The dilemma of a preventive Israeli strike on Hezbollah – analysis

As the Iran-backed terror army provokes Israel on the border and builds its arsenal, experts assess that Iranian pressure, and the domestic crises in Lebanon and Israel, are emboldening its leader Hassan Nasrallah.

By Yaakov Lappin, JNS

Hezbollah’s provocations on the Lebanese-Israeli border continue, while deeper within Lebanon, the Iranian-backed terror army continues to amass a monstrous arsenal of some 200,000 rockets, mortar shells, missiles and drones. Hundreds of these threats are capable of targeting strategic sites within Israel.

This situation raises the question of whether Israel needs to consider a preventive strike, as well as the dilemma that such a strike would pose to military and political decision makers.

With Hezbollah continuously adding matches to the figurative matchbox and chances of a conflict increasing with time, should Israel wait—or seize the initiative?

“It is important to distinguish between two options—a preventive strike and a pre-emptive strike,” Lt. Col. (ret.) Orna Mizrahi, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told JNS.

“A pre-emptive strike occurs when you know that a threat is on the way to you, and that war is at your immediate doorstep. A preventive strike is designed to destroy enemy threats even when it is not clear that the situation prior to the strike was leading to war,” she said.

Mizrahi, a former deputy national security adviser for foreign policy at the National Security Council of Israel, noted that until now, Israel has reserved preventive strikes for neutralizing emerging nuclear threats—in Iraq in 1981, and in Syria in 2007.

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“We have not initiated preventive strikes for conventional build-ups. This presents a dilemma. If taking an initiative leads to war, on the one hand, but the initiative also gives you an advantage because you can strike a significant component of the enemy’s force, which is the right course of action? That is the dilemma,” she stated.

Col. (res.) Shaul Shay, a former deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel and an ex-intelligence officer at the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command, noted that Israel’s traditional strategic logic has been to avoid conflict with Hezbollah to the extent possible.

Since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel’s policy regarding Hezbollah has been one of containment, said Shay. For its part, Hezbollah has also sought to avoid outright confrontation, though for different reasons, he added.

“This has not stopped Israel from engaging in a campaign to eliminate precision weapons and other game-changing threats in next-door Syria. However, the challenge is coming from Lebanon,” he said.

It is important to view the actions of Hezbollah in a wider, regional context, according to Shay.

“Iran is at the core of [Hezbollah’s] regional activities, and these activities also involve Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Israel is not interested in a clash that turns regional. This is the heavier threat hovering over us,” he said.

Such a conflict could involve Hezbollah in Lebanon, spread to Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah in Syria, and drag in the Palestinian arena, he cautioned. “So long as Israel can prevent this, it will try to do that,” he said.

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Israel’s ongoing campaign in Syria cannot be seen as a major preventive strike, said Mizrahi, but rather constitutes a drizzle of smaller-scale actions, which does not extend to Lebanon.

“This created a situation in which Hezbollah feels protected and continues to build up its force in Lebanon, while the quiet is preserved,” said Mizrahi.

Provocations on the border ordered by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah are not designed to lead to full conflict, Mizrahi assessed, despite Nasrallah’s growing self-confidence and willingness to take greater risks, such as the dispatching into Israel in March of a terrorist armed with a bomb.

“The Iranians want more such actions from Hezbollah, as Iran’s own global situation improves due to the Iranian role in Ukraine and its re-establishment of relations with Gulf Arab states,” she said. “The internal situation in Lebanon is also pushing Nasrallah to take steps to portray himself as ‘defender of Lebanon,’ and to justify possessing an armed force in the face of domestic critics,” she added.

“Furthermore, in the past years, the IDF has been completing its northern border security barrier, some of which, according to Hezbollah, violates the Blue Line. Nasrallah claims he is responding to this. The barrier is putting Hezbollah under pressure,” she said.

(Immediately prior to the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, the United Nations marked the line of withdrawal with blue barrels—the “Blue Line.” The IDF security barrier does not exactly follow the Blue Line, with the distance between the two being hundreds of feet in some places.)

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Another factor according to Mizrahi is Israel’s own domestic political crisis, which is fueling Nasrallah’s perception of the Jewish state as unwilling to launch a major military campaign against him.

“We are clearly in a stage of heightened tensions, and opportunities for miscalculations are large. But Hezbollah believes that [limited] friction with Israel will strengthen it internally in Lebanon, and prove to Iran that it is doing something. This explains the greater risk taking,” he said.

Shay echoed the assessment that Iranian directives and domestic Lebanese needs were driving Hezbollah’s increased aggression. An anti-tank missile attack launched in July in the Har Dov area, and provocations near the village of Ghajar, all help bury criticism of Hezbollah in Lebanon, he said.

“Iran is also interested in activating pressure against Israel. Direct Iranian attempts to attack Israeli targets abroad haven’t met with much success,” said Shay. “Nasrallah’s assessment is that these are low-risk actions, that Israel is in a domestic crisis, and hence he estimates that it won’t respond in a major way.”

Yet just such assessments in Beirut are what led to the major war in 2006, he cautioned, adding, “Hezbollah has to understand that Israel reserves all options on the table.”