Another War Between Israel and Hezbollah Is Inevitable

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On July 12, 2006, a Hezbollah unit crossed into Israel from Lebanon and ambushed two Israeli Humvees, killing three soldiers, injuring two and capturing two. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Hezbollah’s raid “an act of war.”

When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000, the Lebanese government refused to take responsibility for its own territory and instead ceded ­de facto control to Hezbollah.  

The Israeli government held Lebanon as a whole responsible for the attack because Hezbollah’s attack was launched from Lebanese territory and Hezbollah was a Lebanese group. Simply put, Lebanon couldn’t have it both ways — embracing Hezbollah when it was politically expedient but distancing itself to avoid accountability.

What followed was a 34-day war. It was brief but bloody.

Hezbollah had stockpiled between 10,000 and 12,000 short- and medium-range rockets and a smaller number of longer-range missiles. It had placed several in underground bunkers designed and perhaps even built by North Korean engineers in the caves and mountains of southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah launched several thousand missiles into Israel, killing several dozen Israelis and striking cities like Haifa, which had not been hit in an Arab-Israeli War since Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

As Israel pounded Lebanon, taking out missile batteries and Hezbollah positions, the United Nations and a wide array of international diplomats demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan dispatched a three-member team to the region to urge all parties to exercise restraint.

On July 14, 2006, French President Jacques Chirac condemned Israel’s retaliation against Hezbollah in Lebanon as “completely disproportionate.” Russian President Vladimir Putin called Israel’s “use of full-scale force” unacceptable, a somewhat ironic statement given that, a decade later, he ordered the Russian air force to carpet-bomb Syrian towns and villages without any attempt to distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Even the State Department got in on the game. “It is extremely important that Israel exercise restraint in its acts of self-defense,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on the first day of the war. President George W. Bush sought to be assuring and said, “To help calm the situation, we’ve got diplomats in the region.” 

For then-Senator Hillary Clinton, diplomacy could not come quickly enough. “We’ve had five and a half years of a failed experiment in tough talk absent diplomacy and engagement,” she told NPR. “I think it’s time to go back to what works, and what has historically worked and what can work again.”

Eventually, diplomats got their wish. The United States joined the international chorus calling on Israel to stand down, no matter that Hezbollah still posed a potent threat. On August 11, 2006, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1701, which called for a cease-fire and demanded that “there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than the Lebanese state.”

It was rhetoric that diplomats could celebrate, but the reality was far different. “No army in the world will force us to drop our weapons, force us to surrender our arms, as long as people believe in this resistance,” Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said.

Just a month after the cease-fire, he claimed to have restocked his arsenal in full and also claimed to possess 25,000 rockets. In the ultimate irony, the Lebanese defense minister blamed Israel for failing to finish off Hezbollah. “The army is not going to the south to strip Hezbollah of its weapons and do the work that Israel did not,” he said.

08_11_Hezbollah_Israel_01 Israeli artillery fires into Lebanon after a roadside bomb exploded next to an Israeli border patrol near the Shebaa Farms area, near Kiryat Shmona, Israel, on January 4. Hezbollah admitted it set off a bomb targeting Israeli forces. Michael Rubin writes that whereas in 2006 Hezbollah could strike only northern Israel, today its missiles imperil every inch of the Jewish state. Ancho Gosh/Jinipix/reuters

Ten years on, it’s perhaps wise to sit back and consider the price of a premature cease-fire. Forget, for a moment, that Hezbollah has shed any pretense of being a Lebanese nationalist organization and instead fights in Syria on behalf of the Syrian government and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Today, analysts and experts place Hezbollah’s arsenal at between 120,000 and 130,000 rockets and missiles. Whereas in 2006 Hezbollah could strike only northern Israel, today its rockets and missiles can imperil every inch of the Jewish state.

U.N. and European diplomatic guarantees turned out to be nonexistent, and U.S. diplomats ignored Hezbollah’s rearmament once headlines moved on. The Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, arguably President Barack Obama’s signature achievement for the second term, has only made matters worse, as it has infused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah’s main suppliers, with cash.

When it comes to extremists’ threats, the key to peace is seldom through diplomacy, nor do even playing fields resolve conflict. Rather, it’s through a decisive, disproportionate and overwhelming victory in which as many potential attackers are eliminated as possible. Too often, cease-fires bring not peace but rather a shield behind which provocateurs can hide from the consequences of their actions.

Hezbollah is a formidable force today not only because of Iran’s massive infusion of arms and equipment but also because of the fickleness of diplomats a decade ago. Had President George W. Bush held firm to his principles, and had Rice prioritized what was right above the affirmation of her peers, there would be no Sword of Damocles hanging over the region.

Alas, because of decisions a decade ago, the question is not whether a new Israel-Hezbollah conflict will occur but how many orders of magnitude greater the damage will be.

Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. He instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics and teaches classes on Iran, terrorism and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. He has lived in post-revolutionary Iran, Yemen and both pre- and postwar Iraq and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His book Dancing With the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes examines a half-century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.