Has Israel considered a loss to Hezbollah?

Ali Rizk, The Cradle, June 11, 2024 — 

Increasingly sophisticated Hezbollah operations against qualitative Israeli targets have Tel Aviv flapping about a ‘war on Lebanon.’ But whichever way one examines the equation – manpower, capabilities, defenses, alliances – the Israeli state seems ill-prepared for this fight.

As the war in Gaza lags on, cross-border exchanges on the Lebanese–Israeli front have intensified. Fighting between Hezbollah and the Israeli military has taken a heavy toll on both sides. The Lebanese resistance movement has lost over 300 fighters, with Israeli shelling resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of Lebanese residents of the country’s southern villages. 

Israel has not fared much better, with at least sixty thousand northern settlers forced to flee their homes. While the occupation army has confirmed the death of around a dozen of its soldiers in the exchanges with Hezbollah, the real number is estimated to be much higher. 

In March, The Cradle gained intel that over 230 Israeli troops had been killed in combat since 8 October 2023.

The rising threat of a large-scale war

While the northern conflict currently remains within the boundaries of ‘controlled escalation,’ the prospects of a full-blown war between Hezbollah and Israel may be steadily increasing. Far-right members of the Israeli government, who are key to keeping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition intact, have become noticeably more vocal in supporting escalation on the Lebanese front.  

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has called for launching an attack on Beirut, describing it as “the capital of terrorism.” Given these stances, it cannot be entirely dismissed that Netanyahu may opt to escalate against Lebanon. 

Indeed, recent statements by the Israeli prime minister suggest that some form of wider escalation on the northern front may be in the making.  

Speaking during a visit to the headquarters of the Israeli military’s Northern Command, Netanyahu referred to “surprising plans” being devised to deal with Hezbollah, aiming to “restore security to the north and to restore residents safely to their homes” without going into further detail. 

Amid these developments, the Israeli military recently completed a drill that simulated a ground incursion into Lebanon. 

A large-scale Israeli offensive on Lebanon in the near future would also be consistent with earlier assessments made by US officials, who, in late February, predicted a possible ground incursion into Lebanon by the late spring or early summer.

Hezbollah’s increasing capabilities

Hezbollah’s challenge to Israel appears to be on the rise, reflecting a failure of Tel Aviv’s current strategy of relying on precision surgical strikes. According to the Israeli institute Alma, which monitors developments on the Lebanese–Israeli front, 325 cross-border attacks were carried out by Hezbollah in May, the highest number of monthly attacks on this front since 7 October.

The resistance movement’s operations have also become more sophisticated, revealing capabilities it has introduced for the first time. Hezbollah managed to destroy an advanced surveillance balloon used to detect incoming attacks in an operation conducted via a kamikaze drone.

It has also upgraded its drone capabilities, recently launching a twin-kamikaze drone attack on the northern town of Hurfeish and conducting its first-ever air raid through an armed UAV equipped with S5 rockets. The operation targeted Israeli soldiers in the settlement of Metula and was the first time in which an Arab force had launched an airstrike on Israel.

Most recently, Hezbollah released footage on 6 June showing a guided missile attack on an Iron Dome platform in Israel’s Ramot Naftali barracks in the Galilee.

What to expect in a full-scale war

The increased sophistication of Hezbollah’s operations can also be seen as fueling Tel Aviv’s urgency to take decisive action against the resistance group. This was expressed by former Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, who described the Lebanese front as the most significant and pressing operative front in the current conflict, warning that the “moment of truth” was now close. 

However, what the Lebanese movement has demonstrated since 7 October also serves as a warning of what awaits the occupation state if an all-out war were to erupt. 

The Israeli military is expected to employ methods similar to 2006 in that it would carry out destructive air raids on ‘Hezbollah strongholds’ in southern Lebanon, Beirut, and the Bekaa region. 

Speaking to The Cradle, retired Lebanese Brigadier General Elias Farhat explains: 

There is no such thing as a limited full-scale war. A full-scale war will have to include all of Hezbollah’s strongholds.

However, any Israeli onslaught on par or exceeding what happened in 2006 is almost certainly going to be met, this time, with a much harsher response from Hezbollah.

The Lebanese movement has amassed a far larger rocket and missile arsenal, with estimates pointing to over 150,000 of these weapons now in its possession. Given this military build-up, Hezbollah is widely recognized today as the world’s heaviest armed non-state actor. 

Perhaps even more importantly, its arsenal includes precision missiles such as the Fateh 110, enabling it to aim at strategic Israeli installations that could cause immense damage. Against this backdrop, Israeli experts have warned of a MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) scenario in the event of a full-scale war with Hezbollah.   

It is also possible the Lebanese movement possesses military capabilities that could undermine Israel’s air power advantage. The group has already demonstrated its air defense capability against Israeli drones, having succeeded in shooting down several ‘Hermes’ UAVs in the current round of hostilities.

The bigger danger to Israel, however, would be Hezbollah’s possession of air defenses capable of shooting down not only drones but Israeli warplanes. Given the strengthening of military ties between Russia and Iran, the possibility of Hezbollah accessing Moscow’s enhanced anti-aircraft technology is increased. 

The resistance movement has already announced that it launched surface-to-air missiles at Israeli warplanes that had broken the sound barrier and had hence forced the aircraft to retreat.

This marks the first development of its kind in the history of warfare between Hezbollah and Israel and could merely be a warning shot for what could transpire in the event of an all-out war.

That Hezbollah would unveil such weapons in a full-scale conflict is consistent with its strategy of saving its best for such confrontations. In 2006, it surprised the Israeli military by striking a warship in a missile attack.   

Israel would also likely face superior offensive ground operations in a full-scale war with Hezbollah. The Lebanese movement gained valuable experience in such operations while fighting extremist groups in Syria.

As Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute recounts to The Cradle:

“The combination of Hezbollah ground fighters and Russian air and signals intelligence dominance was the ‘A-Team’ on behalf of the Assad [government] in the Syrian war.”

Given this experience and its ability to launch airstrikes via UAVs, Hezbollah likely retains the capacity to launch offensive infantry operations – importantly, with air cover.

Manpower and tactical advantages

Hezbollah will also likely enjoy an advantage in terms of reliable, tested, and highly motivated manpower. Due to its close ties with allied resistance factions in Iraq and Yemen, fighters from these countries are likely to come to Hezbollah’s aid in a full-scale conflict with Israel. 

The Lebanese movement’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah alluded to this factor in a 2017 speech. Israel, by contrast, appears to be suffering from a shortage of manpower in its military ranks, not to mention tanking troop and commander morale, highlighted on Sunday by yet another high-level military resignation, this time Gaza Division Commander Brigadier-General Avi Rosenfeld. 

Israeli defenses are also unlikely to succeed when facing large barrages of Hezbollah missiles and drones. Unlike Iran’s retaliatory attack on 13 April, where the US and allies shot down a large fraction of the incoming drones and missiles, similar-style attacks launched by Hezbollah would be far more difficult to deal with.

The closer geographical distance means much less time to intercept and shoot down such attacks. Hezbollah, which relies heavily on the element of surprise in its military tactics, will also certainly not telegraph its attacks beforehand as Iran did. As a result, Israel would likely remain exposed to immense attacks through surface-to-surface missiles, kamikaze drones, and airstrikes via UAVs.

Moreover, the Lebanese resistance has spent many months tirelessly disabling Israel’s “eyes and ears” in the north, reportedly destroying over 1,650 pieces of intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition (ISR) equipment since the conflict’s onset.

Israel is increasingly operating blindly in that vital northern theater, allowing Hezbollah to repeatedly and successfully strike at qualitative targets, penetrate more deeply into the occupation state, and employ more advanced weaponry.

The US response

While it is likely that the US will rush to defend its Israeli ally, the bigger question is how far it is willing to go. As indicated above, defensive measures are unlikely to significantly undermine the severity of Hezbollah’s cross-border missile and drone operations. 

Judging from its approach following the Iranian attack on Israel, Washington is unlikely to go beyond defensive support. Following Operation True Promise, the White House reportedly informed Tel Aviv that it would have no part in any offensive action against Tehran, effectively leaving its Israeli ally with little choice but to settle for a far less proportionate response to Iran’s significant military operation. 

Given how that situation unfolded, it would be a risky gamble for Israel to pin its hopes on its US security guarantor assuming an offensive role in a major war with Hezbollah. Tensions are also rising between the US and rival superpowers, reinforcing this dynamic. 

Speaking to The Cradle, Steven Simon, Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa in the US National Security Council during the Obama administration, emphasizes that “a direct combat role beyond air defenses (in a full-scale war between Hezbollah and Israel) is highly unlikely.” This is especially the case, he adds, “given tensions with Russia and China.”

Nawaf al-Musawi, Hezbollah’s Resource and Border Affairs official and one of the movement’s strategic thinkers, offers this prediction:

The Israeli occupation needs weapons from Washington for any war it wishes to wage against Lebanon. After any war with Lebanon, the region will not be the same as it was before. The next war with Israel will be the final war.

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