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Eleven Years After the Second Lebanon War, Is Another Conflict Imminent?

Israel’s northern border has been quiet, but the upheaval in Syria may spiral into another show-down with Hezbollah

Armin Rosen
July 17, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Eleven years ago this month, a Hezbollah raid outside of the Israeli border village of Shlomi touched off a fearfully rapid escalation spiral. The Lebanese militant group killed eight Israeli soldiers the night of July 12th, 2006, and abducted two more. Over the next 34 days, the Israel Defense Forces penetrated deep into Lebanon, while also proving itself woefully unprepared to fight a motivated guerrilla army on their own terrain. For its part, Hezbollah launched thousands of rockets into northern Israel, demonstrating the extent of their strategic threat to the Jewish state—while also provoking a destructive Israeli invasion and seeing perhaps 15 percent of its initial force injured, captured, or killed.

The amount of time separating the present day from the inconclusive 2006 conflict now roughly equals the 11-year gap between the 1956 Suez Crisis and the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel’s successful incursion into the Sinai preceded 11 years without a major Egyptian-Israeli conflict. In hindsight, the Suez conflict looks like a dry-run for two far more severe wars—the flare-up did nothing to resolve the fundamental causes of the Egyptian-Israeli conflict and simply delayed a much deadlier reckoning. Could the Second Lebanon war end up having a similar place in history?

Two weeks after the conflict’s conclusion, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah admitted that he would not have ordered the July 12th attack inside of Israel if he had known “that the operation would lead to such a war.” As a result, Israel’s northern border has experienced a significant stretch of quiet. At the same time, the dynamic of mutual deterrence that has remained in place since 2006 might not be as stable as its longevity suggests.

For starters, Hezbollah is an Iranian-supported sectarian militia that is is ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction. “I think it’s fair to say that Israel did successfully renew its sense of deterrence with Hezbollah, which doesn’t mean that this changed Hezbollah’s reason for being or its intentions for the future,” says Matthew Levitt, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a book about the group. Along with its “immutable hatred for Israel,” says Levitt, Hezbollah operates as a political party, an international terrorist group, a crime syndicate, a military, and a state-within-a-state. As one of the most advanced and multi-faceted militant groups in the Middle East, Hezbollah’s calculus is necessarily different from that of a state actor, making its future actions and risk threshold worryingly difficult to discern.

Then there’s the Syrian factor. Since 2011, Hezbollah has been bogged down sustaining the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, losing as many as 2,500 fighters and much of its senior leadership in the process. At the same time, the group is in control of most of the Syrian-Lebanese border, and has expanded its grip inside of Lebanon, according to Tony Badran, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Since 2006, their position has improved dramatically in terms of their complete and utter total control of everything,” says Badran, citing the group’s military superiority and co-opting of Lebanese state institutions.

Syria has also shifted whatever implicit tactical understanding existed between Israel and its Iranian-backed adversary to the north. As Badran explained, until the 2006 conflict, Hezbollah believed it had favorable rules of engagement with Israel: Hezbollah would occasionally fire rockets southward, and Israel would respond with a limited strike near the suspected launch site. In 2006, “[Nasrallah] was operating under the assumption of the 1996 rules of engagement” Badran says. “Israel overturned the table entirely and changed the rules.” However botched in practice, the 2006 invasion created the possibility of an Israeli strategic response to Hezbollah’s provocations. Badran says the Syria conflict has created a new set of rules. Israel has repeatedly struck at Hezbollah’s supply lines inside of Syria and attacked the group whenever it has attempted to gain a foothold in southern Syria, along Israel’s front line in the Golan Heights. But Israel has almost entirely refrained from attacking Hezbollah inside of Lebanon—while Hezbollah largely hasn’t retaliated for Israeli strikes in Syria.

Recent evidence that Hezbollah and Iran are developing a capability for building long-range missiles inside of Lebanon could threaten that balance. As Badran noted, a lot of the other factors could upend it, too. Hezbollah has infiltrated the Lebanese Armed Forces, Israel considers the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to be ineffective, and Hezbollah is building links with Iraqi militant groups in order to create an overland weapons supply line stretching from Tehran to Beirut. “All of it could be a trigger,” Badran says.

A localized version of mutually assured destruction could still prevail, with the foreseeable horror of a full-scale Israel-Hezbollah war proving deterrence enough for both sides. Hezbollah has an estimated 100,000 projectiles pointed at Israel, according to Levitt, and Israeli leaders have said that they will consider the Lebanese state to be a legitimate target in the next war, hinting at the scope and intensity of any future operation in the country, should the need ever arise. Short of another war—a possibility, although not an inevitability—the legacy of the 2006 conflict might not be settled another 11 years from now, either.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.