The awful Israeli-Hezbollah conflict to come
Jun 27, 2016 | Willy Stern
Hezbollah has a nasty collection of more than 130,000 rockets, missiles, and mortars aimed at Israel. This is a bigger arsenal than all NATO countries (except the United States) combined. Why, a reasonable person might wonder, does Hezbollah need an offensive arsenal bigger than that of all Western Europe?
“You don’t collect 130,000 missiles if you don’t intend to use them,” says Matthew Levitt, a counter-terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Hezbollah is a well-funded, violently anti-Israel terrorist organisation based in Lebanon and a puppet of the Iranian regime.
In Hezbollah’s arsenal are about 700 long-range, high-payload rockets and missiles with names like Fateh-110 and Scud D. They are capable of taking down entire buildings in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, wreaking havoc at Israel’s major military bases, killing thousands of Israeli civilians, shutting down the nation’s airports and ports, and taking out the electric grid. And that’s just in the first week.
Former Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Major General Yaakov Amidror is talking about the M-600 missile. It’s a fairly accurate ballistic missile that weighs more than a Hummer H2 and carries a formidable warhead. The M-600 can also deliver chemical weapons. A single M-600 could wipe out a good chunk of Times Square and maim and kill people four football fields away from the point of impact. Hezbollah has a lot of M-600s.
Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser, is asked what the next war between Israel and Hezbollah will look like. “We are not looking for war,” says Amidror. “But suppose Hezbollah launches an advanced missile like the M-600 at the Kirya, the IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv, or a large apartment complex in Jerusalem. Our defence technology quickly finds the launcher. It is right under a 22-storey residential building in Beirut. We can now see in real time the launcher being moved back under the building to reload.”
“We have just minutes to act,” explains Amidror. “The IDF will have to take out the launcher because the next missile can cause enormous damage in Israel. But to take out the launcher means the 22-storey building may fall. We would try to use precision-guided missiles to protect civilians but the target is hard to reach. We will try to warn the residents but the timing is tight. That building will almost certainly be hit. And the images in the international media will almost certainly be awful.” But, asks Amidror, today a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, “What alternative do we have?”
No good one, since the building in the scenario described would be a legitimate military target. So say a bevy of international military law experts, including Geoff Corn of the South Texas College of Law in Houston, who has studied IDF targeting policies: “After exhausting all feasible efforts to reduce civilian risk, IDF commanders must resolve the decisive question: Is the potential for civilian harm excessive in comparison to the advantages the attack would provide? When you talk of an M-600 in the hands of an enemy that targets vital military assets or the civilian population – even if that apartment building is full – launching the attack will be necessary to mitigate the threat.”
Professor Corn is well aware of what will happen next. “The international community will look at the images and will note that the immediate cause of destruction was Israeli munitions. But – and here is the kicker – both legally and morally, the cause of these tragic consequences will lie solely at the feet of Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah cleverly places its arsenal where any Israeli military response – even legal, carefully planned, narrowly targeted, proportionate measures – will lead to huge civilian casualties among Lebanese. Why? Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s cunning leader, sees a win-win situation. He’d like nothing better than for the IDF to kill Lebanese civilians.
And if the IDF shies away from attacking legitimate military targets in civilian sectors, then Nasrallah achieves both military and strategic advantages, and his fighters can continue to rain deadly rockets down on Israel’s civilians, infrastructure, and military installations. Says one IDF officer, “We don’t have the luxury of waiting, monitoring, considering.”
This writer spent two-plus weeks embedded with IDF units around the country, meeting with scores of soldiers, from sergeants to generals, from frontline commanders to nerdy intelligence analysts, from patrol boat captains to fighter pilots, from civil defence experts to high-tech air defence geeks. All these military tacticians and strategists were intently focused on preparing for the next war with Hezbollah.
Why did the IDF pull back the curtain and provide such access not only to its top brass but also to classified documents, war-gaming exercises, and strategic projections? Because Israel wants the world to know that (1) a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon will be, unavoidably, awful; and (2) the massive collateral damage won’t be Israel’s fault. Even more than that, the IDF seems to be pleading to the international community: Do something. Stop Hezbollah. Before it is too late, and they drag the region into a bloody hellhole.
What the War will look like
What will a future war look like? Some clues: Hezbollah has amassed not just rockets and missiles. Iran has supplied its favourite terrorist organisation with other top-of-the-line weaponry. For military aficionados, these would include the latest guided, tank-piercing Russian-made “Kornet” missiles, SA-17 and SA-22 air defence systems, and even the “Yakhont” class surface-to-ship cruise missiles. Making matters worse for IDF planners, Hezbollah boasts a standing army of more than 10,000 soldiers – and could add two or three times that number of reservists in the event of a war with Israel. In short, since its last major conflict with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah has dramatically increased its combat capabilities and armoury. The terrorist organisation has leapt from the jayvee team to the major leagues across every fighting platform.
True, Hezbollah is stretched these days from rotating its troops into Syria. But that also means that many Hezbollah soldiers will be battle-tested and tough; some 6,000 to 7,000 of them have been fighting alongside Syrian Army regulars in an effort to prop up Bashar al-Assad.
Make no mistake: Should hostilities break out, there will be a deadly ground war. Aerial operations simply aren’t enough to dismantle and root out Hezbollah’s maze of underground launchers, tunnels and infrastructure that are aimed right over Israel’s border.
No matter how brave a face the IDF leadership tries to put on, in the next conflict with Hezbollah, IDF tanks will get blown to bits, aircraft will be shot from the sky, navy patrol boats will be sunk, and the multibillion-dollar Israeli offshore gas rigs in the Mediterranean Sea could end up on the sea floor. Many young IDF soldiers will be coming home in body bags. Nothing would make Nasrallah happier. He is clear in public statements that he’d dearly like to murder every Jew in the world but especially those in Israel. In speeches, he describes Israel as a “cancerous entity” of “ultimate evil” and joyfully calls for its “annihilation.”
Deterrence is a big part of Israel’s defence strategy; acknowledging these scenarios doesn’t sit right with many in the IDF’s military structure. They don’t want to frighten Israel’s civilian population. Nor do they want to embolden Israel’s enemies. But the IDF is trying really hard to give the world a wake-up call about what’s coming down the pike.
Even in a best-case scenario for preventing Israel’s civilian casualties – meaning a vast majority of Israelis would be able to get into hardened shelters before the first deadly salvo is launched from Lebanon – IDF planners quietly acknowledge that “as many as hundreds” of Israeli non-combatants might be killed per day in the first week or two of the conflict. If Hezbollah’s first missile salvos are launched without warning, the Israeli civilian death count could be 10 times higher.
Israel’s top military brass acknowledges that its high-tech missile-defence system will be “lucky” to shoot down 90% of incoming rockets, missiles and mortars. Hezbollah has the capacity to shoot 1,500 missiles per day. That means 150 – likely more – deadly projectiles could get through in a day. Israel’s Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow 3, and other state-of-the-art systems for shooting down incoming rockets and missiles are the best in the world but imperfect. “Even with Israel’s technological superiority, it would be a major blunder to underestimate Hezbollah’s ability to do serious damage,” cautions Amos Harel, the respected military/defence correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
One irony: It’s not only those in Tokyo and Chicago and Brussels who have little idea what such a conflict will look like. Many Israelis are fairly clueless. Residents of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem read about recent wars in newspapers every morning while sipping latte in their favourite café.
Not this time. They will be in bunkers. Possibly for a very long time. IDF Major General (res.) Gershon Hacohen explains, “ATMs won’t work. With the electric grid out, how will Israelis get to their 30th-floor apartments without elevators? How will they cook?”
Israel will almost certainly be forced to try to evacuate most citizens in the northern part of the country. Why? Because Hezbollah’s arsenal includes about 100,000 short-range rockets aimed at schools, hospitals, and homes. These rockets – including Falaks, Katyushas, Fajr-3s, and 122 Grads – may not be particularly accurate but they’re also not in the air long enough for the IDF defensive weapons systems to shoot them down.
Imagine if New Jersey shot more than 1,000 deadly rockets over the Hudson River into Manhattan every day. No doubt, those on the Upper West Side would also be a bit peeved. “There is no country in the world – not Israel, not the US, not in Europe – who would not go to war to stop a rocket barrage of that nature,” explains Nadav Pollak, formerly in an IDF intelligence unit and today a counterterrorism fellow at the Washington Institute.
Small teams of elite Hezbollah commandos will almost certainly be able to slip into Israel and may wreak havoc among Israeli villages in the north. One scenario that has IDF strategists concerned: A Hezbollah team infiltrates into northern Israel via small boat at night, kills every man, woman and child in a remote village, and then escapes into the darkness. The public relations value to Hezbollah would be enormous. “Anything that creates fear and terror among Israelis is a win for Hezbollah,” says an IDF Home Front Command senior official.
Thumbing its nose at legal and ethical norms for armed conflict, Hezbollah has strategically placed its launchers and other deadly weaponry in homes, schools, hospitals, and densely populated civilian centres throughout Lebanon. This arsenal is supposedly “hidden.” Still, the IDF knows where many of these weapons are stored and shared classified maps with me. These maps showed remarkably detailed information indicating that Hezbollah is storing its weaponry in dozens of southern Lebanese villages but also in Beirut proper, where the organisation is headquartered in the densely populated suburb of Dahiya.
Amos Yadlin is the Executive Director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Given Israel’s sophisticated, high-tech war-fighting machine, Yadlin says the IDF will have “clear superiority” in any conflict with Hezbollah. Deterrence matters. Yadlin and every IDF officer I spoke to made one point clear: A war with Hezbollah may be ugly, but Israel will win. Decisively.
Military Law, Hezbollah and Israel
Military law expert Corn is among those who believe Hezbollah should be called to answer for its unlawful tactics: “Hezbollah should be pressured, starting today, to avoid locating such vital military assets amongst civilians.” Corn fears that “the instinctual condemnation of Israel will only encourage continuation of these illicit tactics.”
Corn is correct. Two conclusions are inescapable and well voiced by a world-weary IDF officer: “The next war with Hezbollah is going to be an absolute shitstorm. And we’re going to be blamed.”
Civilian deaths in Lebanon will be a tragedy by any standard, but they will not be Israel’s fault. The primary duty of every nation is to protect its citizens. Israel will do what any country would do if deadly rockets rain down on its cities and military bases: It will respond.
In keeping with its history, the IDF is committed to responding judiciously and well within the accepted laws of armed conflict. But the outcomes will be very different from previous conflicts. Why? Because Hezbollah’s fighting force and arsenal are those of a nation-state, but its tactics are those of a terrorist organisation. Tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians will almost certainly die. The international media – many either reflexively anti-Israel or simply naïve – will have a field day.
The IDF is smart to try to explain its side of the story in advance. At least so says retired US Army Major General Mike Jones, co-author of a detailed report on the IDF’s conduct in its latest conflict with Hamas, the other terrorist organisation on its border. “Despite what may have been reported on the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza, we found that the IDF went to extreme lengths in Gaza to avoid civilian casualties,” says Jones.
Hezbollah and other radical Islamist groups are trying to delegitimise the laws of armed conflict; this ought to be of concern to all law-abiding nations and militaries. Jones believes that the IDF (and other Western nations) is “absolutely right” to try to get out in front on the strategic messaging issue.
Yes, strategic messaging. The IDF has long operated under the presumption that being in the right was enough to carry the day in the court of public opinion. No more. Anti-Israel propaganda is everywhere. Many politicians, journalists, academics and policy wonks are eager to denounce Israel regardless of facts or logic.
One IDF officer pointed to another possibility, namely that many reporters and average Joes simply cannot fathom the reality of war: “When one sees civilians killed, it’s natural to blame the person who directly caused their death. But in war we need to look beyond. Civilians will die, but who is ultimately morally responsible? Is it the army that is forced to target military targets hidden among civilians – and uses precision weapons and warnings – or is it the group that deliberately puts its own civilians in the line of fire?”
The IDF is aware that future conflicts with Hezbollah will be fought on at least two battlegrounds. The first, obviously, will involve guns, tanks and fighter jets. The second front will encompass the court of public opinion. Israel is wisely opening up its second front early. When the next war occurs, the IDF will endeavour to have both law and morality on its side. Will anybody care?
The IDF no longer distinguishes between the sovereign nation of Lebanon and Hezbollah. Here’s why: The terrorist group fully controls southern Lebanon, even to the point of limiting the movements of the Lebanese Army and also of the United Nations forces there. As well, Hezbollah holds significant positions in the Lebanese Government and parliament. As such, Lebanon’s infrastructure will likely be targeted. The IDF may well go after Lebanese bridges, airports, highways, and the electric grid, and IDF officials want Hezbollah to know this. Again, deterrence.
On the Border
Hezbollah is also preparing, and not just missiles. I spent a morning on patrol with a senior IDF commander on the Lebanese border. We were in easy range of Hezbollah snipers. The soldier was wisely decked out in full combat gear, including helmet, Kevlar vest and assault rifle. It’s dead easy to peer across the border into the tiny Lebanese village of Ayta Ash Shab and see a Hezbollah operative, dressed like a tourist, using a telephoto lens to snap photos to monitor IDF border patrol activities. All was quiet.
One day, this border will not be so quiet. Firas Abi Ali, senior principal analyst on Lebanon for the London-based country risk consultancy IHS, rates likelihood of war between Israel and Hezbollah as “more than 50 percent” in five years and “more than 70 percent” within 10. A mitigating factor in the near term is the war in Syria, which keeps many of Hezbollah’s best fighters occupied. But IDF planners cannot afford to think in these subtleties. “There’s going to be a war with Hezbollah,” says Colonel Elan Dickstein, who runs the Northern Command Training Base. “The only question is when.”
One of those preparing is Colonel Tzvika Tzoron, commander of the Haifa district in the Home Front Command. He has been charged with the unenviable task of protecting Israeli citizens in the northern part of the country, including those living in villages right on the Lebanese border. “We hope to give them a few days’ notice,” says Tzoron. “But who knows what will happen?”
Who knows, indeed? “I go to sleep at night worried, and I wake up worried,” admits Lt. Col. Ronen Markham, who runs a battalion of navy patrol boats near the Lebanese border. “I worry about what I do know and worry about what I don’t. Most of the world doesn’t really understand that war is ugly. War is terrible. War is bloody. War brings casualties. Lots of people – soldiers and civilians – will die. There is no way around it.”
IDF tactics and International Critics
But Israel will try to find ways around it. If the IDF’s conduct of war against Hamas in Gaza is any indication, the IDF will go far beyond the requirements of the international laws of armed conflict to try to protect civilian life in Lebanon. Some of the steps the IDF may take to prevent civilian casualties in Lebanon include dropping leaflets warning of impending operations, using aerial assets to monitor civilian presence, and carefully choosing weaponry whenever feasible.
Several top-notch military attorneys from around the world criticised the IDF for its actions to protect civilians in the 2014 Gaza war. But the criticism is not what you might think: These attorneys believe Israel did too much to protect civilian lives.
“The IDF’s warnings certainly go beyond what the law requires, but they also sometimes go beyond what would be operational good sense elsewhere,” says Michael Schmitt, chairman of the Stockton Center for the Study for International Law at the US Naval War College. “People are going to start thinking that the US and other Western democracies should follow the same examples in different types of conflict. That’s a real risk.” Schmitt is the author of a recent comprehensive analysis of the IDF’s targeting practices.
But here’s the kicker: The IDF will apply the same legal standards in any war with Hezbollah, but with very different outcomes. Why? Because Hezbollah has far more dangerous missiles and operates out of high-rise buildings. Speaking bluntly, a senior IDF officer with an intellectual bent explains, “Bizarre though it may sound, it is lawful for more citizens to die. We will be applying the same legal tests in Lebanon but with far more tragic results.”
IDF Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Nisan Cohen winds back to the scenario of a 22-storey building in Beirut with an M-600 launcher in its basement. “Even with our best precision-guided missiles and with our best efforts to avoid civilian casualties,” he says, “it’s very hard to just hit the basement. It’s even harder for us to explain afterwards why civilians were harmed.” Cohen knows that the IDF is at a competitive disadvantage in terms of telling its side of the story. Photos of destroyed buildings are dead easy to come by and tug at the emotions, while the IDF often must rely on classified information to explain a specific strike.
“We ask the world not to be fooled by propaganda and by images,” says a senior IDF official. “Check the facts. Any reasonable and moral human being will determine that the IDF did the right thing in our targeting decisions. There is just a fundamental disconnect between everyday life and war. If you see a picture of a dead baby, you know that it’s bad. You want to blame someone. It’s nearly impossible for people to flip that switch and try to understand the legal and factual context of war.”
Who gets suckered by the anti-Israel propaganda? Plenty of smart folks. Take, for example, a State Department spokesman who ought to have known better. Asked in July 2014 if the Obama Administration believed Israel had done enough to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza, Jen Psaki said: ‘’We believe that certainly there’s more that can be done.” Really? What exactly?
Military minds, of course, know better. In November 2014, the highest-ranking officer in the US military – Martin Dempsey, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs – said that Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian casualties in its recent war in Gaza and that the Pentagon had sent a working team to Israel to glean what lessons could be learned from that IDF operation.
Yaakov Amidror recalls an event from his stint as Israel’s national security adviser. In the late summer of 2013, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon paid a visit to Jerusalem. Just prior to a planned meeting with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Amidror got an hour alone with Ban and his aide-de-camp. Amidror pulled out his laptop and presented detailed evidence of Hezbollah’s deadly arsenal and the fact that it was strategically placed within densely populated civilian centres. “What do you want us to do?” asked Amidror. Ban offered no response and no suggestions. Instead, the UN chief continued 15 feet down the plush carpeted hallway from Amidror’s office to his meeting with Netanyahu.
Is it any wonder that Israel is frustrated? Nobody, it seems, in times of peace is willing to offer Israel a constructive suggestion on how to deal with an Iranian-funded terrorist organisation in possession of a massive arsenal on its northern border. But these same organisations stand front and centre to criticise Israel for acting legally and proportionately for protecting its own citizens in wartime.
Willy Stern, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University’s law school, has reported from six continents. © Weekly Standard (www.weeklystandard.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.