analysisIsrael at War

Disarm Hezbollah—a ‘permanent threat to Israel, America, and the West’

Israel ignoring Hezbollah “appears to have been a colossal strategic blunder, the cost of which could even dwarf that of Oct. 7,” says JINSA expert.

Smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike that targeted a house in the Southern Lebanese village of Khiam, June 21, 2024. Photo by Rabih Daher/AFP via Getty Images.
Smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike that targeted a house in the Southern Lebanese village of Khiam, June 21, 2024. Photo by Rabih Daher/AFP via Getty Images.
Israel Kasnett

The drums of war are beating louder on Israel’s border with Lebanon with each passing day, and experts say it’s not a question of if but when Israel goes to war with Hezbollah.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said during his trip to Washington this week that while Israel could send Lebanon “back to the Stone Age,” it prefers diplomacy to lower tensions with the Iran-backed terror army.

With tens of thousands of Israelis having been evacuated from the north for nearly nine months now, and Hezbollah continuing to threaten Israel by launching missiles and drones daily, it is clear that Israel must make a decision soon.

Michael Makovsky, CEO of the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), told JNS that Israel will first have to decide if it’s had enough, and will then need to use ground forces to clear out southern Lebanon up to the Litani River. 

He said another scenario could unfold in which Hezbollah stops attacking Israel if the fighting in Gaza subsides, but that seems unlikely at the moment. Meanwhile, Makosky noted, Israel continues to pressure Hezbollah hard, destroying a lot of Hezbollah infrastructure near the border. 

In a recent Tablet magazine article, Makovsky wrote that Israel was mistaken in recent years in “mostly focusing on limiting the growth of Hezbollah’s capabilities through a decade-long campaign in Syria.”

Allowing the Hezbollah threat to “metastasize” over the past two decades “appears to have been a colossal strategic blunder, the cost of which could even dwarf that of Oct. 7,” he continued.

He also wrote recently in The Hill that there are two reasons Israel must act decisively now.

The first is that “Israel must ensure its citizens return to their northern homes, both out of obligation and because their displacement undermines the founding promise of the Jewish state: that Jews will be safe to live anywhere within its borders.”

The second reason is that Iran is quickly developing its nuclear program and Israel will be unable to defeat Hezbollah once it moves under an Iranian nuclear umbrella.  

At the same time, Makovsky noted that Israel “also has good reasons to wait before escalating against Hezbollah. Not least of these is the urgency of finishing the fight in Gaza and freeing the remaining 116 Israeli hostages.”

(Hamas is currently holding 120 hostages in Gaza, four of whom were taken captive prior to Oct. 7.)

The problem with UNSC 1701 and UNIFIL

The 2006 Second Lebanon War ended with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which expanded the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and required Hezbollah to withdraw north of the Litani River.

According to Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a research fellow at the non-partisan Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “While 1701 did achieve calm and quiet for some time and bought Israel some 15 years of quiet on the border with Lebanon, it has since 2020 become irrelevant.”

“The main problem with 1701 is that it is unverifiable,” he said. “Hezbollah fighters move around in civilian clothing, meshing with noncombatants, which makes verifying their withdrawal north of the Litani impossible,” he explained.

“At best,” he said, “Israel could hope to make sure that arms depots, especially rockets and anti-tank missiles, stay north of the Litani, and this would need both Israel destroying these caches and giving UNIFIL enough teeth to enforce the new reality, moving forward.”

Abdul-Hussain explained that UNIFIL’s problem is its mandate.

When UNIFIL was expanded under 1701 in 2006, “the idea was that this army-size force would be able to rein in Hezbollah and ensure the disarmament of Lebanese territory south of the Litani, with the Lebanese military being the only other armed force.”

“The problem,” he said, “was that 1701 was endorsed under Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter [as opposed to mandatory Chapter VII which overrides local government sovereignty], meaning 1701 does not override Lebanese sovereignty but is implemented with the approval and cooperation of the Lebanese government.”

According to Abdul-Hussain, UNIFIL’s operation was thus made incumbent on getting clearance from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which is infiltrated and dominated by Hezbollah. 

He noted that Israel did provide UNIFIL with intel on Hezbollah’s arms depots south of the Litani, but UNIFIL could not act without informing the LAF first, which leaked the info to Hezbollah, which then moved the arms before UNIFIL arrived. 

When Hezbollah couldn’t move its arms fast enough, it sent “locals” to prevent UNIFIL from reaching the area. 

UNIFIL was powerless.

“Israel has tried to amend UNIFIL’s mandate, and there have been amendments, but thanks to the French, which almost always take Hezbollah’s side, no serious changes to the UNIFIL mission have been approved at the U.N. annual renewal,” he said.

Makovsky agreed, noting that UNIFIL has been problematic for Israel for years and nothing will change on that front.

According to Makovsky “UNSCR 1701—and the accompanying U.S. policy of strengthening Lebanese state institutions—became a fig leaf for Iran to boost Hezbollah’s rocket and missile capability on Israel’s border.”

This still leaves Israel with a lack of options in terms of disarming Hezbollah and enabling the residents of Israel’s north to return home.

Abdul-Hussain told JNS he believes ideally America would “seek a comprehensive settlement between Lebanon and Israel.”

He said if the dispute over the 13 land border points is resolved, “America can try to convince the Lebanese to help them out with their deep economic troubles and help better arm LAF, in return for Hezbollah surrendering its arms.”

Disarming Hezbollah “should remain at the heart of the debate and the solution,” he said.

The maritime border was demarcated in an agreement brokered by the Biden administration’s envoy Amos Hochstein in 2022.

“Unfortunately,” Abdul-Hussain continued, “America doesn’t see Lebanon as a problem independent of Iran, and because the Biden administration wants to make nice with Tehran, it tiptoes around the main problem: Hezbollah’s illegal militia.” 

Washington’s policy on Lebanon since 2008 has been one of crisis management, he added.

What this means is that Israel “cannot hope for a comprehensive solution with Lebanon and must muddle through,” and that Israel “must engage Hezbollah in a devastating war every decade to buy itself another decade of quiet,” he said.

Another aspect of the problem with Lebanon is that the United States and France are not doing enough to pressure Lebanon, Iran, or even Hezbollah to back down.

According to Abdul-Hussain, the United States is managing the crisis and France has interests in Iran, which plays out in Lebanon.

When the United States removed sanctions on Iran under former U.S. President Barack Obama, “France got two mega deals: A $25 billion deal between Iran and Airbus and a $5 billion for French Total to develop the Pars 11 energy field in the south,” he noted.

For this reason, he said, “France hopes to curry favor with Iran by playing nice with Hezbollah, hoping that if sanctions are removed one day, these deals would be reactivated.”

“The losers here are the Lebanese,” he noted.

 Both Abdul-Hussain and Makosky agree that Israel must take action to disarm Hezbollah.

According to Abdul-Hussain, “pretending that Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas would moderate if we integrated them into the world order or the world of finance and business is a myth that should be laid to rest, forever.”

It is important to understand that “these are permanent threats, to Israel, America and the West at large, and that we must have a long-term strategy for comprehensive solutions, including helping Iranians eject their regime and replace it and helping the Lebanese in their quest to disarm Hezbollah,” he said.

While he said these ideas seem “farfetched,” he suggested that “with time, effort, patience and perseverance, we can get there.”

“We should not expect immediate results,” he said. “These foreign policy issues require long-term bipartisan thinking and cannot be pegged to our own American short-attention-span, pegged to elections and the news cycle.”

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