Israeli authorities imposed a two-day blackout on news coverage after the detonation on Monday of a roadside bomb near Megiddo in northern Israel. There has been a wave of attacks on Israeli civilians over the past three months, but this one provoked an extraordinary response.
The perpetrators of previous attacks have been Palestinians, mainly from the West Bank. This time, the alleged assailant reached his target by crossing Israel’s northern border, which separates the country from Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon. The military would not confirm that Hezbollah was involved, but if it was, then the attack brings with it a risk of escalation that may culminate in all-out war.
In July 2006, Hezbollah commandos cut through a border fence and lay in wait for an Israeli patrol. After a short firefight left three Israelis dead, the Hezbollah operatives brought two captured soldiers back to Lebanon where it held them incommunicado. Thirty-four days of war commenced.
Monday’s attack could signal that Hezbollah is ready for another round of fighting, or at least that its appetite for risk has grown. Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran may calculate that Israel cannot afford to take a similar risk because it faces both renewed Palestinian unrest and an internal debate over judicial reforms that are tearing the country apart.
From afar, it may be difficult to understand why a single Hezbollah attack has drawn so much attention from the Israeli security establishment. The answer is not simple but begins with an understanding of Hezbollah’s unique capacity for escalation.
Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006 was a bruising affair for both sides. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis fled southward as Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel. More than a million Lebanese fled northward as Israeli airstrikes destroyed rocket launchers and other Hezbollah assets hidden in towns and villages across southern Lebanon.
In the war’s final days, as negotiators hammered out a ceasefire, Israeli leaders sought to show they could eliminate the threat of Hezbollah rockets that forced their constituents to escape southward or hide in bomb shelters. Yet the rockets were so numerous and well-hidden that Israel could not even reduce their rate of fire.
What limited the effectiveness of Hezbollah rockets was their minimal accuracy. Hitting either civilian or military targets depended on dumb luck. Yet both sides recognized after the war that precision-guided munitions (PGMs) could dramatically change the military balance on Israel’s northern frontier. With an arsenal of PGMs, Hezbollah could pose a strategic threat to Israel in its entirety.
Arab armies had once threatened to overrun the Jewish state, but they had to reach Israel before they could damage it. Now, from its perch on the northern border, Hezbollah would be able to target Israel’s airports, seaports, power plants, natural gas infrastructure, transportation hubs, and military bases. Nothing would be out of reach in a country less than twice the size of Connecticut. The economy would likely shut down and moving troops to the front lines would be hazardous. Civilian casualties would also mount as never before.
But how close is Hezbollah to posing the kind of threat that inspires such fear? Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah wants both Israelis and his own supporters to believe Hezbollah already has an arsenal capable of devastating its adversary. He claims his organization can convert thousands of dumb rockets into PGMs and “many missiles have already been converted.” Israeli officers have told journalists this is one of their greatest concerns, although they estimate the number of Hezbollah PGMs to be in the hundreds. Hezbollah also has an ample fleet of drones — as many as 2,000 — although it is unknown how many can deliver munitions accurately. In addition, the group has traditional ballistic missiles, like the GPS-guided Iranian Fateh-110 that can deliver a half-ton high explosive warhead over a range of 250-300 kilometers. An Israeli research center estimates that Iran has dozens of Fateh-110s, possibly more than a hundred.
Whether or not the Hezbollah arsenal can penetrate Israeli air defenses is difficult to say, especially based on public sources alone. The Iron Dome system has performed impressively against high volumes of unguided short-range rocket fire from Gaza. Separate systems would target larger projectiles with longer ranges. Yet by filling the air with hundreds or thousands of unguided rockets at a time, Hezbollah may complicate the challenge facing Israeli defenders. While emphasizing precision capabilities, Hezbollah has also amassed a stockpile of 150,000 unguided rockets that could serve as airborne camouflage for PGMs. Until push comes to shove, it may not be clear which side has an advantage.
While the status quo may yet hold, there is good reason to treat the current situation as one in which push may come to shove. Since the 1980s, informal and evolving “rules of the game” have governed the Israel-Hezbollah relationship. A formal relationship is out of the question. Hezbollah rejects in principle Israel’s right to exist. Israel, like the United States, United Kingdom, and many others, identifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization since it deliberately targets civilians. Sometimes, the two sides pass messages through third parties. Yet often they employ action on the battlefield to articulate their positions.
In the aftermath of the war of 2006, few Israelis would have expected the ceasefire with Hezbollah to last more than a few years. It is now in year seventeen. In part, this is a testament to the power of deterrence. It is also a reflection of Hezbollah prioritizing its war to crush the rebels who rose up against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad from 2011 onwards. That effort cost as many as 2,000 lives, a number likely greater than decades of conflict with Israel. Assad has been secure in power since 2017, yet two years later a financial crisis plunged Lebanon into both political and economic chaos that persists to this day — since November, the country has had no president.
Monday’s attack may indicate that domestic pressures are no longer restraining Hezbollah as tightly as before. The Megiddo assailant’s deep penetration of Israeli territory is unprecedented – Megiddo is nearly 40 miles south of the border. Three years ago, the IDF said several Hezbollah fighters had crossed an unfenced section of the border, but quickly retreated under Israeli fire. This week’s action was much bolder. It also could have been much bloodier: Monday’s bombing seriously injured one resident of a nearby village. Yet when police commandos and internal security agents caught up with the suspect, he was wearing a suicide vest. They shot him before a potential detonation.
In a context where both sides articulate their positions via military action, Israeli leaders must weigh the risk of escalation against the risk that inaction normalizes Hezbollah attacks inside Israeli borders. So far, the message from top officials is that payback is coming. According to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, “Whoever is behind this attack will regret it. We will find the right place, the right way, and we will hit back at whoever is responsible for the attack.”
Counterstrikes would put the ball back in Hezbollah’s court. Perhaps they will accept the price Israel extracts. Both sides have shown a readiness to absorb some damage in the name of preventing escalation, especially if that damage was a form of payback, rather than a new provocation. Yet a limited counterattack may unintentionally take the life of a general, a political leader, or civilians. All kinds of miscalculations are possible, leading the adversary to believe that deterrence is eroding so the safest option is to strike back even harder, driving the escalation forward.
A perennial stand-off may be the best Israel can hope for in its relations with Hezbollah. At moments like the present, when a single bombing threatens to initiate a process of escalation, relying on deterrence may be nerve-wracking — after all, it depends on issuing more and better threats even as tensions rise. Yet if one takes the long view, the method has worked. Seventeen years of relative stability is much better than the guerrilla warfare of the 1980s and 1990s.
What about peace? Israel and Lebanon have little reason to be at war. Beirut and Jerusalem recently signed on to a U.S.-brokered agreement that resolved their disagreements over offshore drilling rights. Their only territorial dispute concerns the tiny Shebaa Farms enclave, a 25 square kilometer strip that comprises about 2 percent of the Golan Heights. Lebanon’s Christian, Druse, and Sunni Muslim populations would likely welcome a respite from conflict. So might many of the country’s Shiites. Yet Hezbollah’s guns give it veto power, and peace would threaten its interests.
First, recognition of the Jewish state is ideologically intolerable, as Hezbollah explained in its founding manifesto. War also justifies Hezbollah’s possession of the guns that ensure its dominant place in Lebanese politics. Finally, Tehran depends on Hezbollah’s ability to threaten Israel with devastation should the Jewish state attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear program or threaten the clerical regime’s existence in some other way.
Until that status quo changes, deterrence will remain the best hope for stability on the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Author Expertise and Biography
Dr. David Adesnik is a senior fellow and the director of research at FDD, where he is responsible for the oversight of FDD publications and the supervision of FDD’s team of research analysts. His own research focuses on Syria and Iran, especially their illicit oil trade and Iran’s use of proxy forces to project influence across the region. Previously, David served as policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative and was a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. For two years, he served as deputy director for Joint Data Support at the U.S. Department of Defense, where he focused on the modeling and simulation of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. He also spent several years as a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. In that capacity, he spent four months in Baghdad as an operations research and systems analyst for Multinational Corps – Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2008, he was part of the foreign policy and national security staff for John McCain’s presidential campaign.