The Israelis and Hezbollah are at it again. Earlier this week, they seem to have skirmished in the Shebaa Farms area — a disputed patch of land controlled by Israel, with unresolved and unclear claims by Lebanon and Syria. While the Israelis claim to have repelled some Hezbollah fighters trying to infiltrate northern Israel, Hezbollah has denied any such move and blamed the Israelis — “fearful, anxious, and tense” enemies — for behaving skittishly. In any event, Hezbollah has reserved the right to respond; Israeli intelligence has indicated it expects the organization to attack this week.
In their latest exchange of fire, or fiery statements, Israel and Hezbollah are continuing a new tradition of contained conflicts — one stretching back five years, when the Israelis stepped up efforts to interdict weapons shipments, destroy infrastructure, and kill Iranian or Iranian-supported officials and fighters in Syria (and indeed Iraq). Last week, the Israelis struck a site in Syria and killed a Hezbollah fighter in the process. When they did so, they crossed a threshold that Hezbollah had set in 2019 after the Israelis conducted a series of strikes against its interests in southern Syria and beyond.
Regardless of whether they skirmished in the Shebaa Farms, the Israelis and Hezbollah are trying to uphold deterrence — under a so-called equation that has held since 2006, with variables changing from time to time. Each side has worked to contextualize the killing and responses — real and reported, completed and forthcoming. The Israelis indicated that the killing was inadvertent, essentially continuing a policy of avoiding or minimizing harm to Hezbollah’s men in their Syria strikes. Meanwhile, Hezbollah — through Sheikh Naim Qassem, its deputy secretary-general — prepared the path for a calibrated retaliation. Qassim assessed that the “atmosphere does not indicate a war” between Israel and Hezbollah “in the next few months.” Moreover, he added “there is no change of rules of engagement and the deterrent equation with Israel exists and we are not planning to change it.”
Addressing audiences at home and abroad, Israeli and Hezbollah leaders are clearly trying to contain the consequences of their own actions — and future, even likely choices — while reassuring their core constituents and maintaining their claimed balance of fear. They will avoid a wider war in the coming weeks and months, absent some unforeseen and imbecilic escalation. But they’ll contribute to conditions that make a future campaign more likely — and, in the eyes of some, even necessary.
Despite skirmishing repeatedly over the past few years, Israeli and Hezbollah leaders have maintained deterrence more broadly. Indeed, they’ve maintained stability under their “equation” — more like an equilibrium, really — since the July 2006 war. Back then, the Israelis pummeled south Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and parts of Beirut for more than a month. Unleashing their “Dahiya Doctrine,” the Israelis killed over 1,000 Lebanese, compelled a million people to flee their homes, and destroyed businesses and infrastructure. They caused billions of dollars in damage and undercut other Lebanese leaders, to boot. Powerless to stop the aerial onslaught, Hezbollah fired rockets and missiles into Israel, shelled navy vessels off the Lebanese coast, and — instead of retreating, or melting away — confronted and harassed Israeli infantry and armor throughout south Lebanon. Not only did it kill at least 165 Israelis, mostly soldiers, but it paralyzed northern Israel and forced almost 500,000 Israelis to shelter in bunkers or flee their northern towns and villages — and, as a consequence of reservist mobilization, harmed other segments of the economy.
In the immediate sense, the Israelis lost and Hezbollah won. The Israelis failed to achieve their cabinet’s stated political and military objectives in 2006. They botched their ground campaign, tarnished their legal and moral standing, and lost their sense of invincibility in the process. Meanwhile, Hezbollah lurched from the success of 2000 to the success of its “Divine Victory” — a political victory it snatched, and spun, from the military destruction visited upon its community and the country from which it operates. And, for a time, it soared, reaching an apex of popularity and ideological influence in Lebanon and the Middle East that it has never been able to achieve in the years since.
At a deeper level, however, the Israelis succeeded in reestablishing and revising deterrence in line with the longer-range thinking of some strategists and officials. They killed a significant number of Hezbollah fighters and destroyed key facilities — serious setbacks for a non-state actor that, for all its success and support, draws from more limited pools of men and money than its adversary. Moreover, the Israelis pushed others to constrain, or put in place precursors for future constraints on, Hezbollah. Lebanese leaders deployed the Lebanese Armed Forces in south Lebanon for the first time since the 1970s, after decades of Palestinian, Israeli, Israeli-supported proxy, and Hezbollah dominance in the area. Meanwhile, American, European, and Arab officials expanded and empowered the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). (Note: The U.N. is currently considering the renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate. While UNIFIL will probably remain in Lebanon with an extension, officials and diplomats may alter the scope of its mandate again.) Ultimately, the Israelis raised the risks and costs of action for Hezbollah. Having lurched from success to success after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah spent years parlaying rocket strikes, border raids and abductions, and negotiated prisoner exchanges into political standing — and an unquestioned special status in Lebanon. After the 2006 war, though, Hezbollah has been much more careful about confrontation with Israel in south Lebanon. It does not take lightly the risks of more death and destruction and — more broadly, not only as consequence of Israeli policy — has since been grappling with challenges within its core constituency and among all Lebanese.
And, so, Israel and Hezbollah have danced — locking arms in deterrence, for years. Over time, they’ve each acquired new capabilities and expanded their areas of operation. In doing so, they’ve altered the variables of their so-called equation — even when they haven’t abandoned it or diminished in their desire to uphold it.
In addition to testing the equation or modifying its variables, leaders on each side have adopted — or have seemed to adopt — different senses of deterrence in the first place. The Israelis, for instance, have not always distinguished between deterrence and the use of force. Instead, they’ve embraced holistic and cumulative deterrence, using force and threats as part of longer-range policies through which they seek to deter Arab adversaries from attacking their state. Having quested for technological superiority — and, indeed, dominance — while embracing preemptive, preventative, and punitive uses of force, Israeli leaders have used force and threats of force concurrently, and in sequence, to maintain what they see as deterrence. If and to the extent decisionmakers think in this way, then they may treat certain conflicts with Hezbollah as necessary threat-mitigation exercises — first, reducing the party’s capabilities and, second, compelling it to reconsider its intentions over time. Violence is not a failure; it is a tool — one that has been successful in other contexts, despite political controversy and moral costs.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has refined the relatively rudimentary — and somewhat classical — deterrence framework it first articulated in the 1990s. “If you attack us, we will use our Katyushas,” Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah once declared, in the Lebanese press, when Hezbollah fired the rockets into Israel after the assassination of his predecessor. “If you do not attack us, we will not use our Katyushas.” Nasrallah, Qasim, and others — who’ve planted their reasoning in speeches, with the press, and among analysts, not necessarily in declared doctrines — have repeatedly sought to confine confrontation in terms of time, territory, and scope. To be sure, the organization didn’t abandon guerilla tactics in south Lebanon; nor did it immediately cease terrorist activity abroad. But it did demonstrate, and freely discuss, a realistic and sophisticated understanding of its technical capabilities and power relative to its Israeli adversaries — and thus sought to use a balance of fear, or of consequence, to prevent certain attacks on its leaders, facilities, and infrastructure.
They’ve revised the rules over time, but haven’t always done so in peaceful or orderly ways. For years, Hezbollah raided and abducted soldiers in the borderlands to then exchange them for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. In 2006, the Israelis essentially ended that practice by raising the costs. Similarly, the Israelis had been killing Hezbollah fighters and destroying the organization’s infrastructure in Syria for years. And never mind their use of drones in Lebanon, including in and near Hezbollah’s organizational nerve centers. In 2019, Hezbollah declared that it would respond to such killings and drone operations. Since then, the Israelis have seemingly been trying to avoid Hezbollah casualties, provide the party with off-ramps, and accept limited responses as face-saving gambits rather than escalatory measures.
Even so, neither Israel nor Hezbollah will be able to confine and compartmentalize their confrontations forever. Nor will they be willing or able to negotiate away initiatives, programs, and policies that each see as vital. Since it dove into the Syrian war, Hezbollah has worked with the Syrian regime and other auxiliaries to insert itself into southern Syria. In doing so, it has developed infrastructure and technology for use in a future war — or, at the very least, to harass the Israelis while extending Iranian lines of influence in an area once dominated by a Syrian regime that has been as docile and pliant in the Golan as it has been brutal and vicious in Ghouta. In turn, the Israelis have been destroying certain Iranian and Iranian-supported infrastructure and weapons near Damascus and in southern Syria — and, if and when deemed necessary, anywhere from Iraq to Beirut’s southern suburbs. But neither party will forever bifurcate their Syria-specific activity from the core conflict, which is still in southern Lebanon and northern Israel. Alongside its trials and experiences in integrated operations and urban warfare, acquired throughout Syria, Hezbollah has since the 2006 war also acquired more sophisticated missiles, drones, anti-aircraft capabilities, and surface-to-sea weapons for use in Lebanon. Notwithstanding current financial struggles, the Israelis have spent more than a decade revamping their northern units, applying lessons learned, and improving equipment that proved surprisingly vulnerable in the past. While they’ve warily watched Hezbollah reequip after 2006, the Israelis are particularly concerned with guided missiles and other qualitative improvements that Hezbollah has made since it gave as good as it got in their last open war.
As part of their campaign to counter Hezbollah’s initiatives, the Israelis killed Hezbollah fighters in January 2019 and June 2019 — and then attacked an office building in August 2019. After years of getting slammed in Syria, Hezbollah drew a line in the sand — again, approaching deterrence in a somewhat classical sense. Preparing a “calculated strike,” which it “arranged in a way which wouldn’t lead to a war,” Hezbollah fired missiles at an Israeli tank in Israeli territory in September 2019. The Israelis then shelled areas around three Lebanese villages.
While they weren’t coordinating or choreographing their exchanges, and certainly needed to accept the risk of causing casualties that might’ve compelled the other side to escalate further, Israeli and Hezbollah leaders were clearly calibrating their activity. They intended to limit the time, place, and scope of their responses; and they did. They intended to communicate to different audiences, saving face within their constituencies and trying to maintain the rhetorical balance of bluster; and they did. They intended for the moment to pass; and it did. All of that has been true in 2020, too — at least for now. Even so, mistakes, miscalculation, and overreach were and are real risks. Even if the Israelis maintain their current approach, they will not stop frustrating Hezbollah’s efforts to develop and emplace new weapons or infrastructure — and will thus embarrass the party at home and in the region, while occasionally killing its men in the field. And this is all to say nothing of other tripwires, commitments, and impulses — not all of which involve errors, but which may lead to intentional acts rooted in erroneous thinking and problematic policies of the past. A campaign is not imminent, but it does seem inevitable.
In their time of peace, the Israelis and Hezbollah have prepared for war. In their latest skirmish, they’ve actually upheld and reinforced their deterrence equation — not tested or undermined it. They seem determined to hold the balance — once again, and for at least a little while longer.
In their relationship, though, the Israelis and Hezbollah have each maintained, broken, and remade rules of the game at different junctures — and have used armed violence, often purposefully, to do so: their brokered understandings of the mid-1990s, their transactional use of violence and indirect negotiation in the 2000s, their destructive war of 2006, and the confined and compartmentalized conflicts they’ve engaged in since the Syrian war began. They don’t want a war now. And, yet, in their desire to avoid clashing, in their development of capabilities and pursuit of policies to secure themselves even at the expense of threatening others, in their unyielding focus on the next conflict, they still seem to be solving today’s challenges by sowing the seeds of tomorrow’s calamities.
Anthony Elghossain is a lawyer, writer, and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by ALI DIA/AFP via Getty Images