Middle East

Ten years on, is Hezbollah prepared for another war with Israel?

Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters in "Victory over Israel" rally in 2006 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hezbollah regards the outcome of the 2006 war as a victory over Israel

In a region transformed by the wars in Syria and Iraq, the stand-off between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shia jihadist group it last confronted in full-scale warfare in 2006, appears to be one thing that has not changed.

Ten years is the longest period without major fighting between them - a sign, perhaps, that the mutual deterrence established after 2006 is here to stay.

But earlier this year, rumour spread in Lebanon that Israel was preparing to attack and finish off Hezbollah, sparking media speculation that the summer of 2016 will see an even bloodier re-run of the war of 2006.

Back then, Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and abducted two in a cross-border raid, and demanded an exchange of prisoners with Israel.

Israel responded by launching an all-out war, beginning with a blockade and an intense aerial campaign. The war ended with a ceasefire after 33 days of fighting.

According to official figures, 1,191 people were killed in Lebanon, the majority of them civilians. In Israel, 121 soldiers and 44 civilians were killed.

Among the goals set by Israeli officials were an unconditional release of the abducted soldiers and the disarmament of Hezbollah, or at least the elimination of the "long-term" military threat the group poses to Israel. It achieved none of them.

Hezbollah issued a single demand following their cross-border raid - indirect negotiations leading to the release of Arab prisoners in exchange for the two Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah would not say whether they had survived their capture.

In 2008 the Israelis released five Lebanese prisoners, as well as the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters, in return for the bodies of the two soldiers.

'Disproportionate power'

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Israeli air strikes caused massive damage, including in Hezbollah's Beirut stronghold

So judging by the war aims, Israel lost and Hezbollah won. But the scale of destruction in Lebanon posed a challenge to Hezbollah's narrative of victory.

Up to a million people were displaced, and around 15,000 homes and 900 factories were destroyed, along with roads, bridges, the runway at Beirut International Airport, and other infrastructure.

Civilians in areas where there was support for Hezbollah suffered most, and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah later said that if he had known the scale of the Israeli response, he would not have ordered the cross-border attack.

Israel laid out a strategy of deterrence, first made public by Maj Gen Gadi Eizenkot in 2008 when he was head of the Israeli army's Northern Command.

He said that what happened in Dahiya, the southern suburb of Beirut in which neighbourhoods were flattened by Israeli airstrikes in 2006, would "happen in every village from which shots were fired in the direction of Israel".

Gen Eizenkot, now Israeli chief of staff, articulated what came to be known as the Dahiya Doctrine.

"We will wield disproportionate power," he said, "and cause immense damage and destruction. This isn't a suggestion. It's a plan that has already been authorised.

"Harming the population is the only means of restraining Nasrallah."

Syria war

After 2006, mutual deterrence took hold, and 10 years have passed without major confrontation.

But something else happened during that time - unexpected, unforeseen, and potentially transformative; the war in Syria.

From early on in the war, Hezbollah sent its fighters across the border to support President Bashar al-Assad.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has warned a new war would be devastating for Israel

It began in a few locations alongside the border and some Shia religious sites close to Damascus, but soon enough, they had fighters as far south as Deraa on the Jordanian border, and as deep into the north as Aleppo.

Their rationale for involvement in support of President Assad has evolved, but a dominant theme is that Syria has been the backbone of the resistance against Israel, and that the attacks on the regime are aimed at undermining Hezbollah by depriving them of an ally that has provided much needed logistical support.

According to their narrative, the war in Syria was a continuation of the 2006 war by other means, with the Americans, Israelis and Saudis trying to finish off the "axis of resistance", by destroying the glue that holds it together - the Assad regime.

New threats

In Syria, Hezbollah faces enemies more like themselves - guerrilla fighters waging unconventional warfare against a conventional army, many of them jihadists, hunted from the skies and driven underground.

Hezbollah are no longer the underdog. Allied to the Syrian army, they lay siege to rebel areas, and fight with air cover - Syrian at first, and subsequently often Russian.

Arguably, they even benefit indirectly from American strikes on some of their enemies, such as al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

But they face new threats. They fight across an area much larger than south Lebanon, without the benefit of local support they have in their strongholds.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hezbollah has been stretched by involvement in a brutal war in Syria in recent years

Could this be Hezbollah's moment of weakness, and Israel's golden opportunity?

The possibility seems to have led Hezbollah to propose a deterrence strategy of its own, articulated by its Secretary General.

In a speech in February, he fanned Israeli fears that Hezbollah is able to strike containers where more than 15,000 tonnes of ammonia gas are stored, leading possibly to the death of tens of thousands of Israelis.

"A few of our missiles plus the ammonia containers in Haifa equal the effect of a nuclear bomb," he said.

About a month later, he said Hezbollah had a full list of petrochemical factories, biological research centres, nuclear reactors and containers where nuclear warheads are stored, along with precise co-ordinates.

'If there's any war against Lebanon and its people and infrastructure, we will fight it without a ceiling, without limits, without red lines."

Can they really inflict, for the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, more harm on Israel than Israel can on them?

There seems to be agreement that Hezbollah has amassed a much larger missile arsenal. Various estimates from both sides suggest they have more than 100,000 missiles, and Hassan Nasrallah insists Israeli missile defence systems are incapable of effectively neutralising them in a new confrontation.

Apocalypse not now?

But Hezbollah seem aware that their constituency, feeling the pain in Syria, is in no mood for a war with Israel. The aim of their threats seems to be to deter the Israelis from initiating attack.

"We are talking about a defensive war, in which we are the ones who are on the receiving end of aggression," Hassan Nasrallah said.

This reflects Hezbollah's new posture and priorities. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they kept up a persistent guerrilla campaign against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, and it was through attrition over almost two decades that they forced them out in 2000.

But in Syria, where they aim to subdue resistance to President Assad and enforce the regime's grip on power, attrition works the other way around. Their enemies are trying to slowly bleed them to exhaustion in places as far away from their strongholds as Aleppo, northern Syria.

Some in Israel believe it is better for them to wait and watch than wage war now.

Deputy Chief of Staff and head of the Northern Command Maj Gen Yair Golan said Israel should be in no rush to wage pre-emptive war against Hezbollah.

In a talk at Bar Ilan University last March, he said that Israel had considered Syria the central threat for decades, until it dissolved all on its own, after 'the regime used its weapons and crushed its forces in a war against its citizens."

Perhaps the Israelis hope Hezbollah too will dissolve on its own in the bloodied landscape of Syria.