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OpEds

Northern war near certain, but timing is key

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“No war is inevitable until it breaks out,” wrote British historian and journalist, AJP Taylor. It can be argued that Israel has been at war with Hezbollah since at least 7 October 2023.

An immutable concept of war is that a keen strategist will endeavour to choose the time and place to conduct a battle. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) may not be able to choose the place where the final battle will be fought against Hezbollah, but it may be able to choose the timing of an all-out attack.

Amidst an increasing sense of insecurity, a major war on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon seems inevitable. Although, as a military historian, I use the word “inevitable” with caution.

Since 7 October 2023, the tension along the northern border, which initially appeared to have waned, has once again escalated to unbearable levels.

More than 4 000 rocket, missile, and other attacks have resulted in 80 000 Israeli citizens having had to abandon their homes temporarily. Hezbollah units have infiltrated the demilitarised zone between the Litani River and the Blue Line in contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.

Israel’s apparent reluctance to neutralise Hezbollah’s military stems from several sources. The IDF was hesitant to conduct a two-front war against Hamas and Hezbollah simultaneously. Israel occupies a central geographic position surrounded by potential foes, and has historically used the advantages offered by internal lines of communication.

The IDF prefers to deal with its enemies in sequence rather than simultaneously, allowing for a concentration of forces against a single foe at a time. This all makes perfect strategic and operational sense and favours the IDF, which has successfully adopted manoeuvre-style warfare in past battles with Arab armies.

At least one of the barriers to attacking Hezbollah has fallen away with the demise of Hamas’s fighting power, which has been whittled away with the relentless attacks in Gaza since October.

Together with United States concerns, Israel has also been reluctant to provoke a wider war involving the direct commitment of Iranian forces in support of its proxies in Lebanon. The capriciousness of the United States’s support during a protracted war on Israel’s northern front must be considered.

However, the likelihood of an all-out Iranian attack has receded in the wake of Operation True Promise’s dismal performance on 13 to 14 April 2024. Israeli Iron Dome and missile defence systems were able to render harmless close to 99% of the more than 300 Iranian missile and drone munitions sent over.

More worrying for Iran was the military co-operation between the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, together with several Arab nations in bringing down Iranian missiles overflying their territory on their way to Israel.

The attack, which was the largest drone strike in history, was an abject failure, leaving Iran bereft of a credible threat to Israeli security. Therefore, an Israeli attack on Hezbollah may draw little in the way of tangible Iranian support as its threat of massive missile intervention proved much more of a deterrent to Israel than the actual reality of its ill-conceived attack on 13 April.

The prospect of engaging with Hezbollah, which by many accounts is far more formidable than Hamas, seems daunting at first glance. Hezbollah fields more than 50 000 well-trained fighters, many of whom are veterans of the conflict in Syria. There they honed crucial skills in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in some of the fiercest combat.

Combat experience in Syria gave Hezbollah valuable exposure to conventional-style combat, the use of artillery in support of infantry, and the deployment of larger conventional formations. Historically, Hezbollah earned a fearsome reputation in the wake of the Israeli-Lebanon War of 2006, where it acquitted itself beyond the IDF’s expectations, inflicting several serious losses on the ill-prepared and mismanaged Israeli forces.

In that war, Israel encountered Hezbollah’s mission-command style, which allowed small groupings that the IDF managed to isolate to continue the fight and act on their own initiative. It also deployed a hybrid force made up of conventional-type soldiers as well as guerilla fighters, and these successfully acted in concert on several occasions during the battle.

The IDF, which entered the war having discarded many of the combined arm’s principles learned in the Yom Kippur War in favour of new-fangled technology, left the battlefield much chastened. Little wonder at signs of reluctance to embroil itself with an enemy that boasts a missile capability of more than 120 000.

The terrain that the IDF will traverse in south Lebanon is formidable and favours the defenders. Hezbollah has enjoyed years of unlimited funding to construct field fortifications and an extensive tunnel network that aids logistics, conceals weapons and missiles, and allows for the rapid movement of troops from one location to another as the situation demands.

Hezbollah knows the lie of the land, and can withdraw a portion of its forces into the numerous urban areas, thereby increasing defensive multipliers. An invading force faces a formidable task, and hopes for a quick victory remain remote.

A school of thought is that Israel cannot avoid the problem of Hezbollah, and will either have to fight now or sometime in the future. Time offers no guarantee that conditions will be more favourable.

The IDF is also made up of veterans, and has gained enormous experience during operations in Gaza. Unlike in 2006, it has built its urban offensive around an all-arms combined force team, which includes all the components of air power, artillery, armour and infantry, together with engineering units using bulldozers to pave the way.

Hezbollah, in contrast, can field only a light infantry force, which, no matter how well-trained or equipped, won’t be able to muster anywhere near the firepower at the disposal of the IDF. Israel has few good choices in the current scenario, and decisions may boil down to the least bad choice.

  • Dr David Brock Katz is a research fellow at Stellenbosch University in the faculty of military science. He has published three books and numerous academic articles dealing with aspects of South African military history and military doctrine.

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