Nicholas Blanford

Israel and Hezbollah’s deterrence doctrine

By warning of the widespread destruction expected in any future conflict, both parties have managed to maintain the relatively peaceful status quo

Supporters of Hezbollah watch a televised speech by Hassan Nasrallah in the southern town of Insar, in the Nabatiyeh district on March 6, 2016. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

It was Israel’s turn on Wednesday to issue dire threats against Lebanon, the latest verbal salvo in a tit-for-tat strategy of deterrence between the Jewish state and Hezbollah which has helped to keep the peace for the past 10 years.


Major General Yair Golan, the Israeli army’s deputy chief of staff, told a group of international correspondents that any future war with Hezbollah would unleash “devastating damage to Lebanon”. He said that Hezbollah’s arsenal included more than 100,000 rockets and missiles and that the organization represented an “unprecedented” threat to Israel.


“In any future crisis, they are not going to see a small war in Lebanon. It’s going to be decisive. It’s going to be a full-scale war,” he said.


Golan added “There is no other way to take out this threat without… creating large damage to the Lebanese infrastructure, to Lebanese houses and to other civilian facilities.”


Golan’s comments were an update of an Israeli deterrence strategy that has been in play since 2008 when the then head of the Israeli army’s Northern Command first articulated what has become known as the “Dahiyeh doctrine”. Major General Gabi Eisenkot conceded that it was impractical to chase after every Hezbollah rocket launcher in a time of war. Instead, Israel had to bring its might to bear against civilian areas and cause so much destruction – similar to what happened to Beirut’s southern suburbs, “Dahiyeh” in the 2006 war – that Hezbollah would retreat chastened and not bother Israel again.


“This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized,” Eisenkot said in 2008.


Israel has embarked on “punishment” campaigns against Lebanese infrastructure before, most notably the seven-day Operation Accountability in July 1993 and the 16-day Grapes of Wrath operation in April 1996. But the purpose of the “Dahiyeh doctrine” is essentially one of deterrence, to dissuade Hezbollah from embarking on risky adventures along Lebanon’s northern borders that could trigger a war. If deterrence fails and a war breaks out, the “Dahiyeh doctrine” not only will fail to cow Hezbollah, it could backfire on Israel. The international community usually grants Israel around a week to rampage in Lebanon before the inevitable escalating toll of Lebanese civilian casualties spurs calls for a negotiated ceasefire. If, at the immediate onset of war, Israel was to “wield disproportionate power”, in Eisenkot’s words, against civilian areas of Lebanon, the casualty toll is likely to be very high in a short space of time, thus hastening a diplomatic intervention from an international community that slowly but inexorably is becoming less sympathetic toward Israel.


As for Hezbollah, in some ways the “Dahiyeh doctrine” would play into its hands. Hezbollah will not stop firing rockets into Israel because Lebanese villages, roads, bridges, airports, electricity plants etc. are being flattened. Hezbollah knows from past experience that during a war with Israel time is on its side. Hezbollah’s focus will be to maintain the flow of rockets into Israel and wait for the international community to intervene.


Furthermore, if Golan’s prediction that the next conflict will be a “full-scale war”, then an aerial “Dahiyeh doctrine” bombing campaign alone will be insufficient and Israeli troops will have to be sent into Lebanon. The Israeli army has spent the past decade training for a future ground war with Hezbollah. But the next war will not be confined to northern Israel and southern Lebanon as in the past. Hezbollah is believed to have rockets with sufficient range to hit Tel Aviv if fired from the northern Bekaa Valley. Its military facilities run from Bint Jbeil in the south to Hermel in the north. Next time, the territories of both countries will become a war zone.


Hezbollah, of course, has been implementing its own deterrence strategy, particularly since 2010. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, has delivered a number of tit-for-tat speeches designed to establish a sense of martial reciprocity with Israel. If Israel bombs Beirut, Hezbollah will bomb Tel Aviv. If Israel blockades Lebanon’s sea ports, Hezbollah will blockade Israel’s ports with its anti-ship missiles. In February, it was reported in Israel that Hezbollah had been locking anti-aircraft missile radars onto Israeli jets flying in Lebanese airspace. Earlier this month, the German Bild newspaper claimed that Hezbollah has acquired the SA-17 “Grizzly” medium-range anti-aircraft missile system.


In February, Nasrallah warned Israel that he could achieve an “atomic bomb” effect by firing rockets at the ammonia storage facilities in Haifa.


That the mutual deterrence continues to hold is due in part to a realization on both sides that the next war will be of a magnitude many times greater than the 2006 conflict. Furthermore, both Hezbollah and Israel understand the risks of miscalculation. That is why Hezbollah has not resumed since 2006 what it calls its “reminder operations” against Israeli troops occupying the Shebaa Farms. Only four attacks have been carried out by Hezbollah in the Farms since 2006 (compared to 23 in the previous six years) and they were all direct retaliation for actions carried out by Israel (three assassinations and an air strike on Lebanese soil). The Israelis have pushed the envelope a bit more than Hezbollah, staging several assassinations of top Hezbollah commanders as well as an Iranian general on the Golan Heights last year and carrying out multiple air strikes in Syria against arms shipments believed to be destined to Hezbollah.


One question that has been raised repeatedly in the past three years is whether Israel will go a step further and take advantage of Hezbollah’s preoccupation with Syria by launching a pre-emptive unilateral attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Unless there is a serious provocation by Hezbollah, the answer almost certainly is no. However much Israeli generals may dream of having another crack against Hezbollah, the cold reality is that no Israeli politician is going give the order for a unilateral war against Lebanon that will result in sub-ballistic guided missiles carrying 500 kilogram warheads smashing into Tel Aviv.


Although an unspoken modus vivendi is in operation along the United Nations-delineated Blue Line on Lebanon’s southern border, the place to watch in the coming months and years is the Golan Heights. Hezbollah has a small presence in the Hadar area of the northern Golan and has staged, directly or indirectly using proxies, a few deniable small-scale operations against Israeli forces here in the past two years. It is understood that Hezbollah would like to turn the Golan into a new arena of confrontation with Israel, similar to the role played by the Blue Line between 2000 and 2006. The circumstances are not suitable at present as much of the Golan opposite Israeli lines is controlled by Syrian rebel groups and Hezbollah has more pressing matters in Syria than to needle the Israelis with occasional attacks.


In recent days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that the Golan Heights will remain under the sovereignty of the Jewish state and he told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the security of the occupied plateau is a “red line”. If the situation in the Golan changes in favor of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Hezbollah begins to consolidate a military presence there, the risk of a miscalculation occurring between Hezbollah and Israel will likely rise.


Nicholas Blanford is Beirut correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Supporters of Hezbollah watch a televised speech by Hassan Nasrallah in the southern town of Insar, in the Nabatiyeh district on March 6, 2016. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

'There is no other way to take out this threat without… creating large damage to the Lebanese infrastructure, to Lebanese houses and to other civilian facilities.'