Israel’s Next Move

It has been eight days since Hezbollah’s brazen kidnapping of two IDF soldiers, and the Israeli offensive into Lebanon which resulted has entered a sort of uneasy holding pattern. Though bombings of Hezbollah positions have continued, the pace appears to have let up slightly from previous days, probably as a result of the ongoing evacuation of foreign civilians from the country. However, there’s also a sense of a crucial tipping point, at which Israel’s leaders have had to make a fundamental decision about the course of this war.

At this point, it is important to realise that Israel probably did not enter this war with a precisely laid-out plan for victory, nor did it know for certain how its opponents would react. Instead, in deciding to respond with overwhelming force to Hezbollah’s transgression, Israel’s leadership carefully weighed up its options and decided that the risk of allowing the status quo to continue was far greater than the risk of taking immediate action. Had the status quo continued or, worse, Israel acceded to Hezbollah’s ridiculous demands for the release of its soldiers, it is certain that Hezbollah would only have grown more bold in the months ahead while acquiring ever more sophisticated weaponry and rockets with which to attack Israel. By the same token, in deciding to take immediate military action against Hezbollah, Israel realised it had to strike with such overwhelming and devastating force that the group would cease to be a threat and not just be able to come back, twice as strong, next year.

Over the past week, this is what its bombing campaign has been in aid of. First, Hezbollah’s supply routes, the airport, ports and major roads were either disabled or blockaded, cutting the group off from its Syrian supply route. Subsequently, the campaign shifted to Hezbollah’s own infrastructure, destroying its headquarters, bases and reportedly at least 50% of its rocket stockpile. But despite the success of this aerial campaign, it is not sufficient to either destroy Hezbollah or significantly weaken it in the long term. Aerial bombing has a natural limit in that it is only effective when all targets are known and their locations pinpointed. Against a dispersed enemy like Hezbollah, which hides its installations amongst civilians and is adept at camouflage, this is an impossible task (as even though Israeli intelligence is good, it is not omniscient). The only way, therefore, to root out Hezbollah’s last remnants, destroy its weapons and dismantle its network is to commit military forces in a wide-ranging and intensive ground offensive.

Until now though, it has been uncertain whether Israel would go ahead with such a ground offensive at all. Certainly, it seems that until now, it has preferred to seek a political solution instead, as it has urged the Lebanese Army to use the opportunity provided by Israel’s airstrikes on Hezbollah to move into Southern Lebanon and assert its authority against the group. This hope has died in the past few days, as it has become clear that the Lebanese government lacks both the will and the ability to take any serious action. In light of this it seems inevitable that some kind of ground offensive is on its way.

I believe this ground offensive will take place very soon, perhaps even tonight. At this moment, at least three divisions of the IDF are deployed along Israel’s border with Lebanon, and the order for their advance must surely be imminent.

To achieve lasting success, the IDF’s advance will need to be swift enough to catch Hezbollah by surprise, yet short enough to avoid becoming bogged down (and an easier target) while also being comprehensive enough to ensure the group is thoroughly defeated and not merely allowed to fade away. None of these objectives are going to be easy. Southern Lebanon and the Bekaa valley, the most likely targets for the ground advance, are where Hezbollah is in its element. It has prepared for an attack such as this for years, and has created a layered network of fortifications, obstructions and booby traps. In addition to the need to overcome these, the advancing Israeli forces are going to have to deal with tens of thousands of landmines and dozens of roadside bombs, all the while fighting an enemy that is able to slink in and out of the civilian population at will. This is going to be a close-up, hellish battle in which the infantry leads the way. Despite this, I have no doubt that the IDF is going to emerge victorious, leaving Hezbollah as a shattered force. But in the process it will likely pay a steep price, sustaining heavy casualties which will be sorely felt in a nation as small as Israel.

Afterwards? It will wish to withdraw as soon as possible, perhaps to be replaced by an international (non-UN) force to secure the border area and assist the Lebanese Army in ensuring that Hezbollah does not rise again. This will likely be followed by an international consensus to provide Lebanon with development aid, helping it to rebuild itself in the aftermath of this war. Beyond that it’s impossible to predict what will happen, but I sincerely hope that Hezbollah’s demise and the concurrent weakening of Syrian and Iranian influence leads to a more stable and prosperous Lebanon, and a stable border between it and Israel. It would truly be tragic if the country moves instead to more violence and chaos.