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Is an Israel-Lebanon War Going to Happen: How Did We Get There?

08 Jul 2024
By Professor Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann and Andrew Fox
Israel Lebanon Border, Hebrew signs say

War between Israel and Lebanon may be inevitable. What might Western support for Israel look like and how might Israel mitigate Hezbollah’s strengths and the threats of regional escalation?

Military and news commentators seem to be certain that it is not a question of if but when Israel will launch a full scale offensive in the north against the terrorist organisation of Hezbollah.

In the past couple of days, we have seen a deluge of reports that an Israeli attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon is imminent. Hezbollah has been escalating assaults on Israel; since the Hamas atrocities of 7 October more than 6,000 rockets have been fired at Northern Israel from Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. More than 60,000 Israelis remain displaced from their homes. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have incurred 18 fatalities, and 7 Israeli citizens have died. Potential IDF ground incursions into Lebanon itself bring with them the fear of regional escalation.

How did we get here? As ever with the Middle East, it is convoluted and complex, and this article will be limited to the most recent developments.

After Israel’s victory in the 1948 war, Lebanon became home to 110,000 displaced Arabs who had previously lived in the Palestinian Mandate. From 1975, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were able to create a “state within a state” within Lebanon itself, radicalising the 400,000 Arab refugees then living there. Following a brief IDF operation in March 1978, the PLO were forced to withdraw from Southern Lebanon and later forced to evacuate to Tripoli. The ensuing Lebanese Civil War continued in a variety of forms between 1975 and 1990. The UN estimates 150,000 people were killed.

Following Israel’s gradual withdrawal from Lebanon, the emerging security vacuum was filled by Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia group closely aligned with Iran and formed to fight Israel in the 1982 war. Between 1982 and 1985, Hezbollah unified a variety of Shia insurgent groups into one Lebanese terror organisation. In addition, they have participated in Lebanese politics since 1992 and remain a powerful political actor within Lebanon itself.

Militarily, they have employed traditional terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings, hijackings, assassinations, and hostage-taking. In 1995, the US designated them a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah, as a hybrid threat actor, operates a global criminal network with hubs in Latin America and Africa. In 2022, Europol reported their suspicions that Hezbollah was facilitating the flow of illegal narcotics, money-laundering, and firearms into EU countries.

In 2006, a complex, cross-border attack on IDF forces in Northern Israel prompted the Second Lebanon War. Israel retaliated with air strikes and artillery, a ground invasion, and a blockade. Israel was not able to destroy Hezbollah nor weaken its reach into the fabric of Lebanon. After this, UN Security Council 1701 mandated both Israeli and Hezbollah to withdraw from Southern Lebanon.

This war was a failure to defeat Hezbollah and fully secure Israel’s northern border, a failure emphasised by the attacks since 7 October. Hezbollah is in partnership with their fellow Iranian proxy in Yemen, the Houthis, who have sparked a civil war in Yemen, which has led to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people through war and famine. They have fought in the Syrian civil war on the side of Basher Al Assad, as well as facilitated the flow of Iranian arms to his forces. The death toll in this latter conflict sits at over 600,000 people.

All of which brings us to the situation today.

Hezbollah are believed to have amassed an arsenal of 150,000 rockets in Southern Lebanon, all capable of striking within Israel itself with the potential to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defence. IDF troops have faced daily missile and suicide drone attacks. Additionally, Hezbollah has built a tunnel network that puts Hamas’ in Gaza to shame and has tried and tested ground fighting capabilities.

This presents a danger to Israel if they retaliate with a ground invasion against Hezbollah’s aggression. The 2006 war highlighted the multidomain and hybrid warfighting capabilities of Hezbollah, which allowed it to fight a rather successful campaign. US military analyst Frank G. Hoffman defined Hezbollah’s warfighting as Hybrid Warfare,” being “able to  incorporate a full range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder.

There is a wider risk of regional escalation, too. Iran now has proxies not only in Yemen and Lebanon, but also in Iraq, where Iranian-backed militias comprise a force equal in size to the Iraqi Army. Following an attack on Hezbollah, Yemen could attempt to increase their blockade of Israel. Iraqi militias could attack not only Israel itself but also Western forces in the region (as they have already done).

What can Israel do? Hezbollah must be defeated and deterred. As with Gaza, Israel is backed into a strategic corner where they are forced to take action, possibly to their detriment. However, there are options to mitigate some of these threats when degrading Hezbollah’s capabilities.

Firstly, let us examine the wider strategic picture. All these attacks on Israel are interlinked. The Iranian regime aims to ratchet up international pressure on Israel. They have provoked the military reaction they sought after 7 October, and have used the resulting violence and damage, and humanitarian crisis, to draw unprecedented international criticism of Israel.

Hezbollah exploited the 7 October attacks to escalate their attacks on Israel, knowing that IDF ground forces were occupied elsewhere. The Iranian regime has tried to stop international shipping using the Houthis, and have attacked American forces in Iraq through their militias. This is all to degrade US influence in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia’s, with the eventual aim of destroying Israel and establishing total Iranian Islamic regime dominance within the region. Therefore, it is very much in the US and the West’s interests to facilitate Israeli victory.

So, what might Western support look like and how might Israel mitigate Hezbollah’s strengths and the threats of regional escalation? Firstly, nothing should happen without a US carrier group in the Mediterranean. This will be essential for interdiction of attempted Houthi and Hezbollah blockades of Israel.

Secondly, international pressure should be strengthened against Iran. President Joe Biden will need to admit that former President Barack Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal cancelled by Donald Trump and re-instituted by him, has been a disaster that has emboldened Iran from an international diplomacy perspective and that the easing of sanctions allowed it to increase its funding of Hezbollah and other proxies. The threat of its “snapback” (ie to pre-deal UN sanctions) must be leveraged to force Iran to back its proxies down.

Thirdly, Israel’s targeting must focus on Hezbollah missile capability. The 150,000 missiles are not the priority: their launchers are. This will require a massive aerial bombardment that will cause significant destruction (despite all civil casualty mitigation attempts) and will inevitably draw further international condemnation of Israel. She and her allies must be prepared for this and have a counter-narrative in the cognitive warfare domain firmly in place before any assault occurs.

Fourthly, Hezbollah’s command and control nodes must be targeted. Israel has been doing this with success since 7 October, but will need to continue.

Fifthly, Israel must have a clear plan for the aftermath. It has been the gaping flaw in their Gaza policy. They need to know how the Third Lebanon War ends: it needs to end with the defeat of Hezbollah, unlike in 2006.

The Third Lebanon War must be not only surgical and precise, and with a clearly defined vision of victory, but also supported by an international information campaign of support.

Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann is Professor in Law and Co-Convener National Security Hub (University of Canberra), University of Canberra, and a Research Fellow with the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa, Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University.

Andrew Fox is a former Parachute Regiment officer with three combat tours in Afghanistan and a former Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He is now a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.