When low-level violence between Arabs and Israelis boils over into open conflict, the wars are swift, brutal, and bloody. The current occupation of Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, the unsuccessful occupation of southern Lebanon and the Egyptian Sinai have been core elements which have defined this conflict, particularly since the Six Day War in 1967. However, the Iranian-Israeli proxy war is becoming more important in defining Israel's relationships with the Arab states across the region, particularly the Sunni states. The Syrian Golan has become a new fault line, particularly in the conflict between Israel, Ḥizbullāh, Iran and Syria.
THE SYRIAN WAR: SHADOW WARS IN AL-ASAD'S BACKYARD
“Over those mountains is Lebanon,” Andrea said pointing ahead, “and on the other side of the Golan Heights is Syria.” It was a gloomy day. Rain had been threatening throughout the morning when the group met up in Ha-Yarkon, Tel Aviv but now the black and grey rainclouds gathered over the horizon had finally reached us and the heavens opened up. Rain peppered and splashed the windscreen of the car and the lie-lowing, swirling clouds were covering the highest points of the dark green and yellow hills as we trundled along the valley floor. We had driven two-hundred kilometers to reach the Golan Heights and Mount Bental.
Charles, Lisa, Amanda, Shulli and I were in the north-east of Israel, the road stretched out ahead. Crammed into the front-seat, I glanced around as Noah’s music blared out and he warbled in and out of tune to Cherilyn Sarkisian. At first, parts of the Golan Heights took me back to sitting in the back of the car as the family car drove through France when I was a boy, however as we started ascending it became more reminiscent of the moors and highlands of the Outer Heybrides, Scotland.
The Golan Heights also know as the Syrian Golan were captured by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during the Six Day War (1967). The Six Day War, fought between Israel and the Arab states in the pitiless heat of June, 1967, changed the Greater Middle East forever. Egyptian tanks littered the desert, a trail of broken smouldering wrecks belching plums of smoke into the sky, their occupants encased within the confines of their cruel, piping metal coffins. In the Syrian Golan, "the land of dust", Syrian soldiers dotted the green hills. Many had been incinerated by napalm dropped by the Israeli airforce, an agonising death which was concurrently being heaped upon tens of thousands of civilians and Viet Cong guerrillas in Vietnam by American warplanes. The Golan Heights, the "Land of Dust", was emptying as streams of Syrian civilians followed Syria's defeated military into the flatlands surrounding the regional capital, Quinetra. Arab nationalism, if not a fading mirage in divisive, tension filled days, months and years leading to the fateful six days in June, had been put out of its misery by the Israeli military. For the Palestinians, the Al-Nakbah (or catastrophe) which began in the terrible years of 1947 and 1948 was evolving into an occupation or kibush as the Israelis, intoxicated and elated by victory, dug themselves in and built themselves upon the shattered Arab armies and the lands on which the broken bodies lay.
The Golan Heights were captured in the last days of the six-day war and it was clear in 2017 as it was in 1967 five decades earlier why the Israeli settlers and IDF coveted the territory known as the Golan Heights in the 1950s and 1960s. The lands in the valley were fertile and green, perfect for agriculture, farming and creating produce. I had heard it even snowed in the Syrian Golan, even offering Israelis and the Druze minorities living there a chance to ski. The Golan Heights were also a perfect vantage point for military positions to look west into Israel, north to Lebanon and deep into eastern Syria. We had driven two-hundred kilometers to reach the hills of Golan and Mt. Bental. Its proximity to Syria had made it a popular tourist destination in recent years. The geographical layout of the region served dual purposes both economical and military to the Israelis.
What had happened to the Syrian population during the 1967 War as the Israelis captured the Syrian Golan? Conventional narratives argue that the Syrian IDPs fled on the tailcoats of the Syrian army. The reality was that the war for the Golan Heights were bloody, the legacy of expulsion a grim stain on Israel’s military record. In the 1967 War, Israel uprooted 95 per cent of the Syrian population living in the region. The actions taken by the Israeli military constituted a violation of international humanitarian law and falls within the category of ethnic cleansing. Under a United Nations Commission of Experts mandated to look into violations committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, their interim report defined such an act as “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” In the final report, the same Commission described ethnic cleansing as “…a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”
While the ethnic cleansing was not authorised by the Israeli government, the actions taken against Syrian civilians appeared to be carried out by local military commanders. Personal testimonies from both civilians fleeing the Golan Heights and Israeli soldiers indicate both ‘force’ and ‘intimidation to remove persons from the area’ were utilised. Ramataniya, Jalabina, Hushaniya, Dabah, Elal, Wasat, and Za'ura were some of the innumerable villages that were decimated. According to commander Emanuel Shaked, Israeli soldiers “gathered (the Syrian Golanis) in a group…(and) let them take their belonging that they could carry in rucksacks. Most went on foot, and some on wagons with horses…Some people protested or shouted but no one resisted us.”
However the subsequent actions of Israeli military in the aftermath of the war offer evidence that the Israelis aimed to keep the territory for themselves as Colonel Shmuel Admon, the man in command of the Golan Heights, issued an order on 18th June, 1967 that the entire Syrian Golan was a ‘closed military zone’. Colonel Admon declared: "No one shall enter the Golan Heights region from the outside, and no one shall depart the Golan for an outside region, except with permission from the commander of IDF forces here." No one who left the Syrian Golan could return and those who tried to penetrate this military zone would face five years imprisonment as this order took effect, as detailed by General Elad Peled in the 36th military division leading the offensive in the area. “A few day after the end of the fighting, we started demolishing villages…With some of the homes no heavy machinery was even needed...” and the 20,000 civilians who remained in the Syrian Golan after the ceasefire “were evacuated or left when they saw that the villages were starting to be destroyed …and they had nowhere to return to.”
Furthermore, in the days following the conclusion of conflict, the Israeli military operating in the Syrian Golan proceeded to demolish Syrian villages and expelled Syrians who tried to return. These actions parallel those undertaken in the West Bank through Moshe Dayan’s Open Bridges policy, Operation Refugee and the principles outlined by General Shlomo Gazit in the Operational Principles for the Administered Territories under Fundamental Guideline II.
Of-course, as Shay Fogelman for Haaretz writes, "there is no question that many civilians joined the fleeing Syrian army forces both before and after the offensive. Many, but not all. A Syrian estimate a week after the war stated that only about 56,000 civilians had abandoned the Golan at that point. On June 25, the Syrian information minister, Mahmoud Zuabi, stated at a press conference in Damascus that just 45,000 civilians had left the conquered region. In the heat of battle, no orderly records were kept so it is impossible today to verify or disprove the figures, but testimony from Israeli soldiers also indicates that a fair number of Syrian civilians remained throughout the Golan. "I remember we saw dozens and sometimes even hundreds of them in the fields, outside the villages," says Elisha Shalem, commander of the 98th Reserve Paratroop Battalion." Furthermore as Fogelman illustrates, the army continued demolitions and expelled Syrian civilians returning after the fighting had concluded as ordered by Colonel Admon:
"The movement of Syrian civilians was halted. IDF records show that dozens of local residents who tried to return home were arrested daily and brought to the courthouse in Quneitra. There, most testified that they had come to collect belongings that were left behind. Others said they'd intended to return for good. All were imprisoned and later expelled. But those who managed to sneak through and reach home often found that nothing was left. "I don't remember exactly when it was, but a few days after the end of the fighting, maybe less than a week, we received an order to start destroying villages," says Elad Peled, commander of the IDF's 36th Division in the war. For 10 days after the end of the fighting, his division was responsible for the conquered part of the Golan Heights, at a time when local villagers apparently attempted to return to their homes."
The motives were not predominantly because Israelis held religious or ethnic hatreds for ordinary Syrians fueled by propaganda. However, in the build-up to the capture of the Golan Heights in 1967, it was clear that controlling water resources in the Sea of Galilee and settlers were unafraid to tap into their neighbors resources. This eventually sparked a border war between the countries. Equally, the geographic advantage of controlling the Golan Heights should not be underestimated from a military perspective. Mt. Bental demonstrated that the highest points of the Syrian Golan presented potent obstacles to invading armies. During the peak of the Cold War era, the Golan Heights – as with the Gidi and Mitla passes in the Egyptian Sinai – allowed the IDF to see the Syrian military approaching from considerable distance and meant the latter (in principle) faced an uphill battle to dislodge the IDF from their positions.
However today, in the age of the missile and hybrid wars, these geographical advantages no longer offer all the advantages Israeli military officials crave. Hizbullah demonstrated their ability to rain rockets on Israel in their thousands during the July War (2006) while Saddam Hussein – albeit unopposed due to George S.W Bush’s determination to include President al-Asad’s Syria in the coalition fighting the Iraqi regime – fired 39 Scud missiles on Tel Aviv and Haifa in 1991. Israeli, under diplomatic pressure from Washington, did not retaliate however it demonstrated that the original military benefits of the high-ground faded with the modernisation of military technology and tactics.
The wars of 1967 and 1973 for the Golan Heights were bloody and the legacy of expulsion and the levelling of the town of Quneitra in 1974 occupied during the Yom Kippur War by settlers are a grim stain on Israel’s military record. The lands of the Syrian Golan remains coated with landmines left behind by the Israelis and Syrians and have yet to be dismantled. The Israeli tour guide standing in the compound continued describing the heroics of the Israeli military during the 1973 Yom Kippur War to the tourists adding at the end that the Syrian Arabs had been “humiliated”. This statement was perplexing from an Israeli perspective, let alone how it fundamentally misinterpreted the Egyptian mindset during the Yom Kippur War.
Undeniably, the 1973 War was a strategic and tactical victory for the Israelis. However, psychologically, the final round of conflict between Egypt and Israel was regarded as a dismal intelligence failure from an Israeli stand-point, a military equivalent of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The surprise attack conducted by Egyptian forces, in their eyes restored parity with the Israelis and was a political blow to Golda Meir’s government. In-turn, the war sparked a geo-political crisis which harkened back to another harrowing autumn a decade before in1962 when the thirteen day Cuban Missile Crisis in the Caribbean brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The tense stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union in October, 1962 was replicated in October, 1973.
I wandered around the old U.N compound, descending into the bunkers which were dank, dark and in disrepair. After leaving the bunker, I emerged and looked out across Syria, dim and gloomy beneath the rainclouds which had soaked us. There the country lay, quiet, stretched out across the plains. In the distance were the old U.N headquarters which had been abandoned since the war began after Al-Qa'ida's offshoot Jabhat Fateh al-Sham kidnapped UN peacekeepers. In the 2010s, land for peace appear as unlikely as ever between Israel and Syria. "President al-Asad will be vulnerable and relatively weak," says Dr. Ahron Bregman, "the view in Israel is that the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli control for many years to come." The tensions bubbling between Iran, Ḥizbullāh, Syria and Israel are enough of a reason for the Israelis to hold onto the Syrian Golan.
The Syrian War has exacerbated tensions between Hizbullah, its Iranian patrons, and Israel "Assad is a puppet," says Avi Zeira, Head of Golan Heights Community, "the real problem is the strong presence of Iran close to our border in the Golan. We are prepared for anything can happen in the future and we will stand here because its strategic position on the intersection of Syrian-Lebanese borders is fundamental to Israel’s security." In an interview with Osservatorio Mashrek, Uzi Rabi, Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University was adamant that the Syrian War is entering a new phase, one more threatening to Israeli security interests. "The Golan Heights on the Syrian side has become a security perimeter. We will not give up on that because Hezbollah and Iran can push on this side. There are eight to twenty Sunni villages along this perimeter that can became a fence zone against Israel. We know that these Sunni villages prefer have the Israeli influence as supposed to Shi’a militias in their territory. Realistically, no one can know what will happen."
Since the Syrian War began in 2011, Israeli warplanes have been striking at Ḥizbullāh and Syria wherever President Asad and the Lebanese party's military's wing attempt to transfer armaments, weapons and missiles. Furthermore, from Syria to Lebanon, the Israelis have been meticulous in their efforts to ensure that Ḥizbullāh do not open up a new front along the Syrian Golan. With the focus shifting away from the Arab Revolutions to the North Korean missile crisis, tensions in the South China Sea between Washington and Beijing and the circus following the presidency of Donald Trump, the Israelis may feel - as with American distractions during the Vietnam War in the 1960s - they will have to act largely unilaterally if they feel their interests are threatened by the so-called Shi'a Crescent. This Shi'a Crescent stretches from Yemen in the Red Sea through to southern Lebanon (where Ḥizbullāh is dug in) to Damascus (the central hub of Asad's regime) and through to Iraq's Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad installed, rather haphazardly, by the Americans themselves. The increasing influence of Iran in the Middle East has Israeli, Western analysts and Sunni States, including the Gulf States, reorganising their political and military objectives.
The Syrian Golan - much like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and the shadow war between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran are tectonic plates grinding and sliding against one another, causing immense tensions across the Middle East. A sudden jolt could spell regional war which would eclipse the current upheaval in regional and global order sparked by the Arab Revolutions and the cluster of Middle Eastern conflicts and would be a potential catalyst for a new phase in the Arab-Israeli conflict, bubbling at low intensity since Ḥarb Tammūz, the 2006 July War (that is if one excludes the series of bloody wars between Hamas, Islamic Jihād and the IDF in the Gaza Strip).
A repeat of Harb Tammūz nearly occurred in the Syrian Golan and the disputed Shebaa Farms on 28th January, 2015 when a Ḥizbullāh unit, al-Quneitra Martyrs group, targeted members of the Givati Brigade in the Shebaa Farms occupied by Israel. The attack, according to Ḥizbullāh, had been a response to an Israeli operation ten days before where drones strikes in Mazraat Amal killed six Ḥizbullāh fighters and Mohammad Ali Allahdadi of the Quds forces in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards operating inside Syria. Following the attack on the Givati Brigade, safeties were off and fingers were on the trigger. According to Robert Tait in The Telegraph, Israel were prepared for an all-out conflict with Ḥizbullāh by performing air and ground strikes against it in retaliation to the incident. However, while tensions were higher than usual, neither side wanted a military escalation. No Israeli reserve soldiers were mobilised, a sign that war was out of the question in the Israeli military apparatus.
BLOODY STALEMATE IN LEBANON
Ḥizbullāh is the only Arab army to successfully emerge intact against the IDF in battle having frustrated the Israelis in multiple confrontations since the 1980s. This was accomplished through guerrilla attacks targeting IDF soldiers during their occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel's Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s and was also achieved by blunting Israeli advances into Lebanon in the 2006 July War when the IDF were unable to stop rockets being fired into Israel for 34 consecutive days after an originally effective aerial campaign. Israel will confront Ḥizbullāh - at the correct moment - however, they do not wish to do so on Syrian soil, the ghosts of Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s, the indecisive outcome in the 2006 July War and the terrible start to the 1973 October War still painful in the Israeli military's collective conscious.
Tactically, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was an unprecedented success. Defence Minister Ariel Sharon utterly destroyed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's military capacity and knocked out seventeen of nineteen batteries of deployed Syrian missile system in the Beka'a valley (Syria had occupied parts of Lebanon under the rubric of Arab Deterrent Force in 1976). However, the initial successes were won at a tremendous cost. The Lebanese authorities estimated that 19,085 were killed and 30,000 wounded with combatants accounting for 57% of the dead and civilians 43% in 1982. These statistics do not include the estimated 800–3,500 killed in the horrific Sabra and Shatila massacre. On 14 June 1982, International Red Cross estimated that 9,583 had died in the first week of the invasion alone. The IDF lost 657 soldiers and thousands were wounded (559 were to perish in the protracted guerrilla war in southern Lebanon with Ḥizbullāh). The impact on Israeli society was profound:
'While the war was still in progress, 86 reservists, including 15 officers, sent a letter to the government...stating their opposition to the war and requesting to do their reserve duty within Israeli territory. By September 1982, over 500 Israelis had enrolled as supporters of Yesh Gvul (Enough is Enough). By January, 1985, 30 months after the invasion, 143 reservists had been jailed for refusal to serve in Lebanon.' (Bregman, Israel's Wars, 185-187)
The Lebanon War sparked one of the biggest protests in Israel's history with 10,000 gathering in Tel Aviv to protest the intervention in the Lebanese Civil War in July. By September, 1982 these numbers swelled to 400,000 as Israeli society became disgusted by the IDF's collaboration with the Phalangists, the militia group responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre, civilian casualties at home and abroad and high casualties in IDF. Ariel Sharon was forced to resign and Prime Minister Mechanem Begin departed from office following the catastrophic intervention in Lebanon's civil war (1975 - 1989).
Since Ḥizbullāh came into being, with the support of Syrian and Iranian intelligence, Israelis and Ḥizbullāh, from the occupation of southern Lebanon by the IDF through to July War have established "the rules of the game" where low-level violence between the opposing forces has been accepted as a norm. A guerrilla attack, rocket-fire and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers or SLA would be returned in kind by the Israelis with a batash. Batash - an Israeli security phrase - 'refers to everyday warlike actions in circumstances where national survival is not immediately at stake' and aimed at 'keeping the other side off-balance or extracting retribution.' The "rules of the game" 'were clearly articulated in an oral agreement in 1993, following Israel's "Operation Accountability"' which defined confining Hizbullah's military activities to the Security Zone created by Israel, a de-facto occupation, and curbing Israel's targeting of Lebanese civilians.
Nonetheless, miscalculations have led to military escalation and brutal violence. Shimon Peres' slaughter of Lebanese civilians with Israeli artillery at Qana during "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in 1996, which killed 106 at a UN base (a safe zone under international law). The disproportionate response, had been a retaliation to Ḥizbullāh 120 katyusha rockets into Israel, a military action taken as a result of Israel killing Lebanese civilians after the breakdown of ceasefire. During these Israeli-Ḥizbullāh skirmishes, an Israeli missile had killed a little girl in Beirut while targeting Ḥizbullāh headquarters, a woman driving a car and an Apache helicopter had destroyed an ambulance south of Tyre in which there were four children and two women, 'terrorists' according to the airwaves across Israel. Israeli civilians were ushered to bomb shelters by the katyusha rockets and the IDF pounded Lebanon with 3000 shells a day and the Israeli airforce were conducting 200 missile raids every 24 hours, displacing 400,000 civilians. 3 Israelis and 200 Lebanese civilians were killed and a poultry thirteen Ḥizbullāh fighters were liquidated by the IDF. Qana, however, has defined Shimon Peres' small war in southern Lebanon.
The Israeli claims that Ḥizbullāh had fired from within the UN base were false, and they later admitted that their earlier statement on the Qana massacre had been false. According to Fijian soldier deployed in the compound, Ḥizbullāh were firing mortars 350 metres from the UN base. "I could see them firing mortars," said Captain Pio, "They had flak jackets and steel helmets, I watched them through my binoculars." Captain Ronnie, the UN communications officer 'received no shell warning' from Israel - the usual practice when the Israelis planned to fire artillery in a UN battalion's area of operations.' During the shelling of Qana, numerous eye-witnesses, survivors and UN operatives, and an amateur videotape put together by a Norwegian soldier caught an Israeli drone (used for targeting) in the footage buzzing overhead during the bombing of the refugee camp.
The Israeli press itself conducted investigations. The Jerusalem weekly, Kol Ha'ir featured a chilling interview on 10 May, 1996 'with soldiers from the artillery battery...that had fired the shells at Qana.'
'Soldier A' said that 'the battery commander gather us all and told us that this was war and that we had had to continue firing like the great fighters that we are. Hizbullah entered a village in which there were some Arabs, but that was their problem. One more Arab, one less Arab you know. Even the battery commander said that...He told us that it was war. Come on, the bastards fire at you, what can you do? He told us we were firing well and should keep it up, and that Arab, you know, there are millions of them. 'Soldier T' was quoted as saying that 'no one spoke about it as if it was a mistake. We did our job and we are at peace with that. Even 'Soldier S' told us that we were great and that they were just a bunch of arabushim (in Hebrew, Arabs). How many Arabs are there and how many Jews. A few arabushim die, there is no harm in that. Sergeant Y said that 'it's war, in a war these things happen...It's just a bunch of Arab. Why are you taking this so hard?'
Eerily, a U.S traveller uttered the exact same words as 'Sergeant Y' "It's just a bunch of angry Arabs" in Florentin Hostel during my time in Tel Aviv in 2016 to describe how he did not want to understand the mindset of the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank today. Thankfully, he will never join the army. The carnage at Qana, the zenith of "Operation Grapes of Wrath", drew international condemnation and revulsion, particularly across the Arab World. "They were the gates of hell,' wrote journalist Robert Fisk describing the UN compound after the bombing, "blood poured through them, in streams, in torrents. It washed over our shoes and stuck to them like glue, a viscous mass that turned from crimson to brown to black. The tarmac of the UN compound was slippery with blood. There were legs and arms, babies without heads, old men's heads without bodies, lying in the smouldering wreckage of the canteen. On the top of a burning tree hung two parts of a man's body. They were on fire. In front of me, on the steps of the barracks, a girl sat holding a man with grey hair, her arm round his shoulder, rocking the corpse back and forth in her arms. His eyes were staring at her. She was keening and weeping and crying, over and over: 'My father, my father."
Despite the atrocity at Qana, Ḥizbullāh have also miscalculated, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers on 12 July, 2006 being the best example of the group making a serious error of judgement in the build up to the 2006 July War. Ḥizbullāh's leader Hassan Nasrallah later admitting, "We had not foreseen...that the hostage taking would lead to a war of that scope."
The kidnapping of two IDF soldiers led to a fierce response by Ehud Olmert's government. The ambush conducted within Israeli territory by Ḥizbullāh guerrillas resulted in seven Israeli military casualties and the airforce responded by decimating Lebanon's infrastructure. The ensuing conflict led to over a thousand Lebanese dead (predominantly Shia), cost the economy $5 billion dollars in damage during tourist season and destroyed infrastructure. Israeli bombings by land, air and sea also created an environmental catastrophe in the Mediterranean after they destroyed the country's main power plant at Jiyeh. Over one hundred IDF soldiers and 45 Israeli civilians were killed in the fighting, while hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides were displaced.
Hizbullah paid a political price for its folly with Lebanese civilians and politicians, particular those from March 14 movement formed during the Cedar Revolution, were angered by the military wing's brashness and provoking Israel. Ḥizbullāh's headquarters in Haret Hreik (southern Beirut) were also mauled by bombings and their actions sharpened internal political and sectarian divisions (particularly Sunni and Shia) within Lebanon, a country reeling from the assassination of its prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the end of the Syrian occupation and the political protests sparked by Hariri's assassination, instigated by pro-Syrian and pro-Hariri parties. Contrary to Hizbullah's claims that they won the war against Israel in 2006, the conflict was a stalemate and produced indecisive outcomes for Israel and the Lebanese party.
ARSENAL OF THEOCRACY
The most recent dispute over the Shebaa Farms and the Syrian Golan have been and could be the future spark a new confrontation on Israel's Syrian-Lebanese fronts. "The worst is yet to come," said an Israeli intelligence official speaking to Politico Magazine in May, 2017. "Israeli analysts agree that President al-Asad is winning...and he owes Ḥizbullāh "big time" for it." Another IDF official added that "If Bashar al-Asad wins, we will have Hizbullah on two borders, not one," a threat which brigadier general, Yavne points out is much more knowledgeable, stronger and has a bigger arsenal" than IS.
Ḥizbullāh, while differing theologically from IS as a Shi'a Islamist group, as Lawrence Freedman briefly notes in The Future of Warfare, are similar to the Sunni/Salafi insurgents in the way they are structured; both ferocious asymmetrical fighters and a conventional fighting force. "The fusion of militia units, specially trained fighters and the anti-tank guided-missiles teams marks this case, as does Ḥizbullāh's employment of modern informations operations, signals intelligence, operational and tactical rockets, armed UAVs and deadly anti-ship cruise missiles. Ḥizbullāh leaders describe their force as a cross between an army and a guerrilla force, and believe they have developed a new model."
Sunni radicals and Shi’a extremists differ in the overall approach and main objectives for their use of terror. For example, the militant (as supposed to the apolitical) 'Salafi‐Jihadist variant of Sunni terrorism pursues the broad ideological aims of reactionary Sunni Islam' and 'continues to pressure vulnerable state regimes (takfiri) in Islamic states with an objective to establish itself in a safe haven from which to plot wider global terror.' Perpetrators of Shi’a terror, whether paramilitary death-squads in Iraq and Syria's conflicts, Ḥizbullāh cells, elements of Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi or Iranian agents 'do not display as deep an ideological grounding. With the exception of Ḥizbullāh's longstanding, continuous terror campaign against Israel, Shi’a terrorism has not rivaled the relentless and unending character observed in Sunni-sponsored terrorism.' What differentiates Ḥizbullāh's paramilitary wing (Jihād Council) from most non-state Sunni insurgents - if one excludes the military strength of the Sunni states - and Iraq and Syria's Sh'ia militias is its military strength which has enabled them to deploy deterrents against the Jewish state.
The Qassam-1 (3 km), Qassam-2 (9 km), Qassam-3 (10 km) and Katyusha rockets (22 km) are those used by Hamas' military wing Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and Islamic Jihād. These rockets were cut to ribbons by the Israelis advanced air defence systems, the Iron Dome which is part of a system Israel is developing, which will also include Arrow 2, Arrow 3, Iron Beam, Barak 8 and David's Sling. Of-course, the system wasn't foolproof, Amnesty International detailed how Hamas' rocket fire killed civilians in the Negev including Palestinian Bedouins and Israelis living near Gaza City. Nonetheless, Israel's military might, as the regional superpower in the region, dwarfed Hamas' armaments and most confrontations between the IDF and Hamas' are one-sided, brutal affairs where civilians bear the greatest toll in the Gaza Wars. In Syria and Iraq, the arsenal of IS comprised of artillery and tanks, lightweight anti-aircrafts guns, hand-held surface to air missiles, and anti-tank weapons largely from the Soviet Union's older military caches.
The Iraqi-Syrian insurgents armoury, while more deadly and more effective than the Qassam Brigades will never have the capacity to strike Tel Aviv with ballistic missiles. Ḥizbullāh does. The organisation's capabilities far exceed that of IS, al-Qassam Brigades and Islamic Jihād. The Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 have a range of 300 and 500 kilometres respectively while the Fateh-110/M-600 can reach a distance of 200 kilometres. Parallel to this, Ḥizbullāh are continuing efforts to acquire SA-17 and SA-22 ground-to-air missiles as well as P-800 Oniks air-to-sea missiles and it is believed that they may have succeeded in acquiring this technology during the Syrian War. These weapons could serve as a potent countermeasure against the Israeli Air Force including helicopters and some aircraft, and Hizbullah's acquisition of Russian SA-17, SA-22 and P-800 Oniks missile systems could be a clinical ‘tie-breaker' in the Israeli-Ḥizbullāh conflict.
This acquirement of sophisticated missile systems is matched by Ḥizbullāh's mastery of hybrid warfare which dispelled the myth that if the state mastered robotic weaponry and drone warfare, non-state actors would be outmatched technologically. The Israelis, after ten years, that Ḥizbullāh had 'developed the capacity to intercept video feeds from Israeli drones, which enabled the organisation to pinpoint the position of the Israeli battalions on the ground and ambush them' as far back as two decades ago when Ḥizbullāh overran a unit of Shayetet 13 (Israeli Special Forces) operating in occupied south Lebanon in 1997. Twelve Israeli soldiers were killed near Ansouriyeh as they were led into a minefield by a double-agent. The first six were eviscerated by a mine and the other members of the team killed were cut down by Ḥizbullāh bullets, the remnants of the squad rescued by helicopter. The chilling message carved into the seared olive trees were the mines had been wired were "The trees are talking to each other, The trees said: `There are Israelis among us - kill them'."
Writing in September 1997, journalist Fisk reporting from Lebanon wrote that the Shayetet unit were "unaware that they were walking into the most carefully laid ambush in Lebanese guerrilla history." The release of the classified footage from an Israeli UAV in operation at the time of the Ansouriyeh operation by Ḥizbullāh's leader Hassan Nassrallah in 2010, which was quickly ratified by the IDF as authentic, demonstrated that this ambush against Israel's elite squads was aided by intercepting Israeli UAV surveillance data. With the support of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ḥizbullāh was leading the way in amalgamating guerrilla operations and intelligence gathering with cyber warfare in the Middle East.
The IDF, much like their American counterparts in the Iraq War, had failed to encrypt their transmissions. If the drone was a cheap solution to real-combat troops at $4.5 million, hacking UAVs was even cheaper for insurgents ($26 software and a decent satellite antenna). The Skylark-1 surveillance drone is now encrypted and equipped with electronic jammers to thwart attempts to hack Israeli drone data and pinpoint the movement of Israeli ground forces. In Syria, Ḥizbullāh have been deploying commercial drones to conduct strikes on Jahbat Fateh al-Sham's jihādist coalition opposed to the Assad regime in Aleppo while the Israelis, according to Israel Aerospace Industry, are set to purchase a fleet of cheap suicide drones which can deliver a deadly package via a tablet app. LOCUST programs (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology) will challenge conventional missile defences and air forces and the Israeli LOCUST suicide bomber fleet will be cheap when measured against the cost of other robotic systems. Each LOCUST quadcopter cost tens of thousands of dollars, millions cheaper than traditional Hawks, Predators, and Wasps. In a topsy-turvy turn of events, Israelis may be deploying robotic suicide bombers against Ḥizbullāh who killed dozens upon dozens of IDF soldiers in occupied Southern Lebanon with human bombs.
According to Jeffrey White, Ḥizbullāh has unilaterally expanded its missile capabilities alongside significant innovations in its defensive layout in southern Lebanon, while their military support for Bashar al-Assad has meant that the group has gained considerable potential in offensive strategy. Israeli intelligence has estimated that Hizbullah ‘would likely…sustain fire of around a thousand rockets and missiles per day, dwarfing the approximate daily rate of 118 achieved in 2006.’ Such an increase in military power means that in the event of an attack on Israel, major damage would be dealt to Israeli civil and military infrastructure, as well as killing of scores of Israeli civilians.
Ḥizbullāh's adoption of the Vietnamese model of guerrilla warfare will make it extremely difficult to uproot. Its soldiers are armed with AK-47s, M-16 rifles, M-4 carbines, night-vision goggles and anti-tank missiles. "In southern Lebanon, Ḥizbullāh constructed an impressive system of concealed bunkers, complete with electricity wiring, reinforced concrete ceiling and enough water, food and ammunition to withstand a sustained siege. Ḥizbullāh built positions in friendly Shia villages and used civilian homes to stockpile weapons. All these preparations were made with the help of North Korean and Iranian instructors." (Bregman, Israel's Wars, 286)
While covert Iranian support for Ḥizbullāh is the worst kept secret in Lebanon, it has been over-emphasized by Western media. According to Uzi Rubin, it was ‘Syrian rockets (that) played the major role in the Second Lebanon war (2006), while Iranian rockets were practically absent from it’ and ‘few if any Iranian rockets hit Israel throughout the entire (2006) campaign.' Whether or not Iran covertly supports Ḥizbullāh or not in the next war will not determine the group’s capacity to do formidable damage to Israel.
The Jihād Council is not a conventional terrorist organisation, it is a 21st century army capable of influencing the region, militarily and politically. It is also capable of wreaking havoc on Israeli cities and towns as the IDF have targeted, often murderously, Beirut, Gaza City, Sidon, Quneitra, Jenin and other towns, villages and Lebanese and Palestinian refugee camps across the region. The next Lebanon War will be very violent, but it will be a deadly experiment in advanced warfare.
NEUTRALISING the Haystack: The consequences of a new war
Unlike the sputtering performance of the IDF where airpower preceded a sluggish, delayed invasion into southern Lebanon. Israel will enter Lebanon swiftly and in the words of Nafatali Bennett, Israel's Education Minister, aim to "neutralise the haystack" and will seek a clean, quick victory against Ḥizbullāh and the Lebanese government. Deterrents of terror are the solution in the short-term and back-door diplomacy however, the overarching signals and rhetoric from President Trump, particularly on the question of the United States' relationship with the Iranian regime will be important in shaping the region, and a potential conflict. The United States' has become unpredictable under the Trump administration and the president's attempts to dissociate himself from President Barack Obama's legacy and the Iranian nuclear deal have drawn criticism not just from Iranian officials, but European states, Russia and China. The shift of international attention to South-East Asia and the war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un have drawn attention away from the Middle Eastern Wars, and the resuscitation of the deadly Sunni-Shia schism across the Islamic world. Both problems are having serious global repercussions.
An ill-timed military campaign designed to weaken Ḥizbullāh, while considered legitimate to the hawkish Israeli government, will provide more problems than solutions for Israeli security, as well as increasing problems for its European allies, and further destabilizing the wider region. The conflict would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and Europe and present Western leaders with yet another war in the Middle East to navigate.Given Ḥizbullāh's military depth, the Israeli military may not get the swift, clean victory it desires and be bogged down in Lebanon and international scrutiny on the IDF will increase as civilian casualties on both sides mounts.
The Lebanese government and Ḥizbullāh are already struggling to provide for a huge number of refugees, which has produced a major socio-economic and humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. The Palestinians and its refugee population have, historically, had a difficult relationship with the Lebanese population. But the Syrian refugees provide a new and unpredictable dynamic to this relationship between local and refugee populations.
If Lebanese civil and military infrastructure and its civilians are treated in an indiscriminate manner by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the pursuit of Hizbullah, it will create a new major refugee crisis by displacing thousands of Lebanese civilians while undermining governmental capacity to provide for its Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. A war now would have far greater impact, making these statistics of the 2006 July War pale by comparison. Not only is the regional context significantly less stable than it was in 2006, but there is also a more belligerent government in power in Isreal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is drifting towards an open embrace of ethno-religious nationalism. It continues to introduce increasingly discriminatory policies against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and perseveres in its use of draconian military tactics, many of which have invited international condemnation.
Another Lebanon War would additionally increase Israeli isolation while providing an opportunity for ultra-violent extremist splinter groups affiliated with IS and radical jihadist cells to strengthen their position in a disordered eastern Lebanon. Eastern Lebanon remains fiercely contested by Lebanese Armed Forces and Ḥizbullāh fighting against insurgents associated with IS who have been pushed into Lebanon by the Syrian military and the destruction of its citadels in Raqqa and Mosul.
Quoting an unnamed Israeli soldier, he spoke to me in Tel Aviv of the coming war: "The war with Hizbullah will be bloody, I fear for the young kids who will be sent into combat, they are unprepared. The reserve units will lack the combat experience Hizbullah have gained in Syria." These words echoed those of another unnamed Israeli soldier returning from fighting in the 2006 July War who described Ḥizbullāh military wing as "nothing like Hamas or the Palestinians...they are trained and highly qualified...equipped with flak jackets, night-vision goggles, good communications and sometimes Israeli uniforms and ammunition. All of us were kind of surprised." The next Lebanon war will not go according to the plans of either Israel or Ḥizbullāh and the regional war it will spark will have repercussions across the entire Middle East. The international community must be prepared for the crisis when it arrives for the sake of Israel and Lebanon and the ten of thousands of Israeli and Lebanese civilians who will suffer the consequences if the dangerous game of cat and mouse between the IDF and Ḥizbullāh spirals out of control. The Israeli-Lebanese conflict may be on the brink of its greatest tragedy yet.
Matthew C.K Williams