Future Confrontations with Hamas & Hezbollah

The primary challenge IDF will face in the coming years will consist of hybrid opponents, namely – non-state organizations that had developed military strength combining guerrilla tactics and regular armed forces, notably Hamas and Hezbollah

Palestinian Hamas security forces (Photo: AP)

The familiar defense challenges Israel faced until the last few years were conventional military confrontations against the armed forces of such Arab countries as Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, but the likelihood of such confrontations has been drastically reduced pursuant to the signature of the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, the disintegration of Iraq and the civil war raging in Syria since 2011, which has severely weakened the Syrian Army.

In the last decade, Iran has evolved into the most substantial threat facing Israel, mainly if it ever succeeds in manufacturing nuclear weapons. As long as this option remains unfeasible, the primary challenge facing IDF will involve hybrid opponents, namely – non-state organizations that had developed military strength combining guerrilla tactics and regular armed forces, notably Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Rocket Rage

Hezbollah is kept busy by the fighting in Syria and is not currently interested in a confrontation with Israel, but a flare-up between this organization and the State of Israel might develop nevertheless, for example – if an incident along the Israeli-Lebanese border or the Israeli-Syrian border got out of hand, particularly if one of the parties involved had sustained heavy casualties and responded aggressively.

Hezbollah is regarded as the hybrid organization that is the most dangerous for Israel as it has in its possession some 150,000 rockets and missiles. This arsenal practically covers every point within Israel's territory and has the potential of inflicting substantial damage. This applies in particular to high precision missiles and/or missiles fitted with substantial warheads. During the next war, up to 1,500 rockets might be launched into Israel every day. Hezbollah can hit and even paralyze vital infrastructures like Ben-Gurion airport. In view of this threat, the State of Israel should consider a preemptive strike. On the other hand, Israel had dealt with more serious opponents than Hezbollah in the past, and some of those opponents have faded away while Israel was spared the cost of a war, as was the case with Syria.

A future confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah could evolve into a massive operation, extending from the Beqaa Valley and Beirut in Lebanon all the way to the Negev. In response to massive rocket fire against military and civilian targets inside Israel, IDF will stage a large-scale offensive into Lebanon, on land, in the air and at sea. Battles will be conducted in open terrain, in cleft areas and in some cases in densely foliated areas, and mainly in urban areas, where Hezbollah had deployed their rockets.

The "IDF Strategy" document published by IDF in August 2015 states that the objective will be "To deny the enemy the will and ability to continue fighting and operate against our own forces." Israel cannot annihilate Hezbollah as this organization would always be able to continue fighting using guerrilla tactics and terrorism, even if IDF dominated considerable parts of Lebanon as was the case in the past. From the outset, Israel will have no intention of remaining in Lebanon again, certainly not longer than a few weeks, so as not to sink into the Lebanese mire once again, as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s. Consequently, IDF will stage a major raid-like operation whose strategic objective would be to deliver a heavy blow to Hezbollah, namely – to inflict maximum damage and casualties to this organization, thereby punishing, weakening and deterring it and deferring the next round as much as possible.

At the operational level, Israel will strive to destroy as many rockets as possible, in particular the more effective and lethal ones, before they are launched into Israeli territory. Accordingly, IDF will focus on some 200 villages and towns in southern Lebanon, where the rockets are deployed. IDF will rely on high-precision fire, mainly from the air, along with a ground maneuver. An offensive move incorporating a ground maneuver that may penetrate deep into Lebanese territory cannot be ruled out. Such a move may be required in order to deliver a decisive operational blow to Hezbollah, namely – to directly threaten the organization's centers of gravity, in order to convince its leaders to accept a ceasefire subject to terms that are as favorable to Israel as possible.

Israel will have to minimize the losses and damage inflicted on it by Hezbollah fire using such active defense measures as the Iron Dome system along with passive defense, while relying on the IDF Home Front Command and effective coordination between the various local and government authorities. This cooperation has been tested through a series of training exercises conducted since the last confrontation in 2006, like the last national home front training exercise conducted in mid-September 2016. In June 2016, an exercise involving the massive evacuation of civilians was conducted in four settlements along the border with Lebanon. In the event of a war, 14 settlements located close to the border with Lebanon could be evacuated, owing to concerns regarding enemy fire and a possible raid by Hezbollah into Israeli territory.

Better the Enemy You Know

On the other side of the map, Hamas in the Gaza Strip is locked between Israel and Egypt. Both countries are hostile to it, which hinders its aspirations to grow stronger. At the same time, Hamas invests in its military power, especially in the manufacture of rockets and the excavation of underground tunnels. Compared to Hezbollah, Hamas is less dangerous as it possesses fewer rockets – only a few thousands, and the range and warhead size of those rockets are inferior to those of the Hezbollah rockets. Additionally, Hamas, despite its aspirations to agitate the Judea and Samaria district, is not currently interested in a confrontation in the Gaza Strip. This trend may change, however, and in any case, an incident in the Gaza Strip that gets out of hand could drag both sides into a confrontation.

The Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip can be toppled within weeks or even days by capturing the Gaza Strip. However, a confrontation with Hamas could drag on and exact a costly toll on Israel on several levels, in the form of casualties, economic costs, international criticism, deterioration of relations with Arab countries, et al. Israel prefers to have the Palestinian Authority regain control over the Gaza Strip, but the PA is unwilling and/or incapable of accomplishing it. The Palestinian Authority has a very difficult time, despite massive assistance from Israel, preventing Hamas from dominating the Judea and Samaria district. Israel could capture the Gaza Strip and then withdraw, but ironically, after such a confrontation Hamas may prove to be too weak to once again enforce its authority over the Gaza Strip. Some parts of the Gaza Strip, if not all of it, could evolve into a no-man's land and even worse as far as Israel is concerned – into a staging area for Islamic organizations more radical than Hamas, like those identified with al-Qaeda or ISIS. As far as Israel is concerned, Hamas is "the devil you know", namely – a hostile Arab regime, but one with which understandings may be reached, albeit unofficially, as Israel has done in the past and could do again in the future on other fronts as well.

During a confrontation between Israel and Hamas, Turkey could aspire to prove that it is on the side of Hamas, which could undermine the fragile reconciliation agreement concluded recently between Israel and Turkey. Turkey could also act as mediator between Israel and Hamas, assuming that both Israel and Hamas trust it. Iran, on the one hand, will aspire to support Hamas against Israel, but on the other hand, an on-going conflict has clouded the relations between Hamas and Iran for some time, pursuant to Hamas' refusal to align with Iran's Syrian ally, Assad. Even if Iran wanted to support Hamas, the isolation of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the blocking of the tunnels leading from the Sinai into the Gaza Strip will make it extremely difficult for Iran to deliver supplies to Hamas.

The Preparations of the IDF

On January 18, 2016, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot defined Hezbollah as "The primary enemy facing IDF". IDF have been preparing for confrontations on other fronts as well, notably the Gaza Strip front. There is also the possibility of simultaneous fighting on more than one front. In mid-September 2016, IDF conducted a large-scale general staff exercise that examined a scenario of escalation in the Judea and Samaria district that leads to a war against both Hamas and Hezbollah, namely – a confrontation on three fronts simultaneously.

The IDF manpower is based on reservists. At the same time, especially in the event of a small scale operation on a single front, IDF may rely on their regular units, for a number of reasons. Firstly, as these units are readily available year-round, they are easier to train. Additionally, if a heated dispute develops within the Israeli public regarding the operation, then, unlike the regular (compulsory service) troopers, the reservists may prove to be more critical, which may include criticism voiced in public, and IDF strive to avoid such situations. Relying on the regular forces will be a calculated risk, assuming the operation does not erode those units excessively, especially if there are no indications of another front opening during the war or immediately thereafter. Deploying worn and exhausted regular units to another front before they had a chance to recover could result in the mission not being accomplished and in heavy casualties among the IDF troopers.

The motivation of the troops will, as always, be of the utmost importance. Enemy fire sustained by the Israeli rear area will make the importance of the mission abundantly clear to every trooper. Nevertheless, morale may develop some cracks, for example among those who believe that Israel used excessive force or that the objectives of the operation are overly ambitious in the event that Israel aspired to annihilate Hezbollah and/or to knock down Hamas, which would require an extensive and prolonged operation in Lebanon/the Gaza Strip. Conversely, if the operation ends with Hamas/Hezbollah still undefeated, many troopers may feel frustrated and disappointed, in view of the risks they had taken and the price paid in human lives.

The Israeli Air Force will enjoy total air superiority. Hamas and Hezbollah have no aircraft generally and interceptors in particular – only anti-aircraft missile systems (especially Hezbollah). The latter organization might shoot down one or more Israeli aircraft. Israel must do everything to prevent the enemy from gaining such a propaganda victory, namely – not to emphasize the loss of an aircraft, as it is a part of the normal cost of the operation. Fighter aircraft and attack helicopters will attack various enemy objectives while supporting the ground forces. Coordination between those two arms has improved in the last few years. Naturally, safety rules would have to be observed, like keeping a safe distance between the target and the nearest friendly ground force, although in some cases they may have to be overlooked, for example – when a ground force has to be extricated.

In March 2016, IAF conducted a highly intensive training activity intended to test its forces in a situation of a massive rocket fire attack against Israel. The IAF squadrons practiced an extensive range of scenarios at the tactical level, with the intention of generating the highest strike mission output. In late June 2016, an IDF General Staff exercise was conducted to test the three arms in the context of different scenarios, with the emphasis placed on the northern front. IAF, for example, practiced air strikes. The IDF Navy practiced attacks against coastal targets and support for the ground forces. In any future confrontation, the IDF artillery will be a part of the fire support effort, with the emphasis placed on the use of precision-guided munitions against targets in built-up areas, to avoid unnecessary deaths among Arab civilians.

The spearhead of the IDF ground forces will consist of armored elements employing Merkava Mark-IV tanks fitted with the Trophy system that provides protection against enemy antitank weapons. The IDF 401st Armored Brigade, for example, operates such tanks. Namer APCs will be essential to provide effective protection to the IDF infantry. The combat engineering forces will clear paths through the battlefield by neutralizing various types of EODs, IEODs, mines and so forth. Combat engagement inside the underground tunnels will constitute a particularly complex challenge. IDF will have to avoid such engagements to the maximum extent possible, and focus on protecting the troopers on the ground, as inside the tunnels IDF will lose their advantages – outnumbering the terrorists and possessing superior firepower.

In conclusion, a future confrontation with Hezbollah or Hamas will not threaten the State of Israel like past wars against a coalition of Arab countries had done. Nevertheless a war, especially against Hezbollah, will be a major challenge. IDF will not be able to accomplish total overbalance over the enemy, but intelligent preparations will enable Israel to deliver a painful blow while sustaining minimum casualties and damage. Such preparations necessitate a sober definition of the objectives of the future war while preparing IDF to accomplish those objectives and always retaining the necessary flexibility that may be required during the actual operation. 

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