Troubled Borderlands: Containing the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict

It is written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.
— Joseph Conrad

The volatile relationship between Israel and Hizbullah (The Party of God) has worsened since early 2015 and has threatened to lead to a sixth Israeli incursion into the country. Following wars in 1978, 1982, 1993, 1996 and 2006, the latest in a string of deadly confrontations between Israel and Lebanon could prove to be the bloodiest and carry the greatest regional impact yet to a Middle East consumed by violence and human suffering.

Israeli history in Lebanon is controversial and bloody. The Jewish state's involvement in Lebanon carries memories of tragedy, devastation, massacre and heavy loss for the Arabs and Israelis alike. While Anwar Sadat and Hafez al-Assad deeply wounded the Israeli military's pride in the opening hours of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (despite the Israelis impressive tactical and operational counterattacks), the failures in Lebanon have eclipsed the psychological blow inflicted by the Egyptians and Syrians in 1973. It is between the Litani River and Beirut where Israel have sustained successive and serious strategic political and military defeats as the Lebanese hinterland became an Israeli Vietnam between 1973 - 2000.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's doctrine was irrevocably fractured by military invasion in 1982, his career was destroyed as the human cost of war took a stark personal and political toll. Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, architect of the invasion of Lebanon, was forced to resign his portfolio in the wake of the Sabra and Chatila massacre which were labelled as war crimes and crimes against humanity

The Knesset and IDF were highly criticised by the Israeli press and media who even caught Israeli soldiers reciting a Hebrew nursery rhyme "Airplane come down to us, Fly us off to Lebanon, We will fight for Sharon, And return in a coffin." 'Discipline was collapsing within the Israeli army...examples of...indiscipline were matched by evidence of their incompetence...US officials were quoted as describing the IDF as an 'inept, undisciplined horde'. According to the Washington Times (27 August, 1984), twenty percent of IDF casualties were caused by 'friendly fire'. Rarely in Israeli history has the government  come under such sustained scrutiny by the international community. 

The horrors of the Sabra and Chatila massacre epitomised the folly of the Israeli intervention in Lebanon (an invasion rationalised to install a pro-Israeli government in Lebanon open to peace talks) and its alliance with the ruthless Phalangist militias.  

"It was the flies that told us...there were millions of them...panting with excitement as they found new flesh upon which to settle and feast...the bodies here had been the victims of mass murder...they were everywhere...we were breathing death, inhaling the very putrescence of the bloated corpses around us...the murderers - the Christian militiamen whom Israel had let into the camps to 'flush out terrorists' - had only just left." - Robert Fisk

The slaughter of three thousand Palestinian civilians (including infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly, some of whose bodies were found to have been mutilated) by the Phalangist militia in September 1982 represented the climax of a series of horrors committed by the Israelis and their allies during the Lebanese Civil War. Such acts, alongside the devastating invasion of Lebanon and the ruthless bombardment of cities such as Beirut, Sidon and Tyre by air, land and sea, triggered international outcry and disgust within Israel. 

According to the International Red Cross and Lebanese police figures,  14,000 died and 20,000 were injured in the first two weeks of the Israeli invasion in June, 1982. The majority of these were civilians who perished in indiscriminate Israeli air attacks as war correspondent Robert Fisk describes:

"The bodies lay on top of each other to a depth of perhaps six feet, their arms and legs wrapped round each other, congealed in death in a strangely unnatural mass. So many hundreds of civilians were killed by Israeli air raids on Sidon that the local Red Cross has not yet had the time to bury the the streets, in the houses, even on the seafront...rotting under the hot sun...the dead were sandwiched in the ruins."

Hundreds of Israeli soldiers died and thousands were wounded in fighting in this ferocious period of combat (1982 - 1985). These numbers were to be replicated following the establishment of an occupation in southern Lebanon which under the rubric of "security zones" became a self-fashioned killing box as the IDF were sucked into a vicious guerrilla war with Lebanese Shiites and other resistance groups between 1985 - 2000. Scores of Israeli soldiers were killed in suicide bombings, accidents and ambushes by the budding Shiite militia in tit for tat violence labelled the "Rules of the Game", an understanding between both sides on military escalation and confrontation. The memories of the harrowing Qana massacre during heavy fighting against Hizbullah during Operations Grapes of Wrath were revived following the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres who oversaw the military operations. 

The long-term consequences of the futile '1982 invasion and the Islamic revolution unleashed in Lebanon by Israel's catastrophic adventurism' (Robert Fisk) have reverberated into the 21st century. The Israeli military's nightmare continued in the 2006 July War. Hizbullah's major miscalculation to kidnap Israeli soldiers led to a brief and brutal war between Israel and the insurgent group. Again, while Lebanese casualties were heavy and Hizbullah became increasingly unpopular in politics, Israeli military strength while damaging failed to crush the group's military wing and was widely condemned as a strategic and tactical failure by Israeli politicians, military and media outlets. 

It is between the Litani River and Beirut where Israel has sustained successive and serious political and military defeats.


Local factors governing the situation in the Lebanese borderlands are inevitably rooted to historical and contemporary geo-strategic considerations, the Iranian - Israeli rivalry and proxy war initiated by the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The Arab revolutions and counter-revolutions have given Israeli officials the opportunity presented by the reignited Arab Cold War to court Sunni Arab States in an effort to contain Tehran and its proxies, its strongest being Hizbullah.

According to Major General Yair Golan, Jordan and Egypt have established an "unprecedented level of cooperation" mainly regarding intelligence and coordination in military activities. The tight coordination has been exemplified by Egyptian-Israeli military activities to quell the Sinai insurgency and tightening blockade Gaza. In the context of Lebanon, developments in the relationship between Saudis and Israel are proving significant. The visit of former Saudi intelligence officer, Major General Anwar Eshki to Jerusalem (July 2016), the closer diplomatic exchanges, and exchange of intelligence to fight extremists groups and contain Iran indicates Riyadh is publicly embracing Israel. Saudi Arabia regards the Muslim Brotherhood - connected to Hamas - as a "terrorist" organisation while the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League labelled Hizbullah a "terrorist" organisation in March 2016. 

For the Israelis these two developments will be significant. The Egyptian-Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip and clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood will tighten the noose on Hamas  while in the case of Lebanon, a potential war against Hizbullah endorsed by regional Sunni Arab states and the United States would make the process of an Israeli invasion to degrade and weaken Hizbullah an easier diplomatic procedure with important factions. 

The July War, 2006  via  BBC

The July War, 2006 via BBC

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 Hizbullah 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." 

As Jeffrey White demonstrates, each side has pushed on since the July War: 'Hezbollah has massively expanded the size and range of its rocket and missile inventory...including air defence and coastal defence has deepened and improved its anti-armor has improved its defensive layout in southern Lebanon, deeply embedding its offensive and defensive forces in various towns.' White goes on to emphasise how it has developed 'capabilities to undertake offensive ground operations into Israel.' Hizbullah have been deploying commercial drones to conduct strikes on Syrian rebels 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. In this tipsy-topsy world artificial suicide 'bombers' will be deployed against Lebanese civilians and Hizbullah soldiers by an Israeli Ipad. Three decades ago it was Hizbullah martyrs and truck bombs who conventionally did this against Israeli and American-led U.N forces.  

To understand advanced warfare, the next Gaza War, the new confrontation between Hizbullah and Israel in Lebanon and the continued evolution of the violence in the Arab Middle East will be the conflicts to analyse while the region's history will serve as warnings that military and technological innovations will not be a substitute for political solutions and authentic, old-fashioned diplomacy. The case of Lebanon is no exception. 

The potential removal of sanctions on Iran, a key sponsor of Hizbullah, will be a significant cause for concern amongst the Israeli military and security, as the lifting of embargoes on conventional arms will be perceived as an opportunity to strengthen Hizbullah both financially and militarily. However sources close to the organisation have argued that ‘additional Iranian support would not come in the form of weaponry, but rather in the form of institutional resources — schools, hospitals and roads — increasing local support, while propping up Shiite militias and regime forces in neighbouring Syria.’

The latter point is important as 'Hizbullah has 5,000 fighters in Syria, almost a quarter of its manpower. Around 1,600 have died, with 6,000 wounded.' The cost on the group has been significant and Hassan Nassrallah may not see a confrontation with Israel as a desirable prospect politically and militarily as Sunni and Shiite states battle one another in the Arab Middle East. Suicide bombings across Lebanon have highlighted the fragile state of affairs in a country trying to heal the wounds of decades of intermittent conflict and the renewed confrontation between Shiite and Sunni state and non-state actors threatens Lebanon now.

However, the implications of the Iranian nuclear deal, while important in changing the future dynamics of the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict, serves to distract attention from the way that Hizbullah has established a degree of parity with the Israeli military that was absent in the July War. Covert Iranian support for Hizbullah, while prevalent, has been over-emphasised by Western media. According to Uzi Rubin, it was ‘Syrian rockets (that) played the major role in the July War, 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 Hizbullah or not in the next war will not determine the group’s capacity to do formidable damage to the Israeli military. 

Lebanon faces a major crisis: According to Amnesty International, 1.1 million refugees from Syria (which amounts to around one in five people in the country) are situated in the country. Nearly half a million Palestinian refugees, displaced by the 1948 Jewish-Arab Civil War and with a troubled history with the Lebanese population, accompany these staggering figures. 

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 humanitarian crisis by displacing thousands of Lebanese civilians while significantly undermining governmental capacity to provide for its Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. In the second Lebanon War (2006) the IDF severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure and displaced 900,000 Lebanese civilians, as well as killing over 1,000.

A war now would have far greater impact, making these statistics pale by comparison. The regional context has drastically changed since the Arab Revolutions shook the Middle East in 2011 and the military strength of both parties has surged. Posturing and sabre-rattling is the norm in the Arab-Israeli conflict and has frequently led to miscalculation by Arab and Israeli actors. However despite bloody confrontations, informal stability and compromise has emerged from the Arab-Israeli wars in the Occupied Territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. Deterrents of terror and the horrors of Pyrrhic victories for either side may be the only solution for now in a region plagued by violence. 

Matthew Williams