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The Next Hezbollah-Israeli War

Updated: Sep 17, 2018

Research Paper by Seth Francis


In recent months tensions have escalated between Israel, Lebanon and the Axis of Resistance (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and various terrorist and insurgent groups Iran supports across the Middle East). Issues have ranged from an Israeli-proposed wall along the Israeli-Lebanese border; to Lebanese oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea; to the possibility that Hezbollah and Iran have resumed building missile factories in southern Lebanon. Various scholars and government officials state that it is a matter of when and not if there will be another Hezbollah-Israeli War. In February, United States Senator Lindsey Graham said, “southern Lebanon is where the next war is coming.” In this imminent conflict, it is crucial for the Israeli Government to learn from its failures during the 2006 War and Israel’s intervention in the Lebanese Civil War, in order to eliminate Hezbollah and the terrorist safe haven that has long plagued southern Lebanon.


Following Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in June of 1982, Israel failed to understand Lebanese demographics, overstayed its mission, and failed to eliminate Hezbollah following its creation in the winter of 1982. Leading up to the Lebanese Civil War, southern Lebanon had been overrun by Palestinian terrorist organizations, most notably the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), following Jordan’s crack-down during Black September. As a result of a weak central government in Beirut, the PLO and other Palestinian terrorist groups acted with impunity in southern Lebanon and used Lebanon as a base to carry out numerous terrorist acts against Israel. By 1982, when Israel invaded Southern Lebanon, for a second time, to rid the country of the PLO, the local Shia community initially welcomed Israel’s intervention because of the Palestinian militants’ cruelty and creation of a state within a state in the region. Israel overstayed its welcome by trying to reshape Lebanese politics, trying to install a pro-Israeli government that would agree to a peace treaty similar to the one passed a few years earlier with Egypt, and its support of the Phalangist militia and the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA). With former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak stating: “When we entered Lebanon… there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.” In the lead up to the 1982 invasion, the Israeli government failed to understand the Shia community in Lebanon and the demographic shifts that had been occurring within Lebanon in the decades leading up to the civil war. Instead Israel focused on the Palestinian problem and Maronite population in Lebanon, with Augustus Richard Norton stating:


“The invasion gave Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli defense minister, carte blanche to pursue his own dream of destroying the PLO as a political force in the region and putting in place a pliant government in Beirut that would become the second Arab state, after Egypt, to enter into a formal peace agreement with Israel… within the Israeli government at the time- as within the American foreign policy establishment- there was little understanding of the developments under way among the Shi’i Muslims of Lebanon and no analysis was made of the impact of this invasion on them.”


Israel’s prolonged involvement in the Lebanese Civil War brought to the forefront the growing politicization of the Shia community in Lebanon and the importance of understanding Lebanese demographics––including how it has changed since the country was formed as a French Mandate following the First World War (WWI). Lebanon is one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East, with eighteen recognized sects and operating under a confessional government. A confessional government allocates its positions along sectarian lines, ethnically or religiously, and positions throughout the government are divided proportional to that sect’s size within the country. Lebanon’s government is divided along religious lines that date back to Mount Lebanon following the 1860 Civil War between the Druze and Maronite. France envisioned Lebanon to be a Maronite state that combined Mount Lebanon––which was 80 percent Christian, with 55 percent of the Christian population being Maronite––with numerous smaller states, including Tripoli, Beqaa, Beirut, and Sidon, which drastically reduced the proportion of the Christian population by increasing the Muslim population. In the new Lebanese state, the Christian population dropped to 55 percent of the total population and the Maronite Committee went from 58 percent to 33 percent, with no community making up an overwhelming portion of the population. Additionally, the various sects all had different ideas of what it meant to be Lebanese, from the Maronite community who saw Lebanon as an extension of the former Phoenician empire, to various members of the Sunni, Greek Catholic and Orthodox communities, who thought Lebanon should be both a part of Syria and an Arab state. Under the French Mandate and later continued under the National Pact following Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the three largest sects within Lebanon have been the Maronite, Sunni, and Shia sects. In the executive branch the Maronites were given the Presidency, the most powerful position under the 1926 constitution and the National Pact, and the Sunnis were given the Prime Minister position; while not as influential as the Presidency, the Prime Minister did gain additional powers following the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990. The Shia were excluded from the executive branch and allotted the Speaker of the House in the Lebanese Parliament, with considerably less power and authority.


Additionally, from the French Mandate until the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, the Christian sects held a majority of seats in Lebanese Parliament at a ratio of 6:5, though, following the civil war, parliament was split evenly between the Muslim and Christian sects. The government's allocation of positions was based on the 1932 Lebanese census, showing Muslim populations growing at a faster pace than the Christian sects in comparison to the two previous censuses, and with many scholars stating that the 1932 census was altered by the French government in favor of the Maronite community. Despite the Shia’s growing portion of the population, little attention was given to them. Though the Maronite and various Christian sects made up a small majority of the Lebanese population in the country’s early years, by the end of the 1960s the Muslim sects made up a majority of the population. Current estimates put the Shia community as the largest sect in Lebanon, making up about 30 percent of the population, though some estimates put the population as high as 40 percent. The Sunnis making up an estimated 28 percent, including the Alawite and Druze, the Muslim population makes up more than 60 percent of Lebanon’s population. Augustus Richard Norton found that in the decades leading up to the civil war in 1975, the fertility rate among Shia households outpaced Sunni and Maronite households, with the average Shia family being nine people and Sunni Households close behind averaging eight people, while the average Maronite household was six people.


By the beginning of the 1960s, the Shia Community began to become more politically active in Lebanon and increasingly vocal about being unsatisfied with the status quo. The politicization of the Shia of Lebanon began prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, though the Islamic Republic of Iran did play a significant role in years to come, helping Hezbollah grow. Historically, the political needs of the Shia of Lebanon had been controlled by a few political bosses known as Zuama, whose families controlled Shia political life dating back to the Ottoman empire’s control of the region. At the beginning of the 1960s, new political figures started to emerge. Most notable was Imam Musa al-Sadr, who would later form the Amal Party (currently the second biggest Shia political party in Lebanon after Hezbollah) and begin to break the Shia’s reliance on the Zuama.


Imam Musa al-Sadr was extremely popular within the Shia community for bringing to national attention many of the socio-economic problems the community was facing. Leading up to the Civil War in 1975, the Shia community was the poorest of the seventeen recognized sects with the average Shia household annual income of 4,532 Lebanese Pounds, compared to the national average of 6,247 Lebanese Pounds, and with the biggest portion of the nation making less than 1,500 Lebanese Pounds per year. These economic problems were compounded by the changing Lebanese economy, where the Shia primarily relied on agricultural jobs. Between 1960 and 1980, Lebanon saw a wave of urbanization and high demand for “urban-centered service sector” jobs. The situation was made worse for the Shia as a result of the outbreak of the civil war and stagnation on the prices of traditional Lebanese crops, such as tobacco. The economic shifts that were occurring also put the Shia at a disadvantage because they were also the least educated sect within Lebanon. Only six percent of the Shia community had a secondary education or higher in 1971, and the Lebanese government invested little in predominantly Shia areas, especially southern Lebanon, with substantially fewer services, from public education to medical care.


As Israel remained in Lebanon, public support for its role in Lebanon dropped and the Israeli Government grew increasingly sensitive to Israeli Defense Force (IDF) casualties, especially as Hezbollah became more militarily competent. By 1985, Israel realized that it would not be able to create a pro-Israel government in Beirut, facing backlash from numerous mishaps and the increasing number of IDF soldiers killed. Though Israel wanted to withdraw from Lebanon, the Lebanese central government and military was too weak and too focused on the civil war. Additionally, Israel did not trust the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to ensure the security of southern Lebanon and prevent it from becoming a safe haven for Palestinian groups again. As a result, Israel decided to set up a ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon that was about ten percent of Lebanon. The security zone would be controlled by the IDF and the SLA, but the SLA controlled forty-two of the fifty bases within the zone. Though Israel’s reliance on the SLA was popular politically, it was not supported within Israel’s intelligence communities, because they advised the government that the SLA could only maintain the security zone with significant Israeli and IDF support. The security zone worked at first as it reduced the number of cross border raids, though in the long term, scholars, including Daniel Byman, have cited that the security zone “bolstered Hezbollah,” especially in terms of propaganda.


In the years following Israel’s creation of the security zone in southern Lebanon and growing reliance on the SLA, Hezbollah continued to grow militarily, with Hezbollah conducting roughly 5,000 attacks against the SLA and IDF between 1995 and 2000 alone. By 1999 with a growing number of attacks and casualties, Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister and made a key promise to end Israel’s involvement in Lebanon. Ideally, Israel would have to withdraw from Lebanon as part of a bilateral agreement with Syria, with the latter also withdrawing. Though Israel and Syrian peace talks failed in 2000, Israel hoped its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon would lead to Hezbollah disarming, because the group’s armed wing would lose its main modus operandi of resisting Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah still claims Israel is occupying Lebanon in an area of the Golan Heights called Shebaa Farms.


The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War showed the world that Hezbollah had developed its “military wing” significantly over the previous six years and was able to fight the strongest military in the Middle East in a war that lasted over a month. Hezbollah provoked the war with Israel on July 12th, 2006, when they sent a small group of fighters into Israel to ambush an IDF patrol along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Additionally, Hezbollah not only further built up its more conventional infantry units but also built an elaborate rocket system throughout southern Lebanon. Hezbollah showed the world it had upgraded its weapons capabilities in just six years. In addition to the short and medium range missiles Hezbollah consistently fired into Israel, it had also obtained advance anti-tank weapons and were trained on how to conduct anti-tank warfare. In the years following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah developed an advance tunnel system across southern Lebanon that was able to sustain significant Israeli bombardment. According to an intelligence officer, Hezbollah received significant assistance from North Korea in building its underground tunnels and bunkers, and building fake bunkers to confuse Israeli Imagery intelligence.


The Israeli Defense Forces had also changed considerably since the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, leaving them unprepared for Hezbollah’s military capabilities. Multiple scholars, including Matt Matthew, have talked about how the IDF had been unprepared to fight a more conventional war at the outbreak of the Hezbollah-Israeli War in 2006. In the years following Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the IDF had primarily focused on the Second Intifada and counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories. Due to this, members of the IDF’s tank battalions often had little use for such vehicles in the conflict; they were tasked with patrolling the Palestinian territories and received little additional training or experience in this time period. Furthermore, the Israeli government made decreases to the amount of money allocated to the IDF that especially affected their reserve units.


The Israeli Military also created and introduced a new doctrine to use in future wars, just two months prior to the start of the war. These doctrines relied heavily on the idea that the military would have to use little-to-no ground forces and would be able to neutralize the enemy primarily through the Israeli Air Force. Israel’s new approach to future wars culminated in the Systemic Operational Design (SOD). One of its creators, General Shimon Naveh, stated that the new doctrine and its vocabulary primarily relied on “post-modern French philosophy, literary theory, architecture, and psychology.” Additionally, it has been argued that most officers did not fully understand the doctrine, with General Naveh stating, “[it]was not for ordinary mortals.”


In response to Hezbollah ambushing, killing and kidnapping of IDF soldiers, the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, decided to conduct primarily an air war, targeting Hezbollah. A key assumption made in relying on the Israeli Air Force was the hope that while the Lebanese Government and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were not capable of disarming Hezbollah, the blowback from the war would lead its base to stop supporting them. Despite the heavy bombardment Hezbollah and Lebanon faced, Hezbollah was able to maintain a constant attack on Israel through its missiles and forced a rushed military invasion of southern Lebanon. Israel’s inability to eliminate the threat to northern Israel from Hezbollah’s use of short range missiles during the 2006 war was a major failure on the part of the Israeli government. Hezbollah was able to successfully fire rockets as far south as Afula, which is 31 miles south of the Lebanese border, and many assess that Hezbollah’s missile and rocket capabilities have only improved over the past twelve years.


Following the end of the War in August 2006, there was no clear winner and loser with both sides claiming they won. On the one hand, Israel failed to force Hezbollah to disarm and despite UN resolutions. But on the other hand, Hezbollah did face significant backlash domestically from members of the March 14 Coalition for bringing Lebanon into a war with Israel. Additionally, the pressure from the March 14 Coalition has only grown since 2006, with Hezbollah’s role in the 2008 takeover of Beirut and Hezbollah’s role in Syria over the past six years.


In any future conflict between Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Israel, it will be critical for Israel to understand that they cannot simply achieve peace with Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah strictly through a military campaign. Hezbollah has been able to thrive in areas such as southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley, because they have instilled a normative system of competitive control. David Kilcullen defines the theory of competitive control as:


“In irregular conflicts (that is, in conflicts where at least one combatant is a non-state armed group), the local armed actor that a given population perceives as best able to establish a predictable, consistent, wide-spectrum normative system of control is likely to dominate that population and its residential area.”


The “wide-spectrum of control” is made up of three parts. One end of the spectrum is the “persuasive end.” This end of the spectrum includes propaganda and political ideological mobilization. At the other end of the spectrum is the “coercive end”, which includes violence and expropriation. In the center of the spectrum is the use of “administrative tools,” which include social and economic assistance to its “constituents.” As David Kilcullen notes, groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS’s predecessor) have failed because they only relied on one side of the spectrum––the coercive side. Kilcullen argues Hezbollah has implemented a full spectrum, from an armed-wing, to holding seats in the Lebanese Parliament, to their various social programs offered to all Lebanese citizens (not just the Shia). Furthermore, Kilcullen states that Hezbollah’s “nonmilitary capabilities proved critically important during the 2006 July War between Israel and Hezbollah.” Most notable was Hezbollah’s construction wing, Jihad al-Binaa, which rebuilt all homes and infrastructure damaged or destroyed as a result of the war and helped improve the group politically within Lebanon.


Successfully eliminating Hezbollah will require military and diplomatic components and cannot be done by further alienating the Shia community. A strictly military response would likely see the Lebanese government collapse and could see an increased security risk along the Lebanese-Israeli border. The current Lebanese government has long suffered from political gridlock (often at the hands of Hezbollah or regional powers) and from a stagnant economy. Lebanon has a growing unemployment problem, especially among young unskilled workers, and according to Bloomberg, Lebanon’s “public debt [is] equivalent to 150 percent of gross domestic product,” and at times has been unable to provide basic services such as garbage collection. Additionally, Lebanon has been forced to deal with over a million Syrian Refugees, as a result of the ongoing Syrian Civil War and Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime. While the IDF has conducted training missions in northern Israel in recent years, but are they prepared for a prolonged presence following the military intervention is yet to be seen.


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