Israel vs. Hezbollah

Commentary: Amid ongoing tension between the two sides, a miscalculation by one or the other, or both, might ignite another war, although neither side wants one right now

Israel vs. Hezbollah

Photo: IDF

If there is a recurrence of the recent incidents between Hezbollah and Israel, the situation could escalate and even lead to war. Hezbollah, a Lebanese group, fought the IDF from the early 1980s to 2000, when the IDF was deployed in Lebanon. In 2006 the two sides clashed again, for 34 days, in a war that ended in a tie. Since then, both sides have invested significant efforts in upgrading their capabilities.

The next round might happen if Iran tries to produce a nuclear weapon, a move which may result in Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear sites. Iran could retaliate with its proxies, mostly with Hezbollah. Israel’s evaluation of the duration and cost of a war with Hezbollah, along with its other ramifications and consequences, will be major factors in Israel’s decision whether to bomb Iran or not.  

Meanwhile, although there is ongoing tension between Israel and Hezbollah, neither of them want a war due to its cost. Israel also has other urgent priorities while Hezbollah has suffered heavy casualties in the Syrian civil war, up to 2,000 dead and several thousand wounded. Hezbollah will require time to regain its strength, so it may not seek to confront Israel at the moment. Yet a miscalculation by Israel or Hezbollah or both might ignite a war. The deep economic crisis in Lebanon could also play a role in this matter. It might restrain Hezbollah or push it to challenge Israel.

The IDF, one of the strongest militaries in the Middle East, outnumbers Hezbollah in terms of troops and outguns it in terms of weapon systems. Yet Hezbollah has a quite powerful hybrid force, which has anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, hundreds of drones, and up to 150,000 rockets and missiles, some of which can reach all of Israel. Hezbollah might be able to fire up to 2,000 rockets a day during a confrontation with Israel.

Israel has systems to shoot down rockets, particularly the Iron Dome system. Yet Israel does not have enough of them to intercept most of Hezbollah’s rockets, so the IDF can’t rely on a defensive strategy. The IAF is primarily made up of fighter-bombers such as the F15/16. The IAF has been training to carry out thousands of sorties in Lebanon, but it might not be able to stop the pounding of Israel by Hezbollah. To do that, Israel needs boots on the ground, i.e. to carry out a major land offensive, deep inside Lebanon.

In recent years the IDF held many exercises aimed at preparing for possible combat with Hezbollah. The IDF, which had some setbacks in the 2006 war, will be determined to prove it has learned its lessons. However, defeating a relatively strong and elusive enemy such as Hezbollah is a tall order, even if Israel seizes part of Lebanon. Hezbollah, which is rooted inside the Shiite community in Lebanon, can always continue fighting with guerrilla and terror tactics. Israel will therefore strive for more limited objectives, mostly to destroy Hezbollah’s rockets and inflict major casualties in order to deter it and other groups from confronting Israel.

In such a scenario, the IDF is likely to penetrate several dozen kilometers into Lebanon, on a wide front, but only stay there for a few weeks at most. Israel does not wish to deploy troops again in Lebanon, exposing its troops to attacks, like the situation in the 1980s and the 1990s.

In recent years, Israeli officials have repeatedly warned about the danger caused by Hezbollah's storage of rockets in about 200 villages and towns in Lebanon. If rockets are launched from those sites, the IDF will strike them, possibly causing huge collateral damage, unless the population can be evacuated in time.

Since Hezbollah deploys its fighters inside towns and villages, the IDF trains in urban combat, including underground. Israeli troops also have to be familiar with the terrain of Lebanon, so they carry out exercises in similar areas in the Golan Heights and the Galilee. The IDF also relies heavily on advanced technology such as in its C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence) network.

All in all, Israel and Hezbollah don’t seek war right now, but a war might still erupt. If it happens, the IDF will strike Hezbollah hard, but it should not rely too much on air power.  


Dr. Ehud Eilam has been dealing with and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later on he worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense as a researcher. He has a Ph.D and has published six books in the U.S./U.K. His latest book is Containment in the Middle East (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).

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