Hezbollah vs. Israel: Stakes of going to war rising, but fight not off the table

John Wight
John Wight has written for newspapers and websites across the world, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal. He is also a regular commentator on RT and BBC Radio. John is currently working on a book exploring the role of the West in the Arab Spring. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnWight1
Hezbollah supporters (Reuters / Khalil Hassan)
Hezbollah is the only Arab army to have inflicted a military defeat on Israel. This is why it is Tel Aviv’s most feared enemy and why another war between them is not a matter of if but when.

This war has never been closer since an Israeli airstrike on January 18 which killed high ranking members of Hezbollah along with an Iranian general, to which Hezbollah responded soon after with its own missile strike on an Israeli military patrol close to Lebanon’s southern border, killing two Israeli soldiers. Yet both sides have stopped short of increasing hostilities beyond this. Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hasan Nasrallah, has gone as far as declaring in a recent speech that he was not seeking a war – something which, in conjunction with reports of a message from the organization being passed to Israel via the UN stating that as far as they are concerned the “matter is settled”, is unprecedented.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bellicose statement aside, the absence of a full-scale war in the wake of this recent tit-for-tat round of hostilities allows us to speculate that neither side feels confident of defeating the other at this point in time and for different reasons cannot afford to risk the cost of victory in terms of casualties and damage.

But this then begs the question as to why Israel would carry out an airstrike on such ‘high value’ targets in Syria, close to the occupied Syrian territory of the Golan Heights? The six members of the Lebanese resistance organization who were killed included Jihad Mugniyeh, son of leading Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, who himself was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus in a joint CIA/Mossad operation, and Mohamad Issa, Hezbollah’s head of operations in Syria. The Iranian general who died, meanwhile, was Mohammad Allah Daddi of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard.

The suggestion that Netanyahu personally approved the operation with an eye on upcoming elections in which he is under increasing pressure from his rivals on the right of the Israeli political spectrum, Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennet, can almost certainly be discounted. Even a hawk such as Netanyahu will understand the inherent risks in committing to a war against such a potent foe as Hezbollah. The tactical defeat suffered by the IDF last time around scarred the political and military establishment with the knowledge that Israel’s vaunted military might and advanced training and effectiveness of its troops had been exposed as more myth than reality when up against a committed, well trained, equipped, and motivated enemy.

The New York Times carried a story in 2006 that supported this assertion. It quoted an unnamed Israeli soldier, who said of his experience in the last war that Hezbollah “are 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.”

Meanwhile, in a 2006 article in the Asia Times, security experts Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke revealed Hezbollah’s advanced intelligence capability, to the point where “they could intercept Israeli ground communications between Israeli military commanders.” This was in spite of Israel’s “highly sophisticated set of “frequency hopping” techniques.”

An Israeli soldier from the Golani brigade takes part in training near the city of Katzrin in the Golan Heights (Reuters / Baz Ratner)

Israel’s inability to weaken, much less destroy, Hezbollah in 2006 has been joined by its inability to completely destroy Hamas in Gaza more recently, despite unleashing two huge military assaults on the Strip with that objective in mind– Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Indeed, as with Hezbollah, Hamas has increasingly demonstrated an improved effectiveness and capability against the Israelis, utilizing similar techniques as their Shia sister organization.

Writing for the Combating Terrorism Website, out of West Point, Jeffrey White was moved to admit “in its war with Israel in the summer of 2014, Hamas displayed a wide range of combat capabilities, including new offensive and defensive tactics. Hamas’ evolution on the battlefield presented serious challenges to the Israel Defense Forces.” Even more significantly, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz stated that, "In some cases, it must honestly be said, they [Hamas] carried out very brave actions.”

Regardless, and as mentioned, Benjamin Netanyahu issued the customary bellicose pronouncement in the wake of the most recent airstrike against Hezbollah operatives in Syria, asserting Israel’s determination to engage in pre-emptive strikes against its enemies. But, then, what else could an Israeli Prime Minister say given the military first ethos that continues to dominant and distort the thinking of the nation’s political establishment?

For Hezbollah, meanwhile, the last thing it needs right now is a full-scale war with Israel. Its involvement in the Syrian conflict, where its fighters have played a crucial role in shoring up the Assad regime and in helping to regain rebel-held territory since the beginning of 2013, has left it stretched. Even so, Hasan Nasrallah had no choice other than to enter the conflict across Lebanon’s western border. Along with Iran, Syria is a key ally - part of the ‘axis of resistance’ - with its survival of huge importance to Hezbollah and its own security.

The downside has of course been the casualties it has incurred – estimated to be in the region of 1000 killed and an untold number wounded – along with the heightening of sectarian tensions within Lebanon itself as a consequence. A spate of suicide bomb attacks in southern Lebanon has brought the conflict home, placing a further drain on Hezbollah’s resources and manpower, required to ensure the security of its people. Nasrallah’s message to the Israelis, given in a recent speech, in which he declared that Hezbollah was not looking for war, should be seen in this context.

When the war between Hezbollah and Israel does come, as it must, it will have a huge bearing on the fortunes of the entire region. With IS now ensconced across a large swathe of Syria and Iraq, Israel would be foolish to continue to dismiss the unintended consequences of giving this medieval death-cult succor by default. For what cannot be denied is that every Israeli airstrike carried out against Hezbollah or the Syrian regime is cause for celebration not only in Israel but also by IS, the most barbaric and brutal death-cult the world has witnessed since Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

Surely even Israel’s most ardent supporters must balk at the idea of it acting as the de facto air force of the Islamic State?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.