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Hezbollah's Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985 to 2000

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Hezbollah's Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985 to 2000

Iver Gabrielsen


This article examines Hezbollah's strategy and the evolution of their tactical performance during their insurgency in the security zone in Southern Lebanon between 1985 and 2000. 

With Hezbollah facing a detoriating strategic position and popular backlash in Lebanon today, caused by the clashes in Beirut during 2008 and Hezbollah's present meddling in the Syrian civil war, readers may be interested to note that Hezbollah faced a similar weakened strategic position in the late 1980s. At the time it was heavy intra-Shiite fighting with their rivals in Amal and the attempts to create an variant of Islamic republic in Southern Lebanon that led to a loss of popular support. Hezbollah's strategic reponse was to  provide social services to their Shiite constituents and participate in  domestic politics, which combined with an improved military performance and a steep rise in attacks on IDF soldiers regained their legitimacy among the local population. Furthermore, aided by improved intelligence capabilities, IEDs and launhing of Katyusha rockets into Northern Israel, Hezbollah's strategy of attrition managed to reduce public support for the Lebanon war among the Israeli population.

Hezbollah's Tactical Proficiency in the 1980s

Hezbollah launched a total of 6058 operations in their war of attrition against the IDF and their proxy the South Lebanon Army (SLA) between 1985 and 2000.[i] Targeting the IDF's Achilles heel, the Israeli public's aversion to casualties, Hezbollah's aim was to defeat Israel by attrition and demoralisation rather than decisive military confrontation.[ii]

While the Islamic Resistance's strategy of attrition warfare was fixed, their tactics were flexible and evolved continuously during Hezbollah's 15 year long insurgency in Southern Lebanon.[iii] The initial tactic was to launch “human wave” attacks against SLA and IDF outposts, which were very costly in terms of casualties[iv]. Hezbollah’s methods were described as amateur and foolhardy, but very brave.[v] The tactics were comparable to those used by the Iranians against Iraq at the same time.[vi] The human wave assaults, sometimes conducted in broad daylight by up to 200 Hezbollah fighters against well-defended outposts, sought to achieve strategic effects by causing the SLA to fall apart.[vii]

Another central Hezbollah tactic was the employment of suicide bombings that inflicted massive casualties.[viii] Deputy secretary general of Hezbollah Naim Qassem records that while suicide bombings was the main and pivotal weapon Hezbollah could rely on, the preferred option was to inflict losses without martyrdom-operations.[ix] Martyrdom were a means to break the enemy's feeling of security, rather than an end in itself, and it bridged a significant gap in the imbalance of military power between Hezbollah and the IDF.[x] Even if the last of Hezbollah's suicide bombings took place as late as December 30, 1999, only four suicide bombings took place in the 1990s, which arguably indicates that the tactic of martyrdom-operations were a more important part of Hezbollah's military tactics in the 1980s.[xi] Moreover, after Hezbollah lost 24 fighters in a single attack on a SLA outpost in April 1987, they reassessed the situation and launched a respite in their human wave attacks.[xii]

Hezbollah's Deteriorating Strategic Position in the Late 1980s

From May 1988, Hezbollah found itself in a full-scale war with its Shiite rival Amal.[xiii]  Additionally, direct clashes occurred between Hezbollah and the Syrian army in Beirut, which killed twenty Hezbollah members.[xiv] These clashes were arguably very critical for Hezbollah, due to the small number of fighters in the Islamic resistance. An estimate asserts that Hezbollah, prior to the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, never had more than 500 fighters involved in combat at any given time.[xv]

When Hezbollah defeated Amal, first in Beirut's southern suburbs of Dahiya and then in Southern Lebanon, the Party of God seized state institutions and imposed Islamic law trough Shari'ah courts.[xvi] An increased Islamisation of the locals was observed, with parts of the population of Southern Lebanon being uncomfortable with the zealous Hezbollah members.[xvii] Islamic laws backfired to such a degree that they alienated the local population, with the closure of coffee shops being deemed especially harsh.[xviii]  The Islamic laws ruined the local tourist economy, with empty beaches and restaurants. Hezbollah had disregarded the importance the local population attributed to individuality and were losing their support in the process.[xix] With support of the local population being the essential condition for victory in Guerrilla warfare, Hezbollah needed new means to recapture local support and legitimacy.[xx]

Hezbollah's Strategic Response: Pragmatism, Social Services and Political Participation

Hezbollah's motion between Islamic militancy and political pragmatism in pursuit of its strategic aims from the early 1990s has left both scholars and policy-makers perplexed.[xxi] Hezbollah offered the Lebanese people the following deal: 'Support our resistance against Israel, and we will stop talking about an Islamic republic and stop telling you how to live your lives'.[xxii] The contrast to the Shari'ah courts in the late 1980s is illustrated by Lebanon's arguably the best liquor store being located in the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiya.[xxiii] Hezbollah's balancing act concerning Islamic rhetoric also displayed pragmatism: the Party of God said enough to energise its Islamic members, but also toned down their rhetoric sufficiently to appease their non-Islamic neighbours.[xxiv] Moreover, an agreement with Amal ended the inter-Shiite fighting, while Hezbollah also adopted a more friendly position towards the Lebanese army.[xxv]

The provision of social services played a crucial role for Hezbollah in winning the hearts and minds of the Lebanese Shiite population.[xxvi] Beirut's southern suburbs had been referred to as the belt of misery: Sewage flooded the streets, garbage had not been picked up in years, electricity was considered a luxury, and there was no running water.[xxvii] Filling the vacuum left by the Lebanese state, Hezbollah started to build up a social welfare structure for the Shiites. These efforts were largely financed by Iran, with the former secretary general Tufayli claiming that denying financial aid from Iran was like 'denying that the sun gives light to the earth'.[xxviii] Hezbollah's social service programs became very large, displayed by the number of 400 000 people who received healthcare services from Hezbollah in 2000.[xxix]  With their needs met by charitable organisations, the southern suburbs of Beirut no longer had poverty-stricken people, even if the average wage of the suburbs were only one fifth to one sixth of the average Lebanese income.[xxx]

Reconstruction of damaged homes from Israeli attacks was a pivotal part of Hezbollah's social service programme; every home that was damaged in Israeli raids between 1991 and 2000 was repaired, with the total number mounting to 17,212.[xxxi] This led to an interesting dynamic: The more the IDF and their SLA proxy sought to punish Hezbollah, the more civilian casualties and collateral damage they caused the more support Hezbollah received thanks to its reconstruction services.[xxxii] Still, it would be wrong to conclude that Hezbollah only secured loyalty by providing social services. Many Lebanese valued their ideological beliefs at least as much as their pocketbooks, if not even more.[xxxiii]

Without political participation, in light of the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, the Islamic resistance could have been left isolated and devoid of political backing.[xxxiv] Hezbollah's decision to join Lebanese domestic politics in time for the parliamentary elections of 1992 was arguably driven by the need to protect their insurgency in Southern Lebanon. The armed jihad was now supplemented by political jihad.[xxxv] Their close connection was illustrated by a slogan from a Hezbollah election poster: 'they resist with their blood, resist with your vote'.[xxxvi] Furthermore, the decision to participate in Lebanese politics strengthened Hezbollah's nationalist credentials, a process described as the Lebanonisation of Hezbollah.[xxxvii] The links between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah tightened during the 1990s, especially after the Israeli Grapes of Wrath incursion in 1996. After this Israeli campaign not a single politician of any sect refused to defend Hezbollah's insurgency, the Lebanese government was even prepared to defend Hezbollah's legitimacy at the United Nations.[xxxviii]

Pragmatism, social services and political participation were important means for Hezbollah to reach their political aim of liberating Southern Lebanon. These secured popular support and increased the legitimacy of their struggle. Therefore, these non-military means were arguably a crucial aspect of Hezbollah's grand strategy.

The Evolution of Hezbollah's Tactical Proficiency in the 1990s

In order for Hezbollah's attacks have a strategic effect, they needed to improve their tactical performance compared to the costly human-wave assaults of the 1980s. Inflicting a heavy and persistent casualty toll on the IDF and the SLA was necessary to crack Israeli public support for the occupation of the security zone. Hezbollah did indeed emerge stronger from the crisis of the late 1980s. An improved military performance regained the respect of the population of Southern Lebanon, which had been partially lost after the failed attempts to implement Islamic law and intra-Shiite fighting with Amal.[xxxix] This turnaround accelerated under the new leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, who became secretary general in 1992.[xl]

Improved field security was a crucial factor in the improved tactical performance. Hezbollah had realised that their units had been too large and too easy to track during the 1980s.[xli] Intermediaries between the top military leadership and local commanders on the ground were removed, as a precaution against penetration by Israeli intelligence.[xlii]  Local units and commanders were also granted more autonomy, which led to a more efficient military effort.[xliii] Organisationally, Hezbollah created a Jihad council in the mid-1990s which decided the Islamic Resistance's tactics and strategy, reportedly with a senior member of Iran's revolutionary guards on its staff.[xliv] The increased professionalism of Hezbollah's fighters is arguably also illustrated by the introduction of full military combat fatigues, boots and helmets from the early 1990s.[xlv] In contrast to the earlier human-wave assaults, the Islamic Resistance was arguably prioritising quality over quantity in the 1990s.

Hezbollah's military tactics in the 1990s demonstrated the Islamic Resistance's ability to adapt to changing circumstances. When the IDF and SLA employed fixed outposts, Hezbollah responded by frontal assaults. When the outposts were reinforced, Hezbollah responded with indirect mortar and rocket fire. When the IDF changed tactics and became a more mobile force with increased patrols, Hezbollah responded with ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).[xlvi] The Islamic resistance also started to use more advanced weapon systems, in some cases after having received sophisticated training in Iran.[xlvii] The TOW-missile caused the loss of three Merkava and one Magach main battle tank between September and October of 1997, a critical blow to IDF credibility and confidence.[xlviii] Hezbollah's success was arguably in part based on the ability to combine the tactics of guerrilla warfare with tactics of conventional war.[xlix] The adaptability of the Islamic resistance even won the respect of their opponents; the head of the Golani brigade Moshe Kaplinsky declared that 'Hezbollah was a learning organisation'.[l]

The most important tactical weapon for Hezbollah was the IED, which caused approximately half of IDFs casualties in the late 1990s. In 1998 it was behind as many as 16 out of 24 IDF fatalities.[li] A technical encounter of weapons and countermeasures developed between Hezbollah's bomb makers and the IDF in the 1990s.[lii] When the IDF employed sniffer dogs to discover wire-triggered bombs, Hezbollah answered by hiding IEDs inside fibreglass rocks and used radio control to set off the bombs. The IDF responded by sweeping radio frequencies from listening posts at Mount Hermon. Hezbollah then switched to using cell phone receivers to trigger the IEDs. The IDF answered by jamming cell-phone signals, while Hezbollah responded by using infra-red beams to set off the IEDs.[liii] At the end of February 1999, Hezbollah enjoyed the biggest success of their IED-campaign, killing the top Israeli commander in Lebanon, Erez Gerstein, with a shaped-charge IED.[liv]

Intelligence triumphs played a part in forcing IDF into unilateral withdrawal.[lv] Hezbollah's intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities evolved to a professional calibre.[lvi] The Islamic resistance's intelligence activities were often focused on the SLA. Hezbollah was able to encourage desertions with offers of amnesty, in addition to targeting individual officers for assassination.[lvii] SLA's second in command Aql Hashim was among the killed high-ranking SLA officers.[lviii] Another intelligence triumph was the ambush of sixteen naval commandos from the elite Shayetet 13 unit near the town of Ansariyah in 1997, which led to the loss of 12 Israeli operatives while Hezbollah reportedly only suffered casualties of two slightly wounded.[lix] Interception of Israeli UAV video transmissions and the placement of a double agent are two of the explanations behind the intelligence that led to the ambush, which brought Israeli raids north of the security zone to a halt.[lx]

The evolution of Hezbollah's military technique is arguably illustrated by more favourable casualty ratios during the 1990s. In 1990 Hezbollah suffered 5.2 casualties per IDF/SLA casualty.[lxi] In stark contrast, combined IDF and SLA casualties exceeded Hezbollah's losses in both 1997 and 1998.[lxii] Taking SLA losses out of the equation, a direct comparison between solely Hezbollah and IDF casualties shows that the gap was shrinking. In 1996 Hezbollah suffered 62 and the IDF 28 killed in action, while in 1998 the numbers were 37 and 23 respectively.[lxiii] It is noteworthy that these numbers do not include the 73 IDF soldiers killed when two helicopters crashed in 1997, a sudden death toll that increased Israeli opposition to the war.[lxiv] Comparatively, while the total losses for the IDF in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 may seem relatively low, they were larger than losses suffered in the 1956 and the 1967 wars and larger than the losses on the critical Syrian front in the 1973 war.[lxv] The number of Hezbollah attacks was also increasing rapidly in the late 1990s, with 4,928 of the total 6,058 operations taking place between 1996 and 2000: 1,528 attacks took place in 1999 alone.[lxvi] Hezbollah refers to 1999-2000 as 'the year of resistance par excellence', and the situation was arguably becoming harder for the IDF's rank and file and the Israeli public.[lxvii]

Strategic Success: Katyushas, Propaganda and Shrinking Israeli Support for the War

Hezbollah launched their first Katyusha rockets, an unguided rocket system first used by the Red Army in 1941, into Northern Israel in response to the assassination of Abbas al-Musawi in 1992.[lxviii] During Israel's 'Operation Accountability' in 1993 and 'Operation Grapes of Wrath' in 1996, Hezbollah continued to fire Katyushas right up until the cease-fire came into effect.[lxix] The Katyusha launchers were hard to locate from the air, Israeli F-16s and Cobras did not manage to destroy a single Katyusha battery during 'Grapes of Wrath'.[lxx]  Through the Katyushas, Hezbollah managed to create a balance of deterrence against its far superior enemy.[lxxi] Nasrallah himself boasted that the rockets fired into Northern Israel had 'led to a new formula based on mutual forced displacement, mutual destruction and equal terror'.[lxxii] The Katyusha rocket had become a strategic weapon in the hands of Hezbollah.

The Katyusha rockets, which at times led to almost one million people living in Northern Israel seeking refuge in bomb shelters, had a huge impact on the Israeli public's confidence in the ability of politicians and the IDF to protect them.[lxxiii] The Israeli government had to provide large financial incentives to stop the people in Northern Israel from resettling to other parts of the country.[lxxiv] The Katyushas led to a mutual understanding of the 'rules of the game' in 1993, where Hezbollah would not launch rockets, while Israel would not launch attacks that caused Lebanese civilian casualties. According to UN sources, these rules were breached 231 times by Israel and 13 times by Hezbollah between 1993 and 1996, but were violated less often after 1996.[lxxv] The effects of the 'rules of the game' were twofold: Hezbollah was able to expand its network in population centres, while IDF's deterrence posture was weakened.[lxxvi] Finally, the Katyushas illustrated the vulnerability of the 'security' zone, since the zone in some parts was only ten kilometres deep while the range of the Katyusha rockets were twenty kilometres.[lxxvii]

The perceived importance of Hezbollah's propaganda apparatus is illustrated by Nasrallah's claim that victory would not been achieved without the al-Manar TV station.[lxxviii] The Israeli air force also targeted Hezbollah's TV and radio transmission areas, suggesting that also Israel viewed Hezbollah’s propaganda facilities as an important target.[lxxix] In addition to strengthening the support and legitimacy of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and internationally, the propaganda targeted the Israeli public directly, Al-Manar even broadcasted news flashes in Hebrew.[lxxx]

It has been claimed that the pace and variety of Hezbollah's military operations were determined more by propaganda value than by purely military gains.[lxxxi] This could be illustrated by Hezbollah's response to an upbeat press conference given by IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz on January 19, 2000, where he could disclose that 1999 had been a relatively good year for the IDF, with only thirteen soldiers being killed.[lxxxii] Hezbollah responded immediately, conducting an average of 15 attacks a day from January 20th. Within three weeks, they had killed 7 IDF soldiers.[lxxxiii] The sharp increase in IDF casualties in the period after the press conference was a major propaganda victory for Hezbollah. An opinion poll conducted in March 2000 showed that 61 per cent of the Israeli public now wanted an immediate withdrawal from the security zone, even without peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon.[lxxxiv]

The war in Lebanon was Israel's first 'war of choice', as opposed to previous wars that at least were viewed as 'wars of no choice'.[lxxxv] Still, when Israel's Lebanon war started in 1982, 7 out of 8 people supported the invasion, 60 % supported it even after the Sabra and Shatila massacre later that year.[lxxxvi] Still, already in 1985 senior officers of the IDF were warning that the occupation of Lebanon was bad for the troops’ morale.[lxxxvii] The shrinking morale was illustrated when a paratrooper unit had to be disbanded in 1995, after asking for an alternative mission when told that they were being sent to Lebanon.[lxxxviii] At the end of the war, a total of 200 IDF members had been sent to prison for refusing to serve in Lebanon.[lxxxix] 10-24% of IDF personnel serving in Lebanon experienced psychological problems, compared to only 3.5-5% during the 1973 war.[xc] A leading psychologist concluded that believing the war would end soon, the IDF and SLA soldiers did not want to be the last casualty of the war.[xci]

Hezbollah's strategic success in breaking Israeli public support for the war is best illustrated by the boost in Ehud Barak's poll ratings after he made an election promise to withdraw from Lebanon.[xcii] Barak, who had been against the implementation of the security zone in the first place, kept his promise and the last Israeli soldier left Lebanon by 6:48 am, May 24th, 2000.[xciii] Hezbollah's attrition strategy had achieved its political aim of getting Israel out of Lebanon.


While Hezbollah's strategy of attrition warfare was fixed, the political aim of Israeli withdrawal constant, the means used by Hezbollah to reach this political goal varied. Their tactical proficiency improved greatly during the 1990s, which led Hezbollah to rely less on human-wave assaults and suicide car bombings, instead inflicting casualties through IEDs, indirect fire and the use of improved weaponry and tactics. The Katyusha rocket became a strategic weapon in the hands of Hezbollah; the Islamic Resistance now possessed a deterrence capability vis-à-vis the IDF.

In addition to an improved military performance, Hezbollah managed to strengthen their public support and legitimacy through the use of non-military means, with the provision of social services and political participation arguably playing a crucial role Hezbollah’s grand strategy. Most importantly for Hezbollah, the new approach led the Party of God out of their deteriorating strategic position in the late 1980s. The outcome of this interaction between improved military and non-military means was a strategic success for Hezbollah. Israeli public support for the war dropped, ultimately leading to the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon.

Iver Gabrielsen, is a Norwegian MA student in War Studies, King's College London with a special interests in armed conflicts in the Middle East.


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Whitting, Christopher E. (2001), When David became Goliath, Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

[i]             Hamzeh (2004), p. 89.

[ii]            Hamzeh (2004), p 84

[iii]           Blanford (2011), p. 122.

[iv]           Blanford (2011), p 85.

[v]            Jaber (1997), p 28.

[vi]           Jaber (1997), p 28.

[vii]          Blanford (2011), p 86.

[viii]         Catignani (2010), p.75.

[ix]           Qassem (2005), p. 49 and pp. 74-75.

[x]            Qassem (2005), p. 50.

[xi]           Cambanis (2011), p. 15.

[xii]          Jaber (1997), p 29.

[xiii]         Hamzeh (2004), p. 102.

[xiv]         Hamzeh (2004), p. 102.

[xv]          Gleis & Berti (2011), p. 76.

[xvi]         Hamzeh (2004), p. 103

[xvii]        Blanford (2011), p  84.

[xviii]       Jaber (1997), p 29.

[xix]         Jaber (1997), p. 30.

[xx]           Trinquier (1961), p. 8.

[xxi]         Hamzeh (2004), p. 1.

[xxii]        Cambanis (2011), p. 111

[xxiii]       Norton (2007), p. 104.

[xxiv]       Cambanis (2011), p. 113.

[xxv]        Gleis & Berti (2011), p. 76.

[xxvi]       Catignani (2010), p. 78.

[xxvii]      Jaber (1997),  pp. 146-147.

[xxviii]     Jaber (1997), 150.

[xxix]       Hamzeh (2004), p. 54

[xxx]        Norton (2007), p. 107 & 111.

[xxxi]       Qassem (2005), p. 83.

[xxxii]      Catignani (2010), p 78.

[xxxiii]     Cambanis (2011), p. 18.

[xxxiv]     Jaber (1997), 72.

[xxxv]      Hamzeh (2004), p. 112

[xxxvi]     Norton (2007), p. 102.

[xxxvii]    Sobelman (2010). p. 54

[xxxviii]   Jaber (1997), p. 74 & 189.

[xxxix]     Jaber (1997), p. 37.

[xl]           Cambanis (2011), p 111.

[xli]          Jaber (1997), p. 37.

[xlii]         Gleis & Berti (2011), p. 64.

[xliii]        Gleis & Berti (2011), p. 65.

[xliv]        Hamzeh (2004), p. 69.

[xlv]         Blanford (2011), p.  126.

[xlvi]        Catignani (2010), p. 80.

[xlvii]       Hamzeh (2004), p. 72.

[xlviii]      Whitting (2001), p. 87.

[xlix]        Jaber (1997), pp. 40-41

[l]             Blanford (2011), p.  148.

[li]            Blanford (2011), p.  216.

[lii]  Luttwak (2002), p. 28 & 42.

[liii] Blanford (2011), p. 129 & 214.

[liv] Blanford (2011), pp 223-224.

[lv]  Jones (2010), p. 8.

[lvi] Jaber (1997), p. 37.

[lvii]         Jones (2010), p. 98

[lviii]        Hamzeh (2004), p. 93.

[lix] Blanford (2011), p 188.

[lx]  Jones (2010), p.  99.

[lxi] Whitting (2001), p. 81

[lxii]         Whitting (2001), p. 80

[lxiii]        Whitting (2001), p. 80

[lxiv]          Bregman (2010), p. 259.

[lxv]           Helmer (2007), p. 69.

[lxvi]          Hamzeh (2004), pp. 89-90.

[lxvii]         Hamzeh (2004), p 90.

[lxviii]        Qassem (2005), p. 109.

[lxix]        Sobelman (2010), p. 55.

[lxx]           Whitting (2001), p. 89.

[lxxi]          Sobelman (2010), p. 49.

[lxxii]         Noe (2007), p. 107.

[lxxiii]      Whitting (2001), p. 86

[lxxiv]      Helmer (2007), p. 70.

[lxxv]       Jaber (1997), p. 173.

[lxxvi]      Catignani (2010), pp. 82-83.

[lxxvii]     Whitting (2001), p. 86.

[lxxviii]    Harb (2011) p. 189.

[lxxix]      Harb (2011) p. 184.

[lxxx]       Harb (2011) p. 186.

[lxxxi]      Blanford (2011), p. 135-136.

[lxxxii]     Blanford (2011) p. 244.

[lxxxiii]    Blanford (2011) p. 249.

[lxxxiv]    Blanford (2011) p. 249.

[lxxxv]     Catignani (2010), p, 72.

[lxxxvi]    Helmer (2007), p. 59.

[lxxxvii]   Catignani (2010), p. 73.

[lxxxviii]  Blanford (2011) p. 149

[lxxxix]    Catignani (2010), p. 76.

[xc]           Whitting (2001), p. 82.

[xci]         Whitting (2001), p. 83.

[xcii]        Catignani (2010), p. 87.

[xciii]       Bregman (2010), p. 254 & 273.


About the Author(s)

Iver Gabrielsen, is a Norwegian MA student in War Studies, King's College London with a special interests in armed conflicts in the Middle East.