Israel’s northern border is quiet, at least for now. That could change. Israeli leaders have increased their warnings to Hezbollah, Lebanon and Iran in recent weeks, raising two questions: Is Israel on the cusp of a Third Lebanon War? If so, what would another war with Lebanon look like?
It’s a difficult question that many experts are reluctant to answer. It’s unclear how long a fight would last, and what could potentially set-off another one.
What is clear is that a Third Lebanon War would be a violent and vicious fight that would likely cost thousands of lives.
Rockets and Missiles
“The amount of power that will be deployed will be nothing similar to the Second Lebanon War,” said Dr. Gabi Siboni, a retired colonel in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. “Lebanon has some 200 villages in the south used as civilian shields for Hezbollah weaponry. All the villages and military targets in those villages will be hit.”
Hezbollah would likely launch thousands of rockets and missiles within the first couple hours of a conflict, according to experts, and Israel would counter by launching airstrikes, using F-15, F-16 and the new F-35 stealth fighter jets along with Apache attack helicopters to target Hezbollah’s missile sites and infrastructure.
“Israel would also deploy all of its anti-missile defense systems. The Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 2 and 3,” said Brig. Gen. (res) Yossi Kuperwasser, Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “It would be a very impressive battle between the Iranian missiles and Syrian missiles and the Israeli missile defense.”
Hezbollah has an arsenal of an estimated 130,000 to 150,000 short, medium and long-range missiles and rockets and a fighting force of an estimated 50,000 soldiers, including reservists. This past September, a Hezbollah commander said there are some 10,000 fighters in southern Syria near the Israel border ready to fight.
Some analysts estimate there may be as many as 1,500 to 2,000 rockets fired into Israel daily during the next war, compared with about 130-180 per day during the Second Lebanon War.
Hezbollah is said to possess M-600 missiles, a clone of the Fateh-110 Third Generation Iranian missile, with a range of about 300 kilometers (180 miles) and a 450-500 kilogram warhead, along with Syrian B302 missiles with a range of about 100 kilometers (60 miles) and a 175kg warhead, among others.
“We would have to destroy them as quickly as possible,” Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror (ret), former National Security Advisor under Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Media Line. “The fact that (Hezbollah) has put many of the missiles in civilian areas shows they are ready to sacrifice themselves and their people.”
Gen. Amidror said that in 2006, “none of the big (rocket and missile launches) succeeded to launch twice."
“All the other big launches were destroyed either before or after the first launching,” he explained.
But Brig. Gen. Kuperwasser said “there would be thousands, many thousands” of rockets and missiles fired within the first hours of combat at Israel. Israeli towns, villages and cities would be in the line of fire, along with Israel’s military infrastructure, ports and power stations.
“What would the casualty rate be? Nobody knows,” Brig. Gen. Kuperwasser said.
Gen. Amidror agreed, adding a frank warning: “Think about the consequences of a missile hitting a private house with half a ton of TNT. It would (destroy) all the neighborhood.”
The IDF held a massive drill last September simulating a war with Hezbollah. It involved a multistage approach with defense measures, including counterattacks, followed by airstrikes, ground maneuvers and civilian evacuations.
The joint Israeli-US Juniper Cobra military training exercise is scheduled this month. It simulates a massive dual-front missile attack from the northern and southern borders.
Dr. Simoni said Israel’s “battle concept” for Lebanon entails, first, hitting critical weapons that pose a serious threat to Israeli civilian populations and second, pushing the Lebanese population in the southern part of the country to the north “for their protection”.
“Then, once a significant part of the population has been removed, a full-scale operation will be launched,” he said, including airstrikes and heavy artillery fire.
“Israel will go as far as needed to threaten Hezbollah,” Dr. Siboni explained to The Media Line.
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned recently that tensions along the northern border could lead to another conflict. If it does, he said Israeli troops may have to operate deep into Lebanese territory, and that Israel’s military would move forward “as fast as possible”.
“We will not see pictures like those from the Second Lebanon War in which the residents of Beirut were on the beach and in Tel Aviv (they were) in bomb shelters,” Lieberman said. “If in Israel they sit in shelters, then in the next fighting all of Beirut will be in shelters.”
Israel’s military would mobilize multiple divisions consisting of tens of thousands of Israeli troops as part of a large-scale ground operation within Lebanon, supported by Israel’s air force and navy, during a Third Lebanon War.
The IDF would also evacuate Israeli towns and villages along the border, first the ones within four kilometers of the Lebanese border, then working outwards from the Blue Line – the border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel – evacuating as many as several hundred thousand residents.
Analysts agree it is likely Hezbollah would try to attack Israel using tunnels to infiltrate Israeli populations, and armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, UAVs, also known as drones.
Hezbollah has used small and cheap UAVs to bomb Syrian rebels in northern Syria during the fighting there. Some of the bombs were purportedly Chinese-made MZD-2 submunitions.
But Hezbollah’s extensive network of tunnels is one of the major concerns for Israel’s military.
Hezbollah, according to experts, may already have tunnels stretching into Israel to be used during the next war to infiltrate Israeli communities, move fighters and store weapons such as rockets and missiles. Some experts even suggesting that Hamas’ network of tunnels in Gaza is small in comparison to Hezbollah’s complex and dangerous tunnel network.
Still, Israel has advanced its technology to find and destroy the tunnels – technology that will certainly be put to use during another war.
“Let’s assume there will be three weeks of combat, Hezbollah would be hit severely,” Dr. Siboni added. “Israel would also have casualties and damages, but as history has shown, Israel has recovered quickly.”
Another Lebanon war could also be fought on several fronts, not just one, adding a complicated layer to the fight.
It’s possible other militia groups will try to open a front in Syria, aided by Iran and Syria’s military, experts agree.
“The main conflict against ISIS has been taken down, so there is more room for Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah to shift their attention to the Israel issue,” Dr. Siboni said.
Stopping the Threat
Despite the rising tensions between Israel and Lebanon, analysts say it’s possible to manage Hezbollah without the use of force, hence what appears to be Israel’s increased warnings and public information campaign.
Israel has help.
The United States has sanctioned companies and individuals tied to Hezbollah, and this week, the US and Argentina agreed to work together to combat Hezbollah’s funding networks and money laundering in Latin America.
The United States has also supported Israel’s efforts in Syria, stopping the flow of weapons to Lebanon and Hezbollah, and the Iranian presence in the region.
Former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said a Third Lebanon War will not be a “walk in the park.”
“It will be very violent and very, I think, destructive conflict on both sides,” Ambassador Shapiro recently told The Media Line. “I think there will be Israeli casualties more than there were in 2006, because Hezbollah has increased its arsenal and its ability to reach a much wider part of Israeli territory and with more precision.”
Shapiro says Israel will justifiably seek to destroy any ability Hezbollah has to threaten Israeli territory and Israeli civilians.
“Hopefully it won’t happen, but I think everybody sort of assumes that there will come a point when it does,” he said. “And when it does, hopefully it will be short and Hezbollah will be dealt a very decisive blow and diplomacy can then restore some stability and help protect civilian lives on both sides.”
Last week, a Russian security delegation visited Jerusalem in an attempt to dissuade Israel from launching further attacks in Syria, and to try and temper the escalating tensions between Israel and Lebanon.
The visit came shortly after a meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in which they discussed the growing Iranian presence in the Middle East region.
“The question is: Does Iran entrench itself in Syria, or will this process be stopped. If it doesn’t stop by itself, we will stop it,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said during a briefing with journalists after their meeting. “We also spoke about Lebanon, which is becoming a factory for precision-guided missiles that threaten Israel. These missiles pose a grave threat to Israel, and we cannot accept this threat.”
It is possible Israel could launch a preemptive strike on Lebanon, targeting Hezbollah and Iranian weapons facilities there.
“Something in Lebanon will be a different ballgame,” Maj. Gen. Amidror warned. “We understand this and this is why we are warning Hezbollah and the Iranians.”
Israel already targets Syrian weapons facilities, and convoys headed for Hezbollah and Lebanon in Syria, along with Iranian military targets in Syria. This week in fact, Syria’s military blamed the Israeli air force for an attack on a Syrian military research facility northwest of Damascus.
“Delivering a message and destroying something problematic, but maybe not a full-scale conflict,” is a possibility for Israel in Lebanon, according to Dr. Siboni. “Within the risk assessment, it is not the yet the time to do anything. Maybe it can be managed without the use of force.”
The latest attack in Syria is likely the continuation of Israel’s efforts to block the opening of an Iranian front in Syria as well as Lebanon. Israeli leaders maintain Israel will not tolerate the development of an Iranian footprint in Syria or Lebanon, a message that is being sent to the Iranians.
“The Iranians do not pay any price for any instability in Lebanon. Only the Lebanese pay the price,” Dr. Siboni said. “The IDF has the capabilities to make Iran feel the price.”