Is a war between Israel and Hezbollah likely in 2021?
Mar 2, 2021 | Ran Porat
Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy terrorist organisation in Lebanon, are brewing amongst IDF warnings of the possible escalation of clashes on a limited scale into a wider conflict between the two sides over the coming months. While the Israeli army is preparing itself for such a development, at this stage, it seems that both sides would prefer to avoid a major conflict for the time being.
The recent IDF Military Intelligence Directorate’s annual threat-assessment report for 2021 has warned that Hezbollah may in 2021 initiate skirmishes or provocations, intended to be limited in time and scope, which however may spiral into war. Of course, such predictions may well prove to be wrong, and indeed making such predictions publicly can actually be a step in helping to prevent such a situation from developing. At the same time, Israel is taking actions to deal with a possible conflict with Hezbollah in the near future.
Preparation by the Israeli army for a possible escalation
- “Rose of Galilee” was a surprise large-scale military exercise held from Feb. 12 to 14 – IDF air, land and sea forces practised a snap response to a war scenario in Lebanon and Syria, against Hezbollah, Iranians and their proxies, and Syrian forces, as well as attacks from Gaza by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israeli officers reported after the exercise that the air force was able to simulate attacks on 3,500 targets inside Lebanon in a single day – the same amount Israel attacked during the whole Second Lebanon War in 2006. Analysts note that on top of sharpening military readiness, the exercise is also evidence of a process within the IDF of considering new strategies for a future conflict.
- At the beginning of February, the IDF completed the annual “Juniper Falcon air defence drill” joint exercise with the US. Forces from the two countries practised responding in coordination to various scenarios of missile attacks and other threats from the air (UAVs for example) on Israel.
- Israel’s Chief of Staff Lt. General Aviv Kochavi sent a stark warning to Hezbollah (and to the terrorist organisations in Gaza) in his January 26 public speech. In light of the fact that Hezbollah is known to be hiding hundreds of thousands of missiles within the civilian population in villages and towns in southern Lebanon, Kochavi made clear that that IDF is reserving its freedom of action in a future conflict, legally and operationally. The Chief of Staff cautioned that in a conflict, Hezbollah and others can no longer hide themselves or their weapons within civilian areas. “Once war starts, we will let you leave the places you are in, if the places you are in have missiles,” he said. Clarifying that while Israel will follow international law, Kochavi explained that if civilians choose to stay with terrorists or in weapons depots, they will have to bear the consequences.
Hezbollah reaction to IDF’s moves
- Hezbollah has been signalling that the public and tacit warnings from Israel are being heard. Reacting to Kochavi’s words and to “Rose of Galilee”, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised speech on Feb 16: “We don’t seek a fight with Israel, but if it starts a war, we will fight,” adding that, “No one can guarantee that a few days of combat between us and Israel won’t lead to a wider war.”
- At the same time, Nasrallah continues to try to publicly foster the notion that Hezbollah is maintaining mutual deterrence vis-à-vis Israel. In his speech, he threatened to bomb Israeli cities if cities and villages in Lebanon are attacked by Israel, boasting that in a war with Israel, “the Israeli home front would face a situation it has not experienced since 1948” when the State of Israel was created.
- Similarly, a video released by Hezbollah included satellite images and coordinates of ‘prime’ targets inside Israel. These include a mix of civilian and military locations such as the IDF’s Central Headquarters in Tel Aviv, the headquarters of IDF divisions on the border with Lebanon, a radar site in Haifa, a power plant in Ashkelon, the antenna array at Haifa University, and two military defence company sites.
Factors militating for and against a major escalation this year:
There are a number of issues and developments which are making a major IDF- Hezbollah escalation more likely in 2021:
- Hezbollah’s ‘open account’ with Israel – A junior member of the organisation was killed in Syria in July 2020 in what was considered an Israeli attack (Jerusalem did not take responsibility for that event). In an attempt create deterrence and to establish the “blood for blood” equation, Hezbollah has tried several times to target Israeli forces over the past few months, while daily provocations by Hezbollah operatives (often disguised as “shepherds”) along the border with Israel continue. Attempts over the last few months to attack Israeli positions, dispatch snipers from Lebanon to shoot at Israeli soldiers, shoot anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli drones flying over Lebanon and possibly other unreported incidents – have all failed or been foiled by Israel. Hezbollah may still be motivated to prove that Nasrallah’s public promise to avenge the operative’s death was not just an empty threat.
- The IDF estimates that despite Israel’s ongoing campaign against it over the last few years, Hezbollah’s precision-guided missiles project is still active and progressing. This is a major Israeli concern. In addition to Hezbollah’s many thousands of ‘dumb’ missiles, there are dozens (and possibly up to hundreds) of Hezbollah missiles that could accurately hit strategic targets inside Israel and cause a demoralising number of civilian casualties in Israeli towns in the event of a conflict. The coronavirus pandemic did not seem to slow down Hezbollah’s flagship precision missile project, based on technology exported to Lebanon from Iran. Recent developments in that context include reports that Hezbollah has spread various parts of the project to different locations across Lebanon to make it more difficult to destroy all components of the project in one go (a lesson from Iran’s nuclear program). Also, flights from Iran, allegedly carrying aid to the COVID-stricken Lebanon, have resumed recently, and these may also be bringing additional advisors, material and equipment for the precision missile project.
Israel may arrive at the conclusion in coming months that only direct military attack – and not just covert activities – can significantly slow this venture. In that context, Lt. Col. Eran Niv, the head of the IDF’s Warfare Methods and Innovation Division, recently explained that “If Hezbollah crosses a quantitative or qualitative threshold for precision weapons, we will have to act against it. This is a serious decision, but one from which we cannot run away.”
On the other hand, Hezbollah might consider provoking a limited conflict, possibly border skirmishes, to divert attention from the missile activities at key moments in the project’s timeline (for example, a test).
- Another major cause for concern in Jerusalem, and accordingly for Israeli action, is the growing buildup of Iranian ‘counsellors’ and Hezbollah operatives on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, organising militias there. Israel is keeping a close eye on these pro-Iran proxies on its border with Syria that may be activated against Israel if Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah and/or the leadership in Teheran decide to use them. Even minor incidents with these groups – which are already occurring regularly – could deteriorate into a wider conflict.
- Resumption of US engagement with Iran regarding the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA). Hezbollah’s patrons in Teheran may choose conflict or calm vis-à-vis Israel as a bargaining chip or pressure mechanism in their negotiations with Washington. How much Hezbollah would follow the Ayatollahs’ instructions in such a case remains to be seen.
There are a number of issues and developments militating against a major IDF-Hezbollah conflict in 2021:
- Hezbollah understands that initiating a conflict against Israel is not likely to be a popular move while Lebanon is facing a dire and fragile internal situation. Lebanon is in the midst of a deep political impasse, with no one being able to form a functioning government for months – largely because of Hezbollah’s own positions and actions. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically worsened an already failing economy, and further exacerbated social tensions within the country. In addition, Hezbollah has been forced to fend off criticism alleging the group is responsible for the explosion in the Beirut Port last August and for the February 4 murder of one of its leading opponents, Lokman Slim.
Presenting itself as the defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty to legitimise its existence as a powerful and heavily armed militia, Hezbollah is likely to be hesitant to drag Lebanon into another war with Israel. Judging from Israel’s constant warning messages to Lebanon, Hezbollah would struggle to justify such a conflict given that the price the country’s population and infrastructure would pay – which would in all likelihood be enormous.
- Hezbollah is also taking into account the fact that Israel would also certainly use such a conflict to attempt to drastically reduce the organisation’s strategic capabilities, for example, by destroying its missile depots. “If we have to go to battle, Lebanon will tremble and Hezbollah will be fatally wounded”, warned Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz on February 18.
- The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), deployed in southern Lebanon to enforce UN Security Council resolutions and separate the belligerent sides, could potentially play some role in preventing or at least delaying a total war. While still widely criticised in Israel for being effectively powerless vis-à-vis Hezbollah aggression, operatives and weapons deployment in the area under its supervision in Lebanon, Israel does find it worthwhile to continue to work with UNIFIL. The organisation can and does mediate between Israel and Lebanon about problems along the border, and could also potentially do so with respect to larger issues.