The operation to eliminate Hezbollah’s terror tunnels, which Israel launched last week, is further testament to the superiority of the Israel Defense Forces in the fields of technology and intelligence-gathering, leaving no stone unturned in Lebanon. It is also a blow to Hezbollah, not only because it was caught off-guard and embarrassed, but mainly because the tunnels were supposed to be the terrorist organization’s “judgement day” weapon that it hoped would help it win the next war.
Similar to the past, victory in the next conflict will first and foremost be a matter of public perception. The side capable of producing victory images and demoralizing the other will be crowned the winner and be able to force a ceasefire under conditions it deems more convenient. Hezbollah had hoped that seizing an IDF outpost or community in a surprise attack by way of the underground tunnels was its ace in the hole. Israel has taken this card away.
Because this conflict is in large part a matter of public perception, it is regretful to note that in this arena, unlike the technological and intelligence arenas, Israel hasn’t been very adept. Instead of projecting power and fortitude and menacing Hezbollah for grossly violating our sovereignty, Israel focused on playing up an image of formidability in the eyes of its own public, thus playing into Hezbollah’s hands. What a shame.
The IDF’s engineering operation is taking place entirely in Israeli territory. One needn’t be an expert to know that Hezbollah, under these conditions, won’t retaliate and will preserve the integrity of the border, as it has since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The media, however, projected concern and dread over a possible Hezbollah response, imbuing the public with a sense of impending war. By doing so, instead of the terrorist organization feeling threatened for violating our sovereignty, it was Israel that became defensive.
It was the IDF that proved its capabilities, while Hezbollah was exposed as a “penetrated” organization that is mostly intimidated and deterred. Instead of the terrorist organization licking its wounds, we gifted it an advantage in the battle for public perception.
Truth be told, Hezbollah is an enemy capable of hitting Israel hard, and it shouldn’t be underestimated. But it’s not for nothing that Hezbollah is wary of Israel, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, hasn’t dared show his face in public for more than a decade.
The organization could still try sending dozens of fighters into Israel to seize control of an army outpost or a few homes. It can also rain a deluge of missiles on Israel. But Israel, if it wants to badly enough, can conquer every last inch of Lebanon. Every child in Lebanon knows this; ergo the fear in Lebanon and inside Hezbollah as well over another war—a fear that most Israelis aren’t aware exists.
This point is important because the challenge vis-à-vis Hezbollah still lies ahead. Not long ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Hezbollah wants to build precision missile factories in the heart of Beirut. He stressed that for Israel, launching construction on these facilities is a clear red line. Regarding the operation to counter Hezbollah’s tunnel threat, however, drilling and digging on the Israeli side of the border won’t suffice interminably, and the need for a broader military campaign, which could spark a regional conflagration unseen since 2006, is clearly necessary.
Ahead of such a conflict—and the hope is that Hezbollah remains deterred, and it doesn’t erupt—the public must be imbued with a sense of invulnerability, alertness and readiness, but not to the point of perpetual panic. This is the secret to quickly and decisively winning the next fight. The moment Hezbollah sees that its efforts to scare the Israeli public into pressuring the government to making concessions have failed, victory will be achieved.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.