The long war between Israel and Hizbollah

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Israel, Lebanon, Middle East

While international attention is still firmly focused on Israel's war in Gaza, its long confrontation with Hizbollah in Lebanon threatens to erupt into further destructive conflict.

Israeli soldiers advance towards southern Lebanon near the northern Israeli village of Avivim in 2006.
Israeli soldiers advance towards southern Lebanon near the northern Israeli village of Avivim in 2006. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

While international attention is still firmly focused on the Gaza War and the growing crisis and escalation between Israel and Iran, it is just a matter of time before the focus shifts to the Israeli-Lebanese border, to the battle there between Israel and Hizbollah.

In 1982, as a young artillery captain, I joined Israeli forces invading Lebanon, in what would later become known as the ‘First Lebanon War’ (originally, it was called ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’). The architect of that war was Ariel Sharon, a man I would interview a few times during my academic career, a former military officer and a future prime minister of Israel.

Sharon wanted to do three things in Lebanon: first, to defeat the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and kill, or perhaps expel, its leader, Yasser Arafat. Arafat and his guerrillas had been expelled from Jordan in 1970-71 and moved to Lebanon. Arafat settled in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, and many of his fighters deployed in southern Lebanon, just north of Israel, which was mainly a Shi’ite dominated region. Second, Sharon wanted to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon. The Syrians always regarded Lebanon as their backyard; in the early 1980s, Syria had 5,000 troops deployed in west Beirut, and anti-aircraft missile batteries in the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, which hindered the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) ability to fly freely over this area. Third, as Sharon put it, he wanted to create ‘a new political reality in Lebanon’ by installing a new president, the Christian-Maronite Bashir Gemayel, who would reward Israel by signing a peace treaty, thus turning Lebanon into the second country, after Egypt, to sign such a treaty with Israel.

In hindsight, it all went wrong – very wrong. True, Arafat was expelled to Tunis and stayed there for many years, and the Syrians suffered severe losses. The IAF, in a lightning strike, destroyed the entire Syrian missile system in eastern Lebanon, and, in the course of the attack, shot down a third of the Syrian air force without losing a single aeroplane of its own.

Gemayel, assisted by Israeli forces in Lebanon who blocked those opposing him from getting to the voting stations to cast their vote, was elected president. Sharon’s plans soon unravelled, however. Gemayel, soon after his election, was assassinated, probably by the Syrians, and Israel lost its key ally in Lebanon. In an act of revenge, albeit one directed against the wrong people, Gemayel’s men, the notorious Phalanges – a militia group affiliated with the largest Christian community in Lebanon, the Maronites – entered Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla and murdered hundreds of innocent people. This stained Israel’s reputation, as it was the occupying force around Beirut and thus responsible for preventing such crimes. But the biggest disaster that befell the Israelis was that their forces got bogged down in Lebanese territory. It would take Israel 18 years to extract itself. Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon also gave birth to a new, sophisticated, and tough enemy: Hizbollah.

Israel’s presence in Lebanon following its invasion fomented local Lebanese opposition and led to the emergence of various local resistance groups, notably Hizbollah, which was set up in eastern Lebanon during the war by emissaries from the Islamic Republic of Iran. The immediate trigger for the emergence of the Shi’ite Hizbollah was the IDF’s continued stay in Lebanon; however, the Shi’ite resistance against the Israelis was only the manifestation of a more general Shi’ite awakening that had been developing in Lebanon for many years.

When it appeared in Lebanon, in 1982, Hizbollah was no more than a loose umbrella for radical Shi’ite militancy, but, in 1985, it formally announced its existence in a manifesto, known as the ‘Open Letter’. It outlined the group’s objectives, which included taking direct action against the ‘imperialist powers’, namely, American and French forces which, at that time, were present in Lebanon, in order to force them out of the country. Another aim was to fight Israel which they regarded as, ‘the vanguard of the United States in our Islamic world … the hated enemy’, and, ‘therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is destroyed.’ The manifesto also called for the Lebanese sectarian system to be replaced by an Islamic system linked to Iran and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

When Israel invaded Lebanon, it did not fully grasp the dramatic shifts simmering within Lebanese Shi’ite society, instead believing that the Shi’ites would welcome them as liberators from Palestinian militant control. This was perhaps true at the very beginning of the invasion, when Israeli troops, passing through Lebanese Shi’ite villages, were welcomed with jasmine rice and flowers. But the mood soon shifted, and the Israeli presence provided a focal point for the militant energies that had been fomenting in Shi’ite society. As Yitzhak Rabin, the then Defense Minister, commented in 1985, Israel’s involvement in Lebanon, ‘let the Shi’ite genie out of the bottle’.

Hizbollah’s initial guerrilla tactics were mild and, largely, ineffective. Hizbollah militants kidnapped Western journalists, academics, and diplomatic staff in Lebanon, as well as IDF soldiers. The turning point came as Hizbollah embarked on a new tactic. They began sending trucks loaded with explosives into buildings. In November 1982, they drove a truck packed with explosives into an Israeli military government building in Tyre, killing 91 people. In October 1983, Hizbollah carried out a similar suicide bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut which killed 241 US servicemen. Almost simultaneously, they attacked the French army barracks, killing 58 French soldiers. In November 1983, Hizbollah carried out the suicide bombing of the American embassy in Beirut, which killed 63.

The publication of Hizbollah’s manifesto in 1985 came to symbolise a new phase for the organisation. That year, the Israelis decided to withdraw and deploy in southern Lebanon. This new policy was formulated in a fractious atmosphere. Two schools of thought clashed among those who provided advice for Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister, on Lebanese affairs. One school of thought, led by IDF chief of staff, Moshe Levi, advocated a military deployment on Lebanese territory in a security zone that would physically separate towns and villages in northern Israel from Lebanon, making it difficult for Israel’s enemies to launch attacks into its territory. In this buffer zone, went the Israeli thinking, troops, working closely with the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a Christian-dominated militia group allied with, trained, and financed by Israel, would patrol, and maintain outposts.

The opposing school of thought was led by the director of military intelligence, General Ehud Barak, a future IDF chief of staff, and later Israel’s prime minister. He argued that the best way to protect northern Israel was by getting the troops out of Lebanon altogether, deploying them along the Israeli-Lebanese border, on the Israeli side, from where they could launch cross-border raids to tackle Hizbollah and other enemies when necessary.

General Barak, however, did not get his way. Instead, a 1,100-square-kilometre security zone was established in southern Lebanon, the depth of which ranged between five and 20km and included 168 towns and villages. Inside this zone, the IDF deployed two headquarters, one in Marjeyoun, and the other in Bint Jbail, in charge of 12 company-size fortified outposts. These two IDF headquarters worked closely with the SLA, which deployed 30 company-size fortified positions and organized itself into two brigades. Altogether, roughly 2,000 Israeli troops, and around the same number of SLA troops, would be present, at any time, inside the security zone.

Gradually, however, the security zone became one large battleground and a scene of repeated clashes between IDF and SLA troops on the one hand, and Hizbollah guerrillas on the other. For Hizbollah, the rocky, hilly landscape of southern Lebanon, proved an ideal testing ground for their guerrilla tactics, providing their fighters with a natural advantage over the heavy armour of the IDF, and diminishing the Israeli technological advantage. And while Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon was effective in stopping cross-border incursions, it was less successful at stopping Hizbollah’s rockets being fired into Israeli territory.

In hindsight, 1997 was a turning point in the fate of Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon. On 4 February, two helicopters ferrying soldiers to the Lebanese front crashed, killing 73 troops on board. This was an unusually large number of casualties for the Israelis and difficult for the public. Then, on 4 September, 12 more troops were killed in Lebanon after falling into a well-planned Hizbollah ambush; the ferocity of this skirmish, where Hizbollah collected bodily remains, including severed heads and limbs, which they would later exchange for detainees in Israeli prisons, disgusted Israelis and stimulated a debate regarding the military purpose and viability of the security zone. Citizen groups opposed to the continuing stay in the security zone emerged, notably the ‘Four Mothers Movement’, which called on the government to get out of Lebanon, and the protests seemed to symbolise a shift in thinking.

Fast forward to 1999: Ehud Barak was elected Israel’s prime minister. In his election campaign, Barak pledged to get Israeli troops out of Lebanon by July 2000. We should recall that in the fierce debate that took place in the general staff in the early 1980s, Barak – then director of military intelligence – had led the school of thought that called for a full withdrawal from Lebanon. Now, as prime minister, he was determined to get out, believing that an end to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon would deprive Hizbollah of its legitimacy – after all, Hizbollah claimed that it was fighting the Israeli occupation and would stop if the Israelis left Lebanon. And anyway, if Hizbollah went on to provoke Israel even after an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, then the international community would back Israel in hitting back at the organization.

On 24 May 2000, in a move that surprised many, Israeli forces pulled out overnight and, on the next day, at 7.30 am, IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz announced: ‘After 18 years, the IDF has ended its presence in Lebanon.’ The exiting forces then deployed along the ‘Blue Line’, a 79km line demarcated by a United Nations cartographic team. Fourteen border stones were erected along the line. On 16 June 2000, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council that Israel had withdrawn fully from Lebanon, in line with Security Council Resolution 425.

In subsequent years, Hizbollah armed itself further, receiving weapons from Iran via Syria and erected bunkers close to the border with Israel, from where it collected intelligence on IDF movements. Deeper in southern Lebanon it constructed an impressive defence system of concealed bunkers connected by tunnels, following the Vietnam War model of underground assets, complete with electrical, wiring, reinforced concrete ceilings, and enough water, food, and ammunition to withstand a sustained siege. It built protected rocket launchers into the earth and trained launching squads to use pneumatic lifts to raise and lower the rockets from their underground shelters. In villages, Hizbollah built positions and used civilian homes to stockpile weapons, including rockets, and other supplies.

On 12 July 2006, Hizbollah surprised the Israelis when it attacked an IDF border patrol on the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon, killing three soldiers and capturing two others. Hizbollah planned to hold the two captives to ransom. They wanted to exchange them for Lebanese held in Israeli prisons, including Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze member of the Palestine Liberation Front and later of Hizbollah, who, in 1979, killed an Israeli man and his four-year-old daughter. In response, Israeli warplanes bombed 69 bridges and other targets in south Lebanon in an attempt to cut off the Hizbollah kidnapping team’s escape route; at the same time, an Israeli Merkava-4 tank crossed the international border, but it hit a powerful bomb, which killed its crew of four.

That evening, the Israeli cabinet met and decided to respond aggressively against Hizbollah in Lebanon. Responding to an attack from across an internationally recognised border was perhaps justified; however, the sheer scale of Israel’s military reaction was such that it led to an all-out war with Hizbollah, which came to be known as ‘The Second Lebanon War’ and what Hizbollah called ‘Harb Tamuz’, or ‘The July War.’ The IDF response was so overwhelming that it took Hizbollah totally by surprise; its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, later admitted, ‘We had not foreseen… that the hostage-taking would lead to a war of that scope’.

Although taken aback by the scale of the Israeli response, Hizbollah did not lose its nerve and responded by launching rockets against towns and villages in Galilee, northern Israel. Israel’s campaign continued unabated on the next day, and in what came to be known as ‘The Night of the Fajrs’, warplanes carried out a lighting 34-minute strike, dropping laser-guided precision munitions, destroying almost all of Hizbollah’s arsenal of 240mm Fajr-3 missiles. In the coming days, the IAF would wipe out most of Hizbollah’s medium and long-range missiles. Israel also targeted Lebanon’s roads, bridges, power stations, and most notably Beirut International Airport, a transfer point for weapons and supplies to Hizbollah.

In the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated that Israel’s goals in the war were to retrieve the two captured soldiers; cease rocket attacks on Israel; request that Lebanon deploy its army in southern Lebanon; and oust of Hizbollah from the area. He vowed that ‘We will not suspend our actions [before these aims were achieved]’.

That was easier said than done. While the IAF was successful in obliterating most of Hizbollah’s medium and long-range missiles, it failed to deal effectively with the short-range missiles which could reach between 18 and 28km into Israel. The only way for Israel to tackle the problem of these smaller rockets was to embark on a full-scale ground assault into southern Lebanon. However, given the previous experience in Lebanon, there was little appetite in the Israeli political-military establishment to embark on such an operation, lest Israeli forces get stuck again in Lebanon. All the Israelis were willing to do was to carry out incursions against Hizbollah on the first ridgeline overlooking Israel, but these limited assaults – amounting to swift entry and exits rather than lengthy occupation – were not a game changer and the war reached a stalemate.

It came to an end after 34 days with Security Council Resolution 1701, which called on the UN to beef up its UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon, whose task was to monitor the situation between Israel and Lebanon. It called on the Lebanese government to send its army to the south of the country and crucially, for Hizbollah to deploy away from the Israeli border, just north of the Litani river. However, none of the parties to the conflict really tried to reinforce the resolution and, in subsequent years, rather than deploying north of the Litani and away from the border with Israel as instructed, Hizbollah – via its elite Radwan Force, of small, highly mobile units on motorcycles, and equipped with Russian-made Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, got closer and closer to the border with Israel, so much so that its troops could look directly into Israeli houses built on the other side of the fence.

Hizbollah openly talked about crossing the border into Israel, seizing villages, and taking its people hostages; rumours circulated that, under the Israeli-Lebanese fence, Hizbollah had built, over the years, a net of tunnels through which it could cross into Israel.

When Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October 2023, Hizbollah joined the battle, but only in a limited way. Still, since 7 October, Israel and Hizbollah have been engaged in a violent exchange of fire along the border. For the first time in Israel’s history, all the villages in the newly created war zone have been abandoned; at the time of writing, up to 60,000 people of these northern Israel villages are staying in hotels.

The moment of truth is fast approaching. As long as the war in Gaza continues, and tensions with Iran are as high as they at the time of writing, the Israelis would rather keep the war with Hizbollah at a low intensity so as not to fight on too many fronts simultaneously. But when the war in Gaza comes to an end, or perhaps a hostage deal leads to a long cease-fire, then the Israelis are likely to turn their attention to the Lebanese front and demand that Hizbollah should move away from the border in line with UNSC Resolution 1701, so that Israeli citizens might return to their houses. The moment Gaza quietens, and tensions with Iran subside, we should expect intense diplomatic effort, led by the US, to remove Hizbollah from the border area. If these diplomatic efforts succeed, then tension will decrease, though not forever. If Hizbollah insists on staying where they are, then a military escalation with Israel is unavoidable and might well deteriorate into a full-scale and even more destructive war.


Ahron Bregman