For all the threats of rendering Lebanon to a ‘country of refugees’ in the event of another war, Israel knows that threat would apply both ways.
To those visiting at least a segment of the 49.1-mile border that separates Israel from Lebanon, it’s easy to get the impression that all is serene and normal, even though you know it’s specious.
The serenity is merely homage to the level of sophisticated preparations Lebanese Hezbollah and its archenemy Israel are making for the day another round of war breaks out.
Nearly a decade after it rendered mighty Israel to her first ‘tactical’ defeat in what culminated into the longest Arab-Israeli war to date, the rhetoric paving the way for another round has been making headlines with increasing velocity.
In the last fortnight, it was topped by the chief of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate Maj. Gen. Herzl ‘Herzi’ Halevi making a bold and poised statement threatening to turn Lebanon into a ‘country of refugees’ if Israel were to go to war again with Hezbollah.
The general’s comments were not spontaneous. They were carefully worded and primarily designed to discourage Hezbollah from disproportionate retaliation to any interspersed bombing raids Israel may carry out in future against targets affiliated with them.
At the same time, it was an over-confident message of reassurance to a frightened and tense Israeli public, a public that naturally rewards confidence over uncertainty and indecisiveness.
But for all General Halevi’s bravado, it would have been helpful if his comments cared to remind the world not only of what Israel will do to Lebanon—something Israeli commanders have iterated time and again—but what Hezbollah might simultaneously do to them.
That’s because whatever one reads into the movement’s extensive involvement in the war in Syria, it’s today as strong and as battle-hardened as ever.
It has in excess of 150,000 missiles preponderantly of the surface-to-surface variety and of varying quantities, payloads, ranges and all of which ensure its combined firepower eclipses that of most states in the world.
It has sophisticated drone and signals technology, external financial and material support and an ever-faithful vote bank that allows it to remain a lead protagonist on two deadly fronts: in Syria against ISIL and the south against Israel.
But in anticipation of Israel’s nationwide ‘Dahiyeh Doctrine’ blitz in the next war, Hezbollah has carefully pondered what it can chisel into the brain of Israel’s strategists that deters or renders them impotent in their quest to turn Lebanon into a ‘country of refugees’.
What ‘food for thought’ can they give that unhinges them from the idea that being somewhat stretched in Syria and sensitive to domestic fragility at home, Israel is capable of disrupting its military logic and imposing a fundamental change in the military equilibrium?
Everything to a standstill?
Its only when you’ve had the opportunity to speak with ‘those in the know’ in Lebanon and done the calculations of Hybrid warfare carefully, that you manage to envisage a large degree of Hezbollah’s war plan.
To them, bringing Israel to a virtual standstill along with an identical refugee exodus of its population is the ultimate and only equalizer.
At the center of Hezbollah’s war plan will be combined land-air-sea attacks through volleys of missiles after declaring sensitive points in both Israel’s major population centers, as well as strategic sites across the country, as ‘no-go zones’ from the onset of the war.
And at the heart of this plan, is the targeting of modern Israel’s nerve center: Gush Dan.
There is a good reason why maps of Gush Dan are neatly pinned to the war room map tables in Hezbollah’s command and control bunkers.
It is the pulsing hub of the country, the heart of its business and culture; it’s the most highly populated and commercially active area and is at the center of the Israel’s political and economic life with its incorporation of Tel Aviv.
More than 3.2 million people or 42 per cent of the population are resident in this metropolis that covers an area of 585 square miles. The distance from southern to northern boundary is some 90km with a width of about 20km.
Hezbollah now says it has precise coordinates for a rich bank of targets in this area that it hopes to hit with a regular foray of precision-guided missiles.
It knows this is the key to bringing normal life to a halt. It has war-gamed that Israel has no effective strategy for stopping this area being rained down with a steady flow of uncontrollable missiles, even in the presence of several batteries of its Arrow anti-missile systems.
It believes the wreaking of havoc and ruin on Israel’s marveling and renowned economic hubs, satellite towns, political, financial and military locations will be the game-changer that extracts concessions from the region’s most powerful state.
In the 2006 war, Hezbollah limited its strikes to northern Israel, for fear of prolonging a war Israel initiated—especially when events that preceded it were designed for a prisoner swap.
But now Hezbollah is threatening to hit nuclear, oil and gas installations, power and water plants, highways and bridges with a great degree of accuracy.
What then happens if Hezbollah decides to cross every red line and make life hell for the everyday Israeli?
What happens when Israeli families realize they’ll be living indefinitely in underground shelters for fear of constant rocket fire?
What happens if Hezbollah—taking a leaf out of Israeli announcements in past conflicts—suddenly announces that it will hit anything that “moves” in certain areas?
What happens when it starts obliterating Israel’s Sea and Airports? When it declares 100 or more nautical miles as ‘no-go zones’ in the Mediterranean so that nothing goes to and from Israel’s critical shipping lanes?
Lebanon is a country fraught with a history of internal conflict and that’s aside from bearing the brunt of nearly forty years of Israeli attacks—including a twenty-two year occupation.
It is third world in the infrastructural sense and Lebanese are very much accustomed to the phenomenon of power cuts, damaged infrastructure, economic hardship in addition to political paralysis.
But Israel, the most educated country in the world with per capita more doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers and even tech start-ups than any other, is hardly braced for an all-out war that brings daily life to a standstill.
Just as many Lebanese will decide to flee to the safety of foreign countries or international aid agencies, Israelis will no doubt attempt the same in far harsher conditions; they have no friendly borders they can cross into the arms of people that will likely offer them refuge.
Hezbollah knows that despite being cemented by a history of persecution, the population of Israel is no less susceptible to fleeing destruction and war in their cities and villages than are the Lebanese.
They know what Israel’s weakness is. They know the breaking point.
Yet for all the bitingly delivered sound bites of eviscerating the other and leaving it with refugee status, mutual deterrence appears to be holding in large part due to a realization on both sides that any new outbreak of war will be on a magnitude far greater than 2006.
There is hope that both sides in this conflict realize that pleasure will in fact come from restraint. That both sides realize neither stands to benefit from an escalation, even when the envelope is pushed every now again.
As for Halevi’s otherwise genius-like mind, it appears the blessed sponge of amnesia has wiped clean the fundamental lesson of the last war: it’s only when your home front gets hit with reciprocal missiles and your population flees in droves that you understand the meaning of consequence and deterrence.