Since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, the enormity of Israel’s bungling has become increasingly clear. A new after-action review has just been released, this one by Amir Kulick of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
The piece analyzes Hizballah’s military strategy, which “rested on the assumption that Israeli society was weak and incapable of absorbing a large number of casualties…. Hizballah believed that undermining Israel’s resilience would perforce lead to an end to the fighting on terms favorable to the organization.” Of Hizballah’s efficacy in battle, the report states: “the operational logic that directed Hizballah proved militarily correct.” The author has interesting things to say about Hizballah’s rebuilding effort since the end of the war, how UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army affect its freedom of movement, how the war changed its relationship with Syria and Iran, and what the next conflict might look like.
It is a nicely-done and informative analysis, but I’d like to add two points: First, the report misses one of the central, and most successful, pillars of Hizballah’s strategy, which was to use civilian casualties in Lebanon and the sensational media images resulting from them as a means of undermining the Israeli war effort. And second, Israeli strategists must think about a rather unconventional way to respond to Hizballah in the next outbreak of hostilities, which is to bypass fighting in Lebanon and go directly to Hizballah’s local source of weaponry, money, and support: Syria.
Regarding my first point, about Hizballah’s strategy: its rocket fire sought to accomplish more than just the bombardment of the northern third of Israel. The fire reliably provoked Israeli return fire, which, tactically speaking, allowed Hizballah to call down Israeli munitions on its preferred targets in Lebanon. Consider the places from which Hizballah fired many of its rockets: neighborhoods, apartment buildings, anywhere civilians could be found. The rocket fire was thus intended to have two effects for Hizballah, the first and obvious being the placement of a large part of Israel under Hizballah’s missile umbrella, and the second and less obvious—but ultimately more important—being the moral delegitimization of the Israeli war effort. We see Hamas today employing the exact same tactic in Gaza, where Palestinian children are sent on suicide missions to retrieve rocket launchers after they’ve fired their payloads toward Israel. For Hamas, the tactic is a win-win—they either get their launchers back, or the children are killed by Israeli return fire and Hamas enjoys the moral absolution that derives from international condemnation of Israeli self-defense. Cynical, but very smart.
For Hizballah, this tactic worked better than the limited success Hamas has had with it in Gaza. The war in 2006 was not so much a vindication of the weakness of the Israeli home front as it was a demonstration of Israel’s inability to wage war in contravention of the wishes of the “international community,” primarily the United States and the UN. As soon as pictures of Lebanese children killed in Israeli air strikes began appearing on the front pages of newspapers around the world, Hizballah had set in motion an end to the conflict on terms largely favorable to it.
Israel’s benighted pursuit of an air campaign to the almost total exclusion of a sustained ground effort contributed to the civilian-casualties calamity—but is it really plausible that a large-scale ground war would have spared civilian lives? Not likely. Israel simply has no good options in fighting a group that intentionally operates from among a sympathetic civilian population and that intentionally tries to get its own civilians “martyred” by the IDF.
This leads back to my second point. The INSS report says correctly that Syria and Iran “are Hizballah’s financial, logistical, and military lifeline.” By fighting in southern Lebanon, Israel plays directly into Syria and Iran’s hands, allowing them to remain isolated from the fighting, and enables their support for Hizballah to be largely cost-free. But terrorism—especially Hizballah’s—has a return address. As far as Israel is concerned, that address is Damascus.
The next time around, Israel should refuse to fight Syria and Iran’s war. It should bypass Lebanon and go straight to the source. Hizballah exists largely as a means for Syria and Iran to wage war against Israel without having actually to fight Israel, and Israel has continuously reinforced the wisdom of this strategy by refusing to include Syrian targets in its war plans. I do not expect that in the next conflict we will see Bashar Assad’s palaces in ruins, but it is an interesting thought to entertain.