Israel’s "iron fist": what happened?

The containing of an explosion on the Hizbollah-Israel frontier has politics to thank. But next time could be different.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 February 2015

Israel’s approach to national security has long meant using the massive force of the “iron fist” in responding to any acts it sees as threatening, however limited these may be. This makes it decidedly odd that an incident on 28 January 2015 which left two Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers dead and seven injured in an attack by Hizbollah from across the Lebanese border elicited a surprisingly restrained answer. The norm would have involved heavy airstrikes and artillery barrages across a wide range of Hizbollah targets; in practice, Israel confined itself to firing sixteen 155m artillery-shells and four mortar-rounds.

It is possible that the Israeli action was curtailed at an early stage because a Spanish soldier with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) - the UN observer force just north of the border - was also killed. But even this would not usually have been enough for Israel to moderate its behaviour. Something else was involved, especially at a time of considerable political factionalism in Israel in the run-up to the general election on 17 March. It is worth trying to understand just what that is, especially as times of tension can turn dangerously uncertain.

Hizbollah carried out its assault with Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, fired across the border at IDF trucks two kilometres away on a public road. It claimed that the blow was in retaliation for an Israeli air-strike into Syria ten days earlier which killed six of its militia, as well as reportedly an Iranian officer. So far, Hizbollah has not escalated the conflict after the Israeli riposte, and most probably will not do so unless the IDF takes further action (see Yaskov Lapin & Nicholas Blanford, “IDF pulls its punches after Hizbullah retaliation for airstrike”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 4 February 2015)

There is a conundrum here. The highly protective attitude of the Israeli public to the IDF would have created two expectations in the wake of the Hizbollah operation: a much stronger military response by Israel, and evidence that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu - who plans to deliver a high-profile speech in Washington on 3 March - saw the electoral value of such a tough display. The reasons for the "quieter" outcome appear to lie in an unusual confluence of factors on both sides.

On the border

For Hizbollah, its cross-border attack demonstrated that it was willing to strike IDF units in Israel and may have carefully chosen this patrol, which was lightly armed and in unarmoured trucks. It probably could have done much more but was most likely aware that if it had upped the provocation then the subsequent Israeli operation could have been so extensive that many of the movement's own supporters would have demanded a substantial rocket-barrage as a minimal comeback.

Hizbollah strategists know that Israel may, at any time, decide to take the war back to the movement in a full-scale conflict. After all, there is still bitterness within the Israeli military at the problems it faced in the war of July-August 2006. The TV pictures of exhausted IDF soldiers crossing the border into Israel at the end of that war is still etched in many memories. Israel would prefer to do this at a time of its choosing, but it has undertaken all the necessary planning for a war at any other time. Hizbollah’s bottom line, meanwhile, is to avoid full-scale war if necessary, given the undoubted casualties that its own people and thousands of other Lebanese civilians would experience.

In any case, Hizbollah is engaged in a slow but steady process of increasing its involvement in the Syrian civil war, focusing its efforts on that part of Syria bordering Israel in the Golan heights. The Israelis are beginning to see the Lebanese and Syrian borders dissolving into one, an uncomfortable development that Hizbollah in turn welcomes.

Three old friends

But what of Israel: why did it restrain the "iron fist" in a manner close to being unique in its military annals? The answer, most likely, lies in domestic politics. If the IDF is ordered at some stage to try and destroy Hizbollah once and for all, it would probably require Israel’s biggest military operation since the invasion of Lebanon - Operation Peace for Galilee - in June 1982. In that case it would have to face many days of thousands of rockets raining down on Israel, including many capable of reaching Tel Aviv and west Jerusalem.

A government could survive this politically as long as the results of the war were favourable - but that in turn would depend on Israel having the initiative right from the start. What would be far more risky is a border incident that leads to a major confrontation, and in turn to wholesale war, at a time not of Israel’s choosing - and especially not during a highly charged election campaign. Better, therefore, not to use the "iron fist" in circumstances which Israel is not fully in control.

This all suggests that there won’t be a further upsurge, and that Israeli public opinion will tolerate this. But there is a perennial problem with such a situation - our old friends the “AIMs” (accidents, incidents and mavericks). It is in these circumstances of nervousness and potential crisis that accidents can be misconstrued, incidents can have unintended consequences, and individuals or factions might decide for their own ends to fuel conflict (see "America-Israel, Syria-Iran: war by accident" (19 July 2012)

A reasonable assessment is that the "iron fist" will stay unused in the weeks up to the election. But if there is a sudden and very surprising escalation, which we all may hope is avoided, it may be owe much more to miscalculation than to hard-headed politics.

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