Small Wars Journal

Will Hezbollah Attack Israel? Only if...

Thu, 03/15/2012 - 5:30am

In the middle of a region experiencing unprecedented change, a question lingers: Will Israel attack Iran?  As a result, a flurry of writings have appeared attempting to answer this pertinent question.  A "yes" comes with a list of consequences of which the most troubling is the threat of an escalating regional conflict.  In the middle of this regional war it is said that the most powerful non-state actor in the Middle East, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, would be a key player.

Conventional wisdom amongst analysts suggests that Hezbollah, acting as an Iranian proxy, will retaliate against Israel.  While certainly a possibility, policy-makers should recognize that today's Hezbollah is fundamentally different from the one that fought Israel for 34-days during the summer of 2006.  Members can no longer afford to take actions that don’t pass a cost-benefit test.   Recent remarks by Hassan Nasrallah best reflect this altered strategic calculus.  The Secretary General declared that if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities, Hezbollah’s leadership would have to “sit down, think and decide what to do.”  This seemingly uncharacteristic remark can be attributed to two factors: 1) Hezbollah is now the strongest political actor in the Lebanese government; and 2) both Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon will incur a massive retaliatory military campaign by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).  Therefore, Hezbollah will only undertake military action against its historic enemy if Israel pursues a policy that harms the organization’s vital geostrategic interests -- primarily regime change in Iran.  As long as Hezbollah retains both a political and military wing, they will still require Iran’s ideological, military and financial assistance.  With uncertain days ahead for their other ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, ties between Iran and Hezbollah will only strengthen. 

Although Hezbollah maintains a military wing, they are no longer the 1990s resistance movement whose sole purpose was to fight off an Israeli occupation.  In the last two decades, they have gone through a 'Lebanonization.'  Essentially, they have chosen to transform themselves into a Lebanese political party by participating in a sectarian parliamentary system.  Last year the party and its allies effectively toppled Lebanon’s coalition government and formed a new one by selecting the next prime minister.  Ironically, Hezbollah's power play in a democratic system makes them vulnerable to multiple constituencies.  If Hezbollah were to provoke a conflict with Israel that violently consumes Lebanon and its neighbors, Lebanon’s Sunnis would take political -- perhaps even violent -- action to reassert their dominance in the government.  Other groups, such as Christians, Druzes and maybe even some Shi’as may not react too kindly to Hezbollah starting another war.  Sectarian tensions are already high with the accusations made by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon that Hezbollah operatives were behind the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- an immensely popular Sunni leader.  Additionally, Nasrallah’s support for the Syrian regime’s crackdown against a primarily Sunni revolt further agitates sectarian tensions.  Hezbollah is now forced to simultaneously navigate the road between being what has historically been their calling -- a "resistance" movement -- and what they have evolved into -- the most powerful political party in Lebanon.

Since the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel and Hezbollah have largely lived in a peaceful state of mutual deterrence.  This can be attributed to the cliffhanger that defined the end of the last conflict.  In July 2006, Hezbollah’s military wing crossed the Israel-Lebanon border and ambushed an Israeli patrol, taking two hostages for a prisoner exchange.  Unexpectedly, a 34-day war ensued in which Israel responded with a massive bombing campaign and ground incursion.  Their goal was to destroy Hezbollah's military wing while simultaneously turn the non-Shi’a population of Lebanon against the group.  The results were a Lebanon that temporarily rallied around the resistance movement, the deaths of 1,200 Lebanese (mostly civilians), considerable damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure (more than $3.6 billion) and an outcry from the international community. 

The Israelis were unable to decisively defeat Hezbollah, who inflicted heavy casualties on the IDF (121 killed) by successfully using a combination of guerilla and conventional tactics.  They also launched thousands of rockets into northern Israel, killing 44 civilians.  Both sides claim to have won but in reality the conflict ended in a stalemate, albeit with a symbolic victory for Hezbollah who enjoyed increased popularity in the Arab world immediately thereafter.  Still, the cost to the Lebanese state was immense and later resulted in political backlash, specifically from segments of Sunnis, Druze and Christians, all of which questioned Hezbollah’s right to bring such destruction upon their country.  Nasrallah later claimed he would have not ordered the raid if he had known the consequences would be so dire. 

Since then, rhetoric has taken the form of threats emanating from both sides on how they will respond to any future military provocation.  Both sides learned vital lessons from their last conflict and have been actively preparing for the next.  Israel appears to be following a refined policy of massive retaliation.  Their military campaign can take one of two forms: a combination of air and ground operations to destroy Hezbollah’s military assets, or a strategy that avoids a ground war by using air and naval forces to bomb Hezbollah’s strongholds and Lebanese infrastructure.   The latter is a form of “punishment” and serves as a deterrent by making sure the very state Hezbollah resides in suffers for their aggression.  Both of these strategies would undoubtedly attract serious international criticism due to inevitable civilian casualties.  But if attacked, Israel would feel compelled to respond using military force in order to maintain its military credibility in the region and protect its civilian population.  Given the unsatisfactory ending of the last conflict and the changing political landscape in the region, Israeli leaders will be more determined than ever to remove the Hezbollah threat.

Hezbollah’s deterrent comes in the form of an estimated 42,000 missiles and rockets, including increasingly sophisticated weapons, such as long-range surface-to-surface missiles and surface-to-air missiles, which have been redeployed deeper into Lebanese territory and can strike any Israeli city.  Publicly, Nasrallah has threatened to use them if deemed necessary, and recently escalated his threats to include a ground invasion of Galilee.  If the IDF were to pursue a ground campaign, Hezbollah would attempt to wear down Israeli forces through a protracted guerilla war and a simultaneous bombing of Israeli cities.  Their intricate tunnel system and anti-tank weapons would also cause the IDF great headache.  If the Israelis focused on a “punishment” strategy, Hezbollah would bomb civilian centers to compel them to stop.  In both scenarios, the IDF would encounter serious difficulties in defeating Hezbollah but would inflict significant damage on the organization.  In the end, neither side wants another conflict for fear of a more violent, destructive and broader war.

But the region is boiling and Israeli leaders seem to be seriously considering  a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities for fear that the country is on course for building a bomb.  Some have even argued that the only real way to remove the nuclear threat is to rid Iran of the current regime.  For Hezbollah, Iran is a vital ally.  Along with an unstable Syria and waning Hamas, the four form the “Axis of Resistance,” intent on challenging the hegemony of Israel, the United States and their allies in the region. 

Hezbollah’s nexus with Iran developed in the 1980s when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard trained and assisted Shi’a militants in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  To date, Iranian support has empowered Hezbollah with state-like capabilities.  For example, financial assistance has helped the organization win the trust and support of Lebanon’s historically downtrodden Shi’a community, as Hezbollah offers social services not provided by the state.  At the core of this relationship is the Iranian revolutionary principle known as Wilyat al-Faqih or ‘guardianship of the jurist’.  Hezbollah’s leaders have always been ideologically loyal to this doctrine prescribed by the Supreme Leader in Tehran.  There has never been, however, any clear indication that Hezbollah receives direct orders from Tehran.  Therefore, the question should not be, will Iran order Hezbollah to attack Israel, but rather will Hezbollah feel the need to? 

That need will become clearer as it is increasingly apparent that instability in neighboring Syria could spell the end for Hezbollah’s arms supplier and geostrategic linchpin to Iran.  If Syria’s Alawite (a branch of Shi’ism) regime falls and a Sunni regime takes power in Syria, Hezbollah and Iran will need each other more than ever.  For Iran, Hezbollah would be their only ally and credible counterweight left against Israel in the region.  For Hezbollah, Iran would be their sole ideological ally and supplier of money and weapons. One must wonder how long Hezbollah could sustain itself and its ideology of resistance if the regime in Tehran were to fall. 

Will Hezbollah attack Israel?  It is my belief that only if there is a clear and present danger to the survival of the Iranian regime. Striking Iran’s nuclear facilities fails to meet that criterion. 

But the Israelis should ask themselves, is that a risk worth taking? Well, that's another debate.

About the Author(s)

Kip Whittington is a Research Associate at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. He holds an MA in International Affairs, with concentrations in Middle East Regional Studies and Defense Policy & Military Affairs, from Texas A&M University’s George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. Please note that the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.



Thu, 03/22/2012 - 2:43pm

In reply to by CBCalif

Very well said argument that logically, Hezbollah will stand aside if Israel attacks Iran. But it neglects the emotions of the people involved. If Israel attacks Iran there will be very high emotion running amongst the people who comprise Hezbollah. Many will want to do something and do it right now. It has been six years since the last fight and even as Israel has increased its capabilities, Hez has increased theirs and human nature being what it is, the excitable young men may consider that what they have done will trump what the Israelis have done. Logic may not have as much to do with the decision to launch the rockets as people want to think.

Tunnels may be rather harder to deal with than you think. To my knowledge (limited) anyplace where defenders have used tunnels they have been extremely difficult to defeat and Hez has had six years to dig in.

Diverse ethnic and cultural groups, political and military factions, and religions and sects populate the Middle East, each of which is motivated by a perceived need for self-preservation and sometimes for expansion. They are, however, not enslaved to the situational needs and mandates of others even if those others are their current allies or arms suppliers. While some of the above groups, motivated by extreme religious beliefs such as the Muslim Brotherhood, may press for regional or national participation in a war against non-Muslim entities such as Israel or violence against other religious groups such as Christians they do so knowing others (e.g. members of the military) not themselves will bear the burden and costs of any resulting battles. The officers and rank and file of Arab military forces also realize that discrepancy and thus are not eager to enter into an offensive style conflict with any enemy. They know how costly those conflicts have been and remember that historically they have been unsuccessful. How the Iranian Revolutionary Guard will perform remains to be seen should they find themselves in an actual conflict.

Middle Eastern Muslims are not a cohesive group and in fact the opposite is true, accordingly they lack a group consciousness. All alliances in that part of the world are temporary, even more so than in the rest of the world. The divisions between Middle Eastern parties run deep, are always there, and understanding them is of paramount importance when attempting to determine whether a political group such as Hezbollah will respond in given manner or not respond under certain conditions.

Even when temporarily hidden the enmity between Arabs, Persians and, Turks, each against the others, is real, deep, and overriding. Arab entities may (or have) enter(ed) into “temporary” political and pseudo-military alliances with Turks or Persians, but that relationship is strictly mercenary and functions solely at a situational level. Those alliances will never be permanent. An Arab entity will never take orders from either Persians or Turks. Even if they seem to do so, and even if some of their decisions are made in error, Arab leaders act in their own interests. They will not bring or risk bringing destruction onto themselves to support the goals and needs of either Turks or Persians.

While each of the Arab (Muslim) nations and independent warlord style political entities such as Hezbollah would like to see Jews returned to the dominated status in the Middle East currently “enjoyed” by the Christians living in the midst of the Islamic world, they realize that objective will never be achieved given the military (nuclear weapons based) power of Israel. Even the “rational” leadership of Hezbollah understands the reality of their position vis-à-vis Israel.

Hezbollah is in an odd situation. They are a growing warlord style power located in a relatively small country—Lebanon, a land within which numerous groups struggle to coexist without succumbing to the others. Population estimates indicate that the 4+ million or so residents of that country can be characterized as 27% Sunni Muslims, 27% Shiite Muslims--with a minute number in smaller Islamic sects; 5% Druze; and 39% Christian-- which themselves are divided into a dozen or so often competing and warring groups. There is no love lost between these parties and as noted in the above paper over the Middle East that relationship between Shiites and Sunnis is currently deteriorating. A deterioration many aptly perceive as originating from Iran’s attempt to establish itself as a modern day world power which they are in part attempting to facilitate by establishing a Shiite "Client State belt extending from the their border to the Mediterranean Sea on the Syrian and Lebanese coasts (i.e. Greater Syria) and further South with Sunni Hamas in Gaza. An Iranian geostrategic approach the US (Bush Administration) may have facilitated by its removal of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni led and staffed army and government.

Hezbollah’s relationship with the Iranians is one of convenience. As Arabs they are not Persian pawns. While Hezbollah may have an interest in Shiite survival and ascendancy, were the latter possible—and it is not, foremost they want to solidify their political and economic position in Lebanon. Their leadership also understands that Israel has no problem with Hezbollah having established themselves as a de facto State on their Northern border any more than Israel cares about the nature of the political entity ruling Gaza. All nations learn to live with seemingly (real) bordering enemy nations and accommodate their defense capacity to manage that situation, else they end up like pre-World War II Czechoslovakia or historically dismembered Poland. Israel’s substantial and well trained and well led defense forces and its large nuclear arsenal and accompanying multi-layered delivery systems insure their nation’s survival or the mutual destruction of more of the world than one will wish. Absent their taking offensive action against Israel, Hezbollah realizes they do not have to fear Israeli action against them.

Hezbollah and Israel have entered into a de facto relationship recognizing this fact. Contrary to academic wisdom otherwise, Hezbollah suffered major losses in their 2006 unintentional conflict with Israel whom they realize has no interest in re-occupying the lands where Hezbollah reigns supreme. Hezbollah’s leadership also understands that Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are not Olmert and company. Further, they like most other nations are observing how powerless, disinterested, or cowardly (depending on one’s viewpoint) are the so-called world powers, NATO nations, and United Nations when it comes to stopping the slaughter in Syria or curtailing the brutal actions of its leadership.

Presuming Israel attacks Iran, and that remains to be seen, Hezbollah in all likelihood will not get involved regardless of Persian commands. They observed Israel’s response in 2008 in Gaza and saw the destructive approach the IDF applied on an intentionally effective and limited basis. Hezbollah knows that under the leadership of Netanyahu and Barak Israel will have contingency plans to destructively deal with them. True, tunnels can be a problem, but this time the IDF will use the Marine Corps Fallujah total destruction approach. They will use incendiary weapons then seal the tunnels, burn the villages of Southern Lebanon to the ground, create a free fire killing zone in that area while forcing the population to move northward, and they will carry out a massive bombing of Hezbollah’s urban areas. Rapid and heavy destruction will be their objective.

Israel like the rest of the world is learning how impotent are the UN, America, and European nations thanks to Syria. Also, this is not 1973 and Russian threats of nuclear protected intervention will carry no weight. Israel’s nuclear armed Jericho III missiles have a 7000+ mile range and the Russians know that in the nuclear arena the worm has turned. Israel’s leadership has in the past publicly cautioned the world not to underestimate its power. Ariel Sharron in a televised comment to a reporter once smiled and noted, “We are much stronger than people realize.”

Israel knows that should it ever face a holocaust level attack against its soil that attack will come at best from one or two nations. When analyzing the possibilities of that type attack and the risks of not preventing it through advanced action, American leadership should ask itself, given the limited number of countries that possibly could today or in the future threaten its survival, consideration, why has the Jewish State elected to amass at least 100 atomic and hydrogen bombs and why have they expanded their delivery systems capabilities such that they are now able to deliver those nuclear weapons over 7000 miles distant from Israel?


Sat, 03/17/2012 - 2:08pm

The author needs to also consider e.g. the events of May 2008, i.e. the temporary Hezbollah take-over of west Beirut, in his analysis, and what it meant for sunni-shia relations in Lebanon.

The sunni-shia cross-sectarian unity in relation to the struggle against Israeli aggression in south Lebanon held up in 2006 for a number of reasons, but may not do so again, given both the local Lebanese and the regional deterioration in sunni-shia relations.

Especially not, if the Israeli response to an Iranian-ordered Hezbollah rocket barrage takes the form of a open-ended, carefully executed campaign exclusively against Hezbollah military targets (Yes, the distinction is hard to make, since many targets are mixed with or buried under civilian areas, but still).

Such a "slow-motion" campaign might give the non-shia lebanese communities, especially the sunnis and the druze, the opportunity to change the balance of power while the IDF keeps Hezbollah locked down in fighting. The Hezb internal response would be swift and brutal but that may not be enough, depending on the situation on the ground, the longevity of the campaign and (especially) the situation next door in Syria.

Also, keep in mind that the findings of the post-2006 Vinograd Report should be fully implemented in the IDF by now. A response by IDF land forces (Carl is right about the necessity of that) would probably have a different character that the 2006-bomb-everything-and-dispatch-tank-columns-and-reservists response.


Striking Iran would severely tax the resources and capabilities of the Israeli Air Force. It would be a maximum effort and I wonder if they could fight a long range air war with Iran while at the same time trying to bomb Lebanon into powder. They may not be able to both at the same time and if not, at least in the beginning, there might not be so much risk for Hezbollah.

If Hezbollah did start firing rockets, the Israeli Army would invade. The IAF even if it wasn't distracted by fighting with Iran couldn't physically stop the rocket rain. Only ground forces can do that and the pressure to stop those rockets quick would be very hard to resist.

Also Hezbollah needs the current Iranian regime. But the current Iranian regime hasn't supported them merely because of altruism. If they were attacked by Israel they may expect payback and if they don't get it they would have good reason to re-consider their support of Hezbollah. If Hezbollah didn't stand by Iran they might lose its support even if the Ayatollahs didn't fall.

If Israel is foolish enough to attack Iran they should expect the rocket rain to fall.