by operational officials, and if the plan is implemented as presented, it will undoubtedly achieve the desired effect. The desired being neutralizing the big surprise that Hezbollah was preparing ahead of its next confrontation with Israel—attack tunnels that would allow it to strike at Israel’s home front.
Hezbollah’s aim was two-fold: to seize Israeli vantage points and stir panic inside Israel, thereby compelling the Israeli military force fighting Hezbollah’s complex attack to turn back. And no less importantly, they sought to take over an Israeli community and abduct as many civilians as possible. Thus, at the end of the war, Israel’s failure would continue to resonate for a long time after the fighting itself ends because the hostage negotiations would take a long time and would bring Israel to its knees.
The operation currently underway in the north has the power to reverse this threat. Without a winning card up its sleeve, Hezbollah will need to consider its next step carefully. The many missiles (many of them advanced precision missiles) the organization possesses are still its main strength, and its ability to defend southern Lebanon tenaciously has not waned. But without the winning tunnel card, which would have catapulted Hezbollah’s capabilities to a new level, its strength has eroded. This means the organization is more likely to be cautious and less likely to initiate a war in the near future.
“Operation Northern Shield” raises complicated questions about Israel’s initiative and willingness to enter a war to prevent the threat it sees growing. When it comes to nuclear weapons, the accepted view in Israel—known as the Begin Doctrine, named after the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who implemented it when Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reaction in the 1980s—is preventive. The same policy guided former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2007, when he decided to attack the nuclear reactor in Syria.
But when it comes to conventional weapons, Israel has launched a pre-emptive war only once: “Operation Kadesh” in 1956, when then-Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan launched a mission to keep Egyptian forces from acquiring the capability to overpower the IDF. The operation was a success and bought Israel 11 years of relative calm, at a difficult time when the country was also busy absorbing massive waves of new immigrants and building its economic and military infrastructure.
“Pre-emptive wars” are considered problematic. They are hard to legitimize, because they are by definition “wars of choice.” In other words, sacrificing thousands of lives may not be necessary when the enemy isn’t pounding at the gates. The country’s citizens, like the international community, have a difficult time supporting wars if there is even the slightest possibility it won’t erupt. Thus, for example, Israel allowed Hezbollah to grow exponentially stronger and acquire the best Syrian, Iranian and even Russian-made missiles—and deploy them.
Israel spoke in extremely lofty terms following its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, but hasn’t done anything to stop Hezbollah’s armament in Lebanon. Only in the chaos of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, did Israel decide to use force to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah from Syria and Iran, while its policy of non-intervention in Lebanon persists.
Can this operation, which is currently being carried out strictly from Israeli territory, spark hostilities on the other side of the border?
The answer is a resounding yes, whether intentionally or otherwise. But even if the operation remains on Israel’s side of the fence, it could, if Hezbollah’s assets and dignity continue taking a hit, trigger a violent response.
Although the chances of this happening are presently low, this must be the IDF’s working assumption and its war readiness should be adjusted accordingly. This situation, as stated, raises the question: How far the IDF is willing to go to impair Hezbollah’s capabilities? Secondly, should a pre-emptive strike—say a large operation inside Lebanon—be considered after Hezbollah’s tunnels are successfully neutralized? These questions require considerable thought.
Maj.-Gen. (Ret.) Yaakov Amidror is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.