Is War With Lebanon Imminent?

As both sides escalate by the day and as the fighting in Gaza simmers down, many Israelis are growing convinced that full-scale war with Hizballah is unavoidable. Are they right?

Smoke billows after an Israeli airstrike near the southern Lebanese village of Khiam on March 23, 2024. RABIH DAHER/AFP via Getty Images.

Smoke billows after an Israeli airstrike near the southern Lebanese village of Khiam on March 23, 2024. RABIH DAHER/AFP via Getty Images.

April 1 2024
About the author

Dr. Raphael BenLevi is director of the Churchill Program for National Security at the Argaman Institute, a fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, and a major (res.) in the IDF intelligence branch. He is author of Cultures of Counterproliferation: The Making of US and Israeli Policy on Iran’s Nuclear Program.

While most of the world’s attention is focused on Israel’s battle against Hamas in Gaza, Israel is simultaneously fighting on a second, lower-profile front against Hizballah in Lebanon. This is a war of attrition, and both sides have so far kept their ground forces out of the other’s territory. Yet, in all other respects, it is a war, and it is more severe than any of Israel’s numerous skirmishes with Hizballah since 2006. This war started the same day the one in Gaza did, when, on October 7, Hizballah expressed its support for Hamas by attacking Israel with missiles, RPGs, and drones. These attacks have continued daily since then. Worse, Hizballah has amassed ground forces along the border, poised to invade Israeli towns and carry out a slaughter that would make October 7th look mild by comparison.

This threat has forced Israel to evacuate the entire civilian population living within a few miles of the Lebanese border, leaving 80,000 Israelis internally displaced. The IDF has struck back at Hizballah targets, seeking to weaken the terror organization’s military capabilities and command structure, but it has not yet sought a large-scale maneuver while it is focused on the Gazan theater. But to many if not most Israelis, an intensification of the war in the coming months seems inevitable. The scale and severity of that war is one of the subjects of this essay, as are Israel’s options in it, options that are shaped by the decisions—good and bad, wise and ill-conceived—that Israel has made about Lebanon in the past several decades.

The threat to Israel from its northern neighbor did not arise on October 7. It has been building since Israel fought its last war there in 2006, since it pulled its ground troops out at the turn of the new century, indeed since the modern state was founded. In a certain sense the threat from Lebanon has been present for millennia, a function less of politics and strategy than of simple geography.



I. Israel and Lebanon from the Bible to Begin


Israel’s geography currently provides it with reasonably defensible borders on three sides: the Mediterranean to the west, the Sinai Desert to the south, and the Jordan Valley to the east. Israel’s northern border, however, is not defined by a sea, a vast desert, or even a major river. Rather it is a man-made line that cuts through mountains, valleys, farms, and forests.

This has been the case since antiquity, making the northern border of ancient Israel the hardest to defend. Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria invaded the kingdom of Israel from the north in the 8th century BCE. Nebuchadnezzar twice invaded from the north in the 6th century BCE. In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great marched southward along the Mediterranean coast into Judea. The list goes on.

In modern-day Israel, the threat from the north has existed since its founding. The Galilee region and Hula Valley, filled with farms and one of the country’s major sources of fresh water, have always been vulnerable to attack. Defending the area proved impossible when the Syrian army sat on the commanding heights of the Golan and Mount Hermon and could rain artillery fire on the civilians below. This changed when Israel conquered the Golan, along its northeastern border, from Syria in 1967. Since then, the defensive challenge has come primarily from the border with Lebanon, which runs along an arbitrary path through the mountain range, along most of which the Lebanese territory overlooks the Israeli side.

This problem first became evident in 1948, when Lebanon invaded Israel. But the IDF subdued the Lebanese army relatively swiftly, and the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement in March 1949. For the next twenty years, Israel’s border with Lebanon was its quietist, and it was widely believed that Lebanon would eventually sign a peace agreement with it. In 1954, Ben-Gurion reportedly suggested instigating a coup in Lebanon in which the pro-Israel Maronite Christians would assume power and guarantee friendly relations between the countries. While nothing came of this scheme, the Lebanese Christian population maintained a relatively favorable view of the Jewish state and it declined calls from other Arab governments to join them in invading Israel during the Six-Day War.

Problems began, however, after the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was expelled from Jordan in 1970 and set up shop in southern Lebanon, taking de-facto control of an entire area that became known as “Fatah-land,” after the group’s leading faction. From there, the PLO launched a series of massacres of Israeli civilians over the next decade. These reached a climax in March 1978, when PLO terrorists hijacked a civilian bus and murdered 38 Israelis. In response, Israel launched Operation Litani, in which it invaded Lebanon up to the Litani River, some eighteen miles north of the border. Its objective was to destroy PLO bases that served as launching pads for the cross-border terror attacks and to strengthen the friendly local Christian militias. This operation was a turning point in Israel’s actions in Lebanon: it was the first time it shifted from targeted incursions by special forces to seizing territory in order to destroy terrorists’ infrastructure and push them away from the border.

This operation ended after three months, with the IDF pulling out and transferring control to the United Nations International Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), established with a mandate to confirm Israel’s withdrawal, restore peace and security, and assist the Lebanese government in effectively controlling the area. As the force was incapable of doing most of those things, Israel would rely on the Christian militias to prevent the return of the PLO terrorists to the territory.

This strategy, however, soon failed. Palestinian terror groups moved back and resumed their attacks on Israel. All told, some 700 Israelis were killed and 4,000 wounded between 1968 and 1982. Rather than attempt major retaliation, Israel sought to contain this threat through defensive and limited offensive operations. The PLO, meanwhile, transformed itself from a collection of guerrillas into a well-armed standing force with regular formations and heavy weapons. In July 1981 it bombarded Israel’s north with over a thousand rockets and artillery shells over a ten-day period. This led to an exodus of civilians from the northern city of Kiryat Shmonah and drove the entire population of the Galilee into bomb shelters. Israeli intelligence assessed that the PLO was planning to attempt to cross the border and take over an entire town.

While the threat from the PLO grew, Syria was approaching its goal of “strategic parity” with Israel, meaning it would soon become capable of going to war with Israel without Egypt, its usual ally. Following this massive military build-up, Damascus began considering initiating a conflict with Israel in the Golan Heights. It had also been occupying northern Lebanon since 1976 and sought to control the entire country in order to turn Lebanon into an active belligerent against Israel. The situation came to a head in April 1981, when Syria deployed surface-to-air missiles in southern Lebanon, challenging Israel’s freedom of action against the PLO by closing the skies to its air force. Israel sought to act immediately but repeatedly delayed as a result of American pressure, and the SAMs remained an unresolved issue.

These two parallel and intensifying threats led Israel to reassess its approach to its northern border, and to think bigger. In 1979, it began planning a more comprehensive military operation which aimed to change the underlying situation in Lebanon. But the spark that set off the war did not come until 1982, when the PLO, still using Lebanon as a base, attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov. On June 5, Israel invaded, with the aim of uprooting the PLO.

Two months later, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin carefully laid out the strategic logic of the war in a speech to the IDF’s National Security College. He drew the analogy between Israel’s situation vis-à-vis Lebanon and that of France and Germany in 1936, when the latter re-occupied the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. “If only France . . . had attacked the aggressor, there would have remained no trace of Nazi German power and a war—which in three years changed the whole of human history—would have been prevented,” he explained. “This, therefore, is the international example that explains the difference between a no-choice war and a war of choice.”

Begin said that the War of Independence, the 1967–1970 War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War were “no-choice wars,” (milemet eyn-breirah), where Israel faced invading armies. By contrast, the 1956 Sinai campaign, the Six-Day War, and the Lebanon War were “wars by choice,” (milemet breirah), by which Begin meant wars in which Israel took the initiative to remove dire threats before they reached their full severity. He argued that Israel should not have to wait until its back was up against the wall—or the sea—before taking action. Rather, when the threat is clearly on the horizon, Israel must seize the initiative before the enemy has fully readied itself for war.

This is not a doctrine of trigger-happy adventurism, as some critics might have it, but of the hardheaded strategic approach that has characterized Israeli thinking on national security since Ben-Gurion, and had its greatest champion in Moshe Dayan. The application of this principle against non-conventional threats, embodied in the 1981 strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, has since become an informal Israeli doctrine. Thus, confronting the increasingly severe danger emanating from Lebanon was not the result of Beginite bellicosity, but a move in keeping with the way the Jewish state had always thought about its security.

The more controversial aspect of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon war lies not with the decision to invade Lebanon itself but with some of the war’s more specific aims. These were three: eliminating the PLO threat in Lebanon, confronting the Syrian military presence there, and establishing a friendly Christian government that would sign a peace agreement. The first goal was the official and primary aim of the war and had broad support from both the Israeli cabinet and the Israeli populace. As for the second, a confrontation with the Syrian army was, whether Israel wanted it or not, an inevitable result of any substantial Israeli operation in Lebanon. It was the third aim of intervening in Lebanon’s politics that proved the most controversial and ultimately a failure.

The war began with the sort of swift and decisive action for which the IDF was famous. Within days, it had reached well past the Litani River and taken control of the commanding topography. Israeli forces then pushed northward to take the PLO strongholds of Tyre and Sidon, seizing large quantities of arms in the process. Along the way, they destroyed the Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries, scored a victory against the Syrian air force in the skies, and successfully took on Syrian troops on the ground. By June 13, a mere eight days after the war began, the IDF had surrounded Beirut and reached the Beirut-Damascus highway. But it had not evicted Syrian forces from Beirut or gained total control of the highway.

The UN Security Council had called for a ceasefire on June 11, but Israel insisted that Palestinian and Syrian forces must leave Lebanon. Its stubbornness paid off. By mid-August the PLO began leaving Beirut; by September almost 22,000 Palestinian guerillas had fled the city by boat to Tunisia, Syria, and other Arab countries. With Israel’s support, Bachir Gemayel, a Maronite militia leader, was elected president of Lebanon, only to be assassinated a month later. This led the IDF to seize the western neighborhoods of Beirut and to task the Christian militias with the job of eradicating the PLO terrorist presence in the Palestinian refugee camps. These militias proceeded to massacre hundreds of the residents of the camps within two days, leading to a turning point in the war—and much denunciation of Israel, which many sought to blame for the actions of the militias. This was also a turning point domestically, igniting large anti-war protests in Israel.

Under American pressure, the IDF withdrew from Beirut, but remained active throughout Lebanon for close to two years, still hoping to force a Syrian withdrawal. During this time, it suffered increasing attacks at the hands of Hizballah, which had just been formed by Iran. Meanwhile, with Israel’s support, Bachir’s brother Amine Gemayel was elected president and in May 1983 signed a peace agreement with Israel. The agreement, however, was meaningless: Gemayel became entirely beholden to Syria and had no real means of stopping the fighting. By June 1985 the IDF reduced its presence to a narrow strip of southern Lebanon.

Before turning to Hizballah, and to that narrow strip of territory, we first need to ask what Israel achieved by the war.

In terms of its primary aim, the First Lebanon War was a major victory. It expelled the PLO from Lebanon and destroyed its military infrastructure in the south. Israel also dealt a severe blow to the Syrian military, especially its air force. But it did not manage to drive the Syrian army from Lebanon altogether. As for installing a friendly government in Beirut, the final result was far from successful. So long as Lebanon remained under Syria’s thumb, any shift in its relations with Israel, let alone a break with the Soviets and a realignment toward the U.S., was impossible.

But the greatest challenge to Israel in the aftermath of the war was entirely unforeseen by Israel’s leaders. The Israeli invasion was not the reason Hizballah came into existence. Since he took control of Iran in 1979, it was an essential part of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s plan to export his Islamic revolution from Iran to Lebanon and to build a proxy force to attack Israel. Prior to 1982, Iran had begun building its influence among the Shiite community in southern Lebanon; Iran even sent hundreds of Iranian fighters there to train with Lebanese Shiites and to fight Israel and the American presence. But the war gave these scattered pro-Iranian elements both a powerful recruiting tool and a catalyst to form Hizballah into a distinct political-military organization.

In February 1985, Hizballah published an “open letter of intent,” in which it made clear that its goal was not merely to end the Israeli presence in Lebanon, but the “destruction of Israel.” Israel, it explained, is:

the vanguard of the United States in our Islamic world. It is the hated enemy that must be fought until the hated ones get what they deserve. . . . Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore, our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease fire, and no peace agreements. . . . We vigorously condemn all plans for negotiation with Israel, and regard all negotiators as enemies.

This was a new enemy for Israel, and not one that could be placated or easily defeated.


II. The Era of the Security Zone


The Israeli withdrawal from Beirut marked the formal end of the First Lebanon War, but not an end to the fighting. From then on the threat to the north would come from Hizballah, not the PLO, and Israel wouldn’t respond to it with major ground operations in Lebanon or attempt to shape Lebanese politics. Instead, the IDF repositioned itself along a three-to-twelve-kilometer-wide area north of the Israeli border. This security zone, as it came to be called, was to serve as a buffer between Hizballah and the residents of the northern Galilee, allowing Israel to fight them within Lebanon rather than within its own territory.

Over the fifteen years of this security zone’s existence, it would prove highly successful in preventing terrorist infiltrations across the border, but far less successful in preventing rocket fire from Lebanese territory north of the zone. The IDF responded from time to time with small ground raids or aerial attacks, the nature of which influence Hizballah’s behavior. When Israel acted decisively against Hizballah, as in the early years of the zone, it enjoyed periods of relative calm. But after Yitzhak Rabin took office in 1992, Israel adopted a more accommodating policy so as not to interfere with peace initiatives with Syria, and the attacks became more frequent. Hizballah’s rocket fire increased, killing Israeli civilians and greatly disrupting the lives of the residents of the north. On two occasions—both connected to ongoing negotiations—the situation became severe enough to provoke major Israeli operations, one in in 1993 and the other in 1996. Both times, the IDF trained artillery fire and airstrikes on villages where Hizballah hid out. This tactic failed to achieve any conclusive results, and both flareups ended with meaningless guarantees that Hizballah would stop firing into Israel.

During the entire period from 1985 to 2000, 256 IDF soldiers were killed, an average of about seventeen per year. Hizballah, during this same period, accumulated—with Iranian and Syrian assistance—some 7,000 rockets, whose range covered most of Israel’s north.

In 1997, Hizballah scored two major victories, although it could only claim credit for one. First, 73 soldiers were killed in an accidental collision of two Israeli helicopters en route to Lebanon. Then came the so-called Ansariya ambush, in which Hizballah killed twelve members of the elite Israeli naval unit Shayetet 13. These two fatal events shook the broad consensus among the Israeli public that the security zone was the best way to protect them. Israelis began to ask if the price of maintaining the IDF’s presence in Lebanon was too high, and if there were other ways to keep the Galilee safe. Around this time, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, his successor as leader of the Labor party, began to talk about withdrawing. Some voices in the Likud party began to consider the idea as well, though only as part of an agreement that would see Hizballah disarmed, not as a unilateral concession that would empower it.

Neither the IDF nor the broader security establishment were swayed. They insisted that the zone had proved itself operationally effective and should therefore be maintained for the foreseeable future. In their view, the risks of withdrawal far outweighed the costs of a continued presence. In a 1999 report, the IDF made the case that if Israel withdrew without disarming Hizballah, the terrorist group would take over the entire area right up to the Israeli border, increasing its ability to threaten the Galilee; that withdrawal would be interpreted by Israel’s enemies as a sign of Israeli weakness, damaging Israeli deterrence across the entire region; and that it would be understood as an Israeli surrender to terrorism, encouraging Palestinian and other terrorist organizations to rain fire on Israel’s civilians.

In 1998, Barak agreed with this position, stating that a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon would be an act of “public irresponsibility” that “would endanger Israel’s security, endanger the security of the residents of the north, and strengthen Hizballah.” But by 2000, Barak, now prime minister, had changed his tune. His new position in favor of getting out of Lebanon even without an agreement contradicted the hitherto unchallenged strategic principle of maintaining an offensive posture and seeking to shift battlelines into enemy territory. What made this former IDF chief of staff break with longstanding doctrine?

When Barak came to office in 1999, he envisioned bringing sweeping changes to the regional order, declaring his intention to make peace with Syria, to sign a comprehensive and final agreement with the Palestinians, and to withdraw the IDF from southern Lebanon within one year. His original plan was to withdraw from Lebanon as part of an agreement with Syria. But after Syria’s refusal to agree to a deal even when offered far-reaching concessions, he pivoted and ordered the complete and unilateral withdrawal from the Lebanese security zone.

Barak was especially eager to carry this out before the Camp David Summit in July 2000, where he hoped to reach a permanent agreement with the Palestinians. To the public, he claimed that withdrawal would improve the daily security of residents of the north, and that any attack on Israel from Lebanese territory would be met with massive retaliation.

But Hizballah, as predicted, interpreted the withdrawal as proof that it could be victorious over the mighty IDF, and that sustained guerrilla warfare could induce Israel to cede territory. The withdrawal also strengthened Hizballah’s belief that it had succeeded where Sunni Arab armies had not, serving as further evidence of the supremacy of Shiism and its inevitable victory over its Sunni competitors for leadership of Islam. In May 2000, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, gave what would become a famous speech in which he likened Israel to a spider web, which may look large and imposing but will fall apart under pressure.

The first years following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon did indeed see a decrease in rocket attacks on Israel, except in the area of Mount Dov, also known as Shebaa Farms. During this period, however, Hizballah fortified its presence along the border, constructing numerous bunkers for the purpose of executing mortar attacks. It also expanded its missile arsenal and extended its range. As early as 2003, high-ranking security officials were raising the alarm about Hizballah’s evolution from a tactical threat to a significant strategic one, with the ability to unleash a barrage of rockets across the entire northern region of Israel and to target strategic infrastructure. By 2006, Hizballah had amassed approximately 16,000 rockets, some capable of reaching as far as the city of Hadera, on the coast between Haifa and Tel Aviv.

Hizballah also persisted in assaulting IDF patrols on Israel’s side of the border, to which Israel responded with targeted and restrained actions. The first significant incident occurred in October 2000, when Hizballah killed and captured three Israeli soldiers, which eventually led Israel to release 400 prisoners in exchange for their bodies in 2004. Contrary to Barak’s assurances, Israel did not respond vigorously to any of this post-withdrawal aggression. To understand why, we have to look to the Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Hassan Nasrallah wasn’t the only one to learn lessons from the Israeli withdrawal. The leaders of Hamas, Fatah, and other groups began thinking that they could achieve similar results with similar means. There is good reason to believe this line of thinking induced Yasir Arafat to launch a renewed wave of terror attacks, known as the second intifada, beginning in September 2000—just three months after the IDF left Lebanon. The resulting turmoil preoccupied Israel, leaving it unwilling to engage in forceful retaliation against Hizballah while battling the Palestinians at home. Israel’s hesitant responses to Hizballah, coupled with its willingness to exchange terrorists for hostages, further strengthened the Lebanon-backed group’s position.

Against the backdrop of thousands of rockets fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza in June 2006, and follow-up attack on an IDF unit in which it killed two soldiers and abducted a third, Hizballah attempted an even more brazen abduction. On July 12, Hizballah launched a major rocket barrage across the entire northern border as a distraction for a cross-border incursion during which it killed eight Israeli soldiers and abducted two more, thus sparking the Second Lebanon War.

The resulting IDF bombing campaign caused considerable damage to Lebanese infrastructure, while doing less to degrade Hizballah’s actual military capabilities. Realizing this, Israel attempted a belated ground invasion, which was similarly ineffective and without clearly defined objectives. As this became apparent, Jerusalem began losing the international support with which it had begun the war. A ceasefire approved by the UN Security Council with U.S. backing went into effect on August 14.

Still, the war should not be seen as an all-out failure. However awkward its execution, it did succeed in establishing a degree of Israeli deterrence against Hizballah. It is unclear to what extent, but it is safe to say that the war contributed to the caution that Hizballah has demonstrated in its altercations with Israel since then. Nasrallah himself said, just two weeks after the 2006 ceasefire, that if he had known that abducting the soldiers would have resulted in a war of such magnitude, he wouldn’t have gone ahead with it.

On the other hand, more has been made of this statement than it deserves. Nasrallah said it on TV to a Lebanese audience in part to minimize Hizballah’s responsibility for the vast and unpopular civilian destruction that resulted. We now know that Iran encouraged Hizballah to provoke a war in order to distract from Western scrutiny of its nuclear program which was increasing in the months preceding the war.

The Israeli political and military leadership, moreover, found it convenient to quote Nasrallah’s comment widely, since it allowed them to present the war as a success, even though it ended with several strategic failures on Israel’s part. Most prominent was the inability to neutralize Hizballah’s rocket fire, which persisted until the ceasefire and which Nasrallah touted as a victory. Israel also missed a vital opportunity to dismantle substantially Hizballah’s military infrastructure in southern Lebanon. After the war, any future military intervention would come at a high political cost.

These shortcomings not only weakened the war’s impact on Hizballah, but also spoiled an opportunity for Israel to bolster its reputation as a vital ally of the United States. In Washington, there were high expectations that Israel would critically weaken Hizballah, a goal that aligned with broader U.S. objectives in the War on Terror. Israel’s performance came as a disappointment to the Americans.

Most of all, the war revealed precisely how much Israel had sacrificed by surrendering the security zone. Without a presence on the ground, the IDF had fewer intelligence-gathering capabilities and thus did not know the locations of the small, dispersed bunkers from which Hizballah was firing its rockets. Israel’s vaunted air force could achieve little against targets it couldn’t find.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 formally concluded the Second Lebanon War. It called for an immediate ceasefire, for UNIFIL to deploy south of the Litani River to prevent Hizballah from accumulating weapons, and for Lebanon to disband all militias operating in its territory. In 2004, the Security Council had already demanded, in vain, that Lebanon disarm militias, but the government in Beirut was far too weak to impose its will on Hizballah, whose military capabilities exceeded its own. Likewise, UNIFIL achieved little before or after 2006, and was cowed by Nasrallah into turning a blind eye to arms smuggling. Foreign soldiers, it turns out, are not willing to risk their lives for the sake of Israel’s security—nor for the sake of the implementation of Security Council resolutions.


III. Progress for the Party of God


The end of the Second Lebanon War ushered in a new phase of the Israel-Hizballah conflict, one that lasted until October 7, 2023. No proxy is more important to Iran or closer to it ideologically, and having tangled with Israel and remained standing, Hizballah had proven its capabilities to the leader of revolutionary Iran and the Islamist world more broadly. It also serves the function of threatening Israel with widespread rocket attacks if Israel were to dare take military action against Iran’s nuclear program. And it is no longer the small guerrilla force it was in its early days; decades of Iranian investment have changed it into something akin to a conventional military with the ability to conduct terror operations abroad.

From its founding until Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizballah used the tools of the third-world militia: IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades, light weaponry, and an arsenal of a few thousand short-range unsophisticated rockets. By the 1990s, it had added some additional anti-tank and artillery capabilities. Following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizballah’s priorities shifted from harassing the IDF and its allies in the security zone to expanding the threat it could pose to Israel’s civilian population and strategic infrastructure. Iran stepped up its assistance, providing Hizballah with short- and medium-range surface-to-surface missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, anti-ship capabilities, and an expanded arsenal of rockets. Tehran also helped Hizballah—under UNIFIL’s nose—create a network of command structures, bunkers, tunnels, weapons stores, and other defensive infrastructure, linked by communications systems. During the Second Lebanon War, Hizballah even struck an Israeli Navy corvette with an anti-ship cruise missile.

After that war ended, Iran was not content merely to rebuild Hizballah’s military capabilities, but began expanding them dramatically. Between 2006 and 2013, its rocket and missile arsenal grew from approximately 12,000 to 150,000. The missiles are more precise and of much longer range, and are accompanied by a fleet of UAVs. Hizballah has also increased its manpower by recruiting, indoctrinating, training, arming, and paying additional active-duty and reservist forces. Today, the group consists of somewhere between 30,000 and 45,000 personnel. By participating in the Syrian civil war, many of these troops gained crucial combat experience, fighting alongside the conventional forces of Syria, Iran, and Russia. Hizballah’s annual operating budget, largely supplied by Iran, is estimated at around $700 million per year. And its regional influence has grown as a result of training other Iranian proxy militias.

Its arsenal places much of Israel’s population at risk of indiscriminate rocket fire, and all of Israel’s critical infrastructure at risk of precision missile fire. It can easily strike Haifa, causing severe economic damage by destroying its port facilities and even more severe harm to the population by hitting industrial chemical facilities. Thousands of these missiles can reach the main population center in the greater Tel Aviv area, and dozens of Scud-D models could strike anywhere in the country. When Hizballah eventually decides to unleash all this onto Israel, it is expected to overwhelm the Iron Dome and other missile-defense systems, causing unprecedented damage and mayhem, which is precisely what it is designed to do.

Nor should Hizballah’s ground forces be underestimated. Chief among them is Radwan, its elite assault corps trained especially for infiltrating northern Israel and capturing and holding territory. (Hamas’s Nukhba force, which led the October 7 attack, was modeled after Radwan.)  Established in 2008, Radwan only gained battlefield experience years later in Syria, where its members learned how to fight in platoons and battalions while utilizing advanced weaponry provided by Iran. Radwan units are now posted along the Israeli border. During the Syrian civil war, Hizballah also created a mechanized battlegroup. Now it apparently has tanks, armored personnel carriers, Kornet anti-tank missiles, mounted machine guns on SUVs, an artillery battery, and an engineering corps with armored bulldozers. In short, this isn’t simply a group of rag-tag guerrillas, but one of the Middle East’s most formidable fighting forces.

Most of Hizballah’s more advanced weapons are shipped from Iran to Syria by sea or air, and then brought over land into Lebanon. In the past ten years or so, Israel has been waging a campaign called the “war between the wars” to stem this flow of weapons and to prevent Iranian militias from establishing a foothold in southern Syria, from which they could threaten Israel directly. It has hit hundreds of targets, including Iranian intelligence sites, logistics and command centers, military bases, storage sites at the Damascus airport, and more. This campaign has seen many successes and certainly has limited the capacities that Hizballah would otherwise have attained. But the key word is “limited”: it has not prevented the build-up of Hizballah’s arsenal, whose quantity and improved accuracy has made it a strategic threat of a different order. Israel has also refrained from taking action against Hizballah’s weapons factories inside Lebanon itself, out of concern that doing so might escalate into all-out war.

Hizballah has also become the single most powerful political force in Lebanon. Its fighters and their families make up a significant domestic constituency, thus embedding the terrorist group in local society. More importantly, it has integrated itself into the Lebanese political system, and holds effective veto power over the choice of prime minister and the actions of the Lebanese cabinet. In the 2018 elections, Hizballah and its allies won 71 of the parliament’s 128 seats. It also holds influence over the Lebanese Armed Forces, which are either too intimidated, too indifferent, or too sympathetic to take any meaningful action against it.

There are rival political forces in Lebanon among the Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze who vocally oppose Hizballah, and would be happy to see it decimated by the IDF. But they are not as well organized and if any were to try to translate their opposition into action, Hizballah would take to the streets and threaten civil war.

Hizballah does have strong support from its Shiite base concentrated in the south and east, which is dependent on its schools, healthcare, and other social services. In these schools, it openly promotes the doctrines of the Iranian regime and loyalty to the Iranian supreme leader, along with the slogan “Death to America! Death to Israel!” Huge Iranian flags can be seen in Hizballah-controlled villages within view of the Israeli border. Hizballah will not be deterred by the prospect of death and destruction in Lebanon as long as it believes its influence will only continue to grow.

In the past few years, Hizballah has become bolder; it feels the wind at its back. First, it extorted from Israel concessions on the maritime boundary by threatening war in October 2022. In March 2023 it was involved in the detonation of a bomb at the Megiddo junction, crossing a new line by facilitating an attack deep within northern Israel. In July 2023 Israeli security cameras along the border were stolen, and in August it erected tents in Israeli territory near Mount Dov as a provocation. Hizballah has been testing Israel’s will for over a year before the current war, and found it wanting.


IV. Israel’s New Reality


Before concluding with an examination of the current crisis, we also need to look at how Israel’s strategic outlook has changed since 1982. The failures, real and perceived, of the First Lebanon War led to a major shift in how the country approached its security and the challenges posed by its enemies. What has followed is a vicious cycle in which Israel’s hopes for peace have led to territorial withdrawals, which have encouraged its enemies, leading to renewed attacks, which have in turn led to pressure on Israel to secure peace by undertaking additional withdrawals, causing the cycle to continue. Last year, this process culminated in the worst terror attack in Israel’s history.

This cycle began with the 1985 deal in which Israel released over a thousand convicted terrorists from its prisons in exchange for three soldiers who were being held in Lebanon. Many of the Palestinian terrorists released in this agreement went on to facilitate and lead the first intifada, which broke out less than three years after the agreement. Also among them was Ahmed Yassin, the Muslim Brotherhood leader from Gaza who went on to found Hamas.

After that, across three withdrawals—from the areas ceded to the Palestinian Authority in 1993, from southern Lebanon in 2000, and from Gaza in 2005—Israeli governments were guided by the idea that they could enhance the nation’s security by strategic retrenchment: it would regroup behind the new border, build walls and fences, develop defensive capabilities, and reserve the right to retaliate with great force to any cross-border provocation. Retaliation, according to this reasoning, would receive greater international legitimacy thanks to Israeli withdrawal. Behind this strategic logic was the hope that territorial withdrawal would contribute to actual peace, first with the Palestinians and eventually with Syria. Rabin, Peres, and Barak even hoped that after peace with the near circle of Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon, they would all form an alliance against the “outer circle” of Iran and Iraq.

At the same time, leading figures in Israel’s security establishment came to believe that the threat of invasion by conventional armies had all but ceased to exist, particularly after the disbanding of the Iraqi army in 2003. A new doctrine emerged that focused on creating a “smaller and smarter army” utilizing advanced technologies, virtual command-and-control systems, ballistic missile defense, and a strong reliance on the air force and precision-guided missiles, while de-emphasizing the need for a large, maneuverable ground force. This doctrine went hand in hand with the idea of territorial retrenchment. Taken together, this line of thinking is the crux of the security concept that collapsed so catastrophically on October 7.

At points, Israel has tried to reverse this cycle, but not before enduring great suffering and bloodshed. In 2002, in response to the second intifada, Israel returned to areas under complete control of the Palestinian Authority to uproot the vast terrorist infrastructure that had grown since it handed control to the PLO a decade before. This process took close to three years to complete—it is still constantly maintained with raids, arrests, and intelligence gathering—but it was successful in putting an end to the daily threat of terror bombings across the country.

Now, it has taken the massacre of 1,200 Israelis and the capture of hundreds more to convince Israel that it must undo the disaster of the withdrawal from Gaza. Israeli society is committed to attaining decisive victory against Hamas. The idea that Israel must retain overall security control over the Strip after the war has broad public support, which means that, no matter who will run civilian life in Gaza, the IDF isn’t going anywhere. That, once again, leaves the northern border as the main source of vulnerability.


V. The Northern Dilemma Returns


Prior to the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, public debate centered on the price of maintaining an Israeli presence there in the form of the security zone. Now, that debate must acknowledge the price of Israel’s absence. Instead of a buffer zone inside Lebanon, there is now effectively one within Israeli territory, with some 80,000 Israelis evacuated from their homes along the border because the army can’t guarantee their safety there. The government-mandated evacuation was recently extended until June, and may well last longer. Local governments in the north and residents of the Galilee demand that the security situation be changed and rightly refuse to live as sitting ducks, waiting for Hizballah to carry out an even more awful sequel to October 7.

That, at least, is how it looks from Israel’s side of the border. From Nasrallah’s side, he was put to shame when Hamas took the initiative and became the vanguard of the resistance—the popular term for the pro-Iranian alliance—while his formidable militia sat idle. He felt compelled to do something. Yet he was not about to play second-fiddle in Hamas’s war and in no way was Iran going to risk sacrificing Hizballah by provoking Israel into a full-scale war on Hamas’s schedule. Iran has set up Hizballah to serve Iranian interests, to deter Israel against attacking Iran (and especially its nuclear facilities), and eventually to destroy Israel at a time of its choosing.

And so Nasrallah has opted for a middle ground. He attacks Israel incessantly and at a level that has not been seen since the Second Lebanon War. But he has been careful to keep the attacks below the threshold that would force Israel to react with overwhelming force. In practice, this has translated into constant anti-tank-missile and artillery fire aimed at IDF installations across the border and at residential buildings across the upper Galilee, along with drone attacks. As of the beginning of January, over 500 homes had been damaged by these attacks; the number has risen since. Nasrallah’s gamble has so far paid off, as Israel at this point prefers to keep the fighting confined within similar limits so that it can focus its efforts on Gaza.

But the situation has been gradually escalating. Hizballah has targeted military sites of increasing importance, such as Israel’s air-force installation at Meron in the north, and has fired some salvos at the vicinity of Haifa. As this war of attrition goes on, Israel has targeted more senior Hizballah operatives and struck deeper into Lebanese territory. It is possible that we may find ourselves outside the loosely defined limits imposed by both sides sooner than anyone planned for.

So what should Israel do?

One possibility is that the current war of attrition will continue until the fighting in Gaza drops below a certain threshold, at which point Hizballah will decide unilaterally to stop firing and call for a ceasefire without any diplomatic agreement to back it up. Hizballah would have much to gain, and little to lose, from such an outcome, which it could present as a tremendous victory, having forced Israel’s north to evacuate and caused immense damage to Israeli homes. And if Israel were to refuse the ceasefire and initiate action, Hizballah could cynically present Israel as the aggressor.

For precisely these reasons, such a scenario would be highly unsatisfactory for Israel. Many former residents of the north would be unwilling to return to their homes and continue living at Hizballah’s doorstep, while Hizballah would be ready for the next round from a more advantageous position. This outcome would allow the Radwan force to remain positioned on Israel’s border, poised to execute the next massacre; and it would constitute a grave loss of Israel’s deterrent power. In the long term, if security is not restored to the north, a large portion of this crucial residential, tourist, and agricultural area will turn into ghost towns and wasteland, as residents inevitably relocate to other regions of the country and the local economy spirals downward. The longer this situation is allowed to continue, the more devastating it will be not just for the north but for the entire country.

If Israel is forced to delay any significant action against Hizballah so it can re-arm and regroup from the war in Gaza, and so it can prepare the home front for another all-out conflict, it could deploy large numbers of troops along the border with Lebanon to increase security and encourage residents to return. Alternatively, it could refuse a ceasefire while maintaining the current level of hostilities, thus chipping away at Hizballah’s capabilities and manpower. For all the damage that Israel has incurred in the north, it has done even more damage to Hizballah. Therefore, although this path would rule out a return of the residents, it could have short-term advantages.

The second possibility is that an agreement would be reached along the lines of what is being proposed by an American effort led by the State Department envoy Amos Hochstein. It’s not clear what the final details would be, but the shape of the discussion has Hizballah withdrawing its forces to, at most, a position north of the Litani River, thus removing the most immediate threat of invasion. Also included in the talks, as reported, is an expectation that Israel relinquish its claims on various pieces of territory along the border, which Hizballah baselessly insists belong to Lebanon. The current border, called the “Blue Line,” is the product of the UN committee investigation in 2000, which concluded that Lebanon has no claim over these territories, so there is no reason anyone should take Hizballah’s claims seriously.

This territory, currently under Israeli control, is not simply a few tracts of farmland. It is a mountain ridge crucial for military control of the region and the source of an important river flowing into Israel. Surrendering such strategically important ground would simply put Hizballah on an improved footing for the next invasion, which means that a deal along the lines being discussed would be even worse than a noncommittal ceasefire. It would be tantamount to paying extortion fees to the neighborhood mafioso, and it would require Israel to make concrete and hard-to-reverse territorial concessions in exchange for entirely reversible gains—if Hizballah moves its forces north in its own land, it can just as easily move its forces south in the same land.

Moreover, having a deal in place would undermine Israel’s ability to take action there as it saw fit to address threats. Israel cannot afford to be seen as violating a ceasefire negotiated with help from its most important ally, while the international community wouldn’t see any Hizballah violations short of a massive attack as legitimizing Israeli retaliation. An undefined ceasefire would at least allow Israel the freedom of action to continue the war when it was ready to do so. But a U.S.-brokered deal would raise the price of any Israeli action, even if absolutely necessary.

In any case, even if Hizballah would agree on paper to withdrawing further north of the Israeli border, there is no actor capable of guaranteeing that it actually does so. Hizballah would almost certainly behave just as it did after the Second Lebanon War, which ended with Security Council Resolution 1701, requiring the removal of Hizballah from the area south of the Litani. It simply ignored the resolution, as it ignored a similar resolution issued two years earlier.

In 2018, Israel exposed six underground tunnels extending dozens of meters into Israeli territory that could have allowed thousands of Hizballah fighters to invade. Hizballah’s massive arms buildup likewise took place in the face of the Security Council resolution that was supposed to disarm it, and under the noses of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL, which were tasked with enforcing the disarmament. There is no reason to expect that a new agreement would be enforced any better. And even if it were, this would only remove the most immediate threat of invasion. It would do nothing to address the threat of Hizballah’s vast arsenal of missiles and UAVs, which can strike Israel even if positioned north of the Litani.

Israel would likely be willing to agree to some sort of deal that actually implements UNSC 1701 fully, as long as it requires no territorial withdrawals on Israel’s part, since these would only reward Hizballah’s bad behavior. But it is unlikely that Hizballah would agree even to the pretense of withdrawal without some concrete Israeli concession that it could present as a victory. For that matter, it is doubtful that Hizballah would agree to it even in exchange for concrete Israeli concessions. As Nasrallah recently declared in a speech, “It is easier to move the Litani River forward to the borders than to push back Hizballah fighters from the borders to the Litani River.”


VI. War in the North?


That leaves a third choice: Israeli military action to remove the Hizballah threat. There is no question this action would involve a full-scale war, and not an easy one. It would be much more difficult militarily than the one in Gaza. All of Israel would be exposed to Hizballah missiles. Civilians would die across the country and critical infrastructure would be damaged, possibly leaving thousands without electricity or other basic necessities.

Nonetheless, Israel has the ability to prevail against Hizballah. It has already proved itself against Hamas and, if it brings its full strength to bear, can outfight, outgun, and outnumber Hizballah. Most importantly, it has the will to fight such a war. No country anywhere can allow large swaths of its land to be depopulated by a foreign threat for long and continue to thrive. And after the experience of October 7, few Israelis will want to go back to waiting passively behind defensive positions, hoping that a vicious enemy is deterred. Unless significant pressure can be exerted on Hizballah (and Iran) to back down, many Israelis now feel war is inevitable—as much as they would prefer some sort of diplomatic solution that consists of real guarantees rather than yet more empty foreign promises.

For these reasons, there is much discussion of such a war in Israel right now. Indeed, many Israelis think it is just around the corner. Every Hizballah rocket strike leaves Israelis wondering if it will be the spark that sets off a Third Lebanon War. This is not idle speculation: on March 28, the IDF held a surprise, army-wide drill to prepare for such a contingency.

There is also another much-discussed scenario in which this war could start: one where Israel decides to stop waiting for the Hizballah attack and forces the war to happen on its own terms. On Friday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant—one of the three leading members of the Israeli war cabinet—said that the IDF plans to “expand the campaign and increase the rate of attacks in the north.” He made this statement just after observing the drone strike that killed the deputy commander of Hizballah’s rocket unit near the Lebanese city of Tyre. He also added, more significantly, that “Israel is turning from defending to pursuing Hizballah. We will reach wherever the organization operates, in Beirut, Damascus, and in more distant places.” This is just one of many declarations, on and off the record, suggesting that Jerusalem isn’t just contemplating a change in the frequency of strikes, but a new strategy.

If Israel were to go on the offensive against Hizballah, when would it want to act? The short answer is: as soon as is militarily feasible. The IDF is currently battle-ready from the Gaza fighting, with committed soldiers and cohesive reserve units, and the entire country remains on a war footing. That situation will not hold for years. Most likely, the government will want to finish conquering Rafah and bring the Gaza campaign to a low simmer before it raises the heat in the north. It would also want to replenish its stocks of artillery and munitions.

The more difficult question regards the goal of such an operation, especially if Israel is to avoid the mistakes of the first two Lebanon Wars. At a minimum, it should be to decimate Hizballah’s military capabilities to the point where it would not be capable of threatening Israeli civilians with invasion or rocket fire, nor would it be capable of deterring Israel from taking action to prevent its rearmament in the future. Attaining this goal would require a significant operation, one that almost certainly includes an Israeli ground invasion into southern Lebanon and airstrikes against Hizballah targets and weapons caches across the country. Such a move would be squarely in line with Israel’s old security doctrine, the one that held up until the 1990s, of striking first, striking forcefully, and bringing the battle to enemy territory.

Regardless of how it starts, assuming Israel wins, there is also the question of what happens after such a war—the question of how best to ensure that Hizballah could not arise again to threaten Israel in a strategic manner. For if in a few years Hizballah could regroup and begin rebuilding its military, it’s questionable whether the enormous price of the war, and the suffering it would cause Israel’s own civilians (not to mention Lebanese ones), could be justified. Any viable postwar plan would have to include three basic elements.

The first element is that Israel would have to undertake a long-term air campaign to prevent new armaments from reaching whatever is left of Hizballah. The model for this is Israel’s current war between the wars, the one it is fighting from the air to prevent the establishment of an Iranian militia threat in southern Syria. It would involve routinely destroying shipments of arms, weapons-production facilities, caches of supplies, and any attempts to build military infrastructure.

An aerial campaign, however, would not be enough on its own. As recent experience has shown, it is very difficult to control realities on the ground from a distance. For all of Israel’s success in preventing Iran from fulfilling its vision for establishing a foothold in southern Syria, Iran’s effort has not been a total failure either—weapons have arrived safely, outposts and bases have been set up, and Iran-back forces are operating there at this very moment.

Therefore, the second element of a post-war arrangement in Lebanon would probably include a ground component. This could take different forms, and much would depend on the course of the war itself, but Israel must be capable of operating on the ground in regions where Hizballah will try to regroup. At a minimum, this would look similar to Israel’s post-second intifada operations in the areas under Palestinian Authority control. Terrorist cells are constantly springing up there, but with the help of intelligence on the ground, the IDF enters these areas, when necessary, to destroy them. This wouldn’t involve a permanent military presence, only the ability to enter and make arrests without sparking a wider conflict.

Of course, Lebanon is not the Palestinian Authority, and Israel might have to consider the more severe step of a regular military presence in some parts of southern Lebanon, a presence rather like the one it had from 1985 to 2000. But even if there is appetite in Israel for this, there probably will not be elsewhere. The United States would likely not only oppose a regular, formal Israeli presence in southern Lebanon but do much to stop it from happening. Practically speaking, Israel would only be free to consider such a move if it were undertaken in response to it suffering much greater devastation at the hands of Hizballah that it has so far.

The third element necessary to prevent the re-emergence of Hizballah lies in the recognition that the real enemy behind Hizballah’s war on Israel is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is Iran who shaped Hizballah, to whom Hizballah is loyal, and from whom Hizballah receives its funding and weapons. Ignoring this fact while focusing only on limiting Hizballah’s capabilities is like trying to deal with a leaky pipe by constantly sopping up the ever-expanding puddle with new towels, instead of going to the source and fixing the leak.

Though Iran’s progress toward realizing its ambitions of regional dominance has been great, its ultimate success is far from inevitable. It can be countered by a regional alliance led by Israel and the Gulf states and backed by the United States. Washington has sometimes displayed an interest in creating such an alliance; what is less clear is whether and to what degree it will or even wants to follow through.

And that brings us to a much more immediate problem: the decision to go to war may not be up to Israel alone. The U.S. and other allies are already showing signs of slackening support for the war in Gaza. Jerusalem will have an even harder time convincing Washington to get on board with a full-fledged campaign in the north, especially when it is waged not in response to brutal attack, images of which can be seen by the world, but to prevent an even more brutal one. If Israel’s political and military leaders are serious about going on the offensive against Hizballah, they will have to find a way to convince America that this war is necessary, and to devise a plan that America can live with.

Since the first day of the current war, the United States has been deeply concerned that a Third Lebanon War will drag Washington into a larger war with Iran. But such a scenario is avoidable and unlikely, above all because the regime in Tehran’s paramount concern is assuring its own survival, and it is acutely aware that the balance of power in a full-scale war with the United States is not in its favor. If the United States clarifies that an escalation by Iran will force it to respond with overwhelming force, then Tehran will choose to sacrifice its Lebanese proxy before attempting a suicidal war. Iran still recalls the painful losses it suffered in the Iran-Iraq war. Since the regime prides itself on having avoided sending Iranians to battle since then, it is certainly not going to send them to die to save Hizballah. The regime is also acutely aware of its domestic and economic instability and lack of popular support, which would be exacerbated by a war.

Neither is such a conflict likely to draw in other great powers. Russia’s primary interest in the region is to maintain the Assad regime in Syria. It has no commitments to Hizballah and will not seek to drag itself into a war with the United States over the Lebanese terror organization. China may at most call for a ceasefire and offer to mediate. It, too, has no interest in provoking a conflict with the United States over Hizballah. On the other hand, if the U.S. allows its greatest ally in the Middle East to be overrun by an Iranian proxy, it can all but guarantee that Beijing will perceive Washington as being too weak to confront its own enemies. An Israeli victory over Hizballah, by contrast—whether it be through all-out war or through a combination of diplomacy and military pressure—would strengthen the American position both in the Middle East and globally: in the Middle East by achieving a major setback against Iran, and globally by showing that it is a reliable ally.

U.S. calculations will shape Israel’s decisions but, ultimately Israel alone is responsible for its own survival. And there are no choices Israel can make that won’t come with grave risks. One thing is clear: Israel is past the point of returning to the situation of October 6. It must break the cycle of withdrawals and return to its older doctrine of seeking to bring the fight to the enemy. To do this, it must deal decisively with the threat from Hizballah—and this time before, in the words of Jeremiah, “from the north disaster breaks loose.”

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Lebanon, new-registrations, Politics & Current Affairs