The Third Lebanon War: A Matter of Inevitability?

Image via Daily Mail

A third Israeli-Lebanon war would have significant repercussions for the regional dynamics of the Syrian Civil War, and for Lebanon.  With Lebanon awash with over 1-1.5 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees and a neighbour to the Syrian Civil War which has left an estimated 240,000 dead, Lebanon faces a major crisis. The tension brewing between Israel and Hizbullah, underlined by violence between the two parties in January-February 2015, which left two Israeli soldiers dead and threatened to escalate into open war, is a potential catalyst for the breakdown of the Lebanese government’s capability to check Syria’s violence.

While a third war has failed to materialise thus far, a future crisis awaits the Levant which Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman has declared as being ‘inevitable’. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the Arab Spring has evoked only dangers. His response has been to consolidate Israel’s control over the West Bank by expanding settlements, increasing military spending and maintaining the status quo since 2011.

However the Knesset has endured a difficult 2015 which has posed question marks over the strategy’s sustainability. The Iranian nuclear deal has left the coalition government exposed to heavy criticism, cited from the left and right as a major foreign policy disaster which has compromised national security.

The potential removal of sanctions on Iran, a key sponsor of Hizbullah, will be a significant cause for concern amongst the Israeli security apparatus as the lifting of embargoes on conventional arms looks set to strengthen Hizbullah. However the implications of the Iranian nuclear deal, while important in changing the future dynamics of the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict, fails to take account of how Hizbullah has established a degree of parity with the Israeli military that was absent in the 2006 Lebanon war.

According to Jeffrey White, Hizbullah has unilaterally expanded its missile capabilities together with significant innovations in its defensive layout in southern Lebanon while their military support for Bashar al-Assad has meant that the group has gained considerable potential in offensive strategy.[1] Israeli intelligence has estimated that Hizbullah ‘would likely…sustain fire of around a thousand rockets and missiles per day, dwarfing the approximate daily rate of 118 achieved in 2006.’[2] Such an increase in military power means that major damage will be dealt to Israeli civil and military infrastructure while killing scores of Israeli civilians.

Covert Iranian support, while prevalent, has been overinflated by Western media. According to Uzi Rubin, it was ‘Syrian rockets (that) played the major role in the Second Lebanon war (2006), while Iranian rockets were practically absent from it’ as ‘few if any Iranian rockets hit Israel throughout the entire (2006) campaign.’[3]  Whether or not Iran covertly supports them or not in the next war will not deter Hizbullah’s capacity to do formidable damage to Israel.

An ill-timed military campaign designed to weaken Hizbullah, while considered legitimate to the hawkish Israeli government, will provide more problems than solutions for Israeli security, increase problems for its European allies, and further destabalise the wider region.

The Lebanese government and Hizbullah is struggling to provide for a huge number of refugees which has produced a major socio-economic and humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. This not entirely a new phenomenon, the Palestinians and its refugee population have, historically, had a difficult relationship with the Lebanese population and the new Syrian refugees provide a new and unpredictable dynamic to this relationship between local and refugee populations.

Image via The Daily Star
Image via The Daily Star

If Lebanese civil and military infrastructure and its civilians are treated in an indiscriminate manner by the IDF in the pursuit of Hizbullah it will create a new humanitarian crisis by displacing thousands of Lebanese civilians while undermining governmental capacity to provide for its Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. In the 2nd Lebanon War (2006) the IDF severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure and displaced 900,000 Lebanese civilians and killed 1,109 civilians, a crisis the Middle East was able to contain.[4] These statistics may pale in comparison to a military campaign conducted in the context of widespread regional instability and a campaign which is likely to be more violent than its predecessor when led by the current right-wing Israeli government. Netanyahu’s coalition is drifting towards an open embrace of ethno-religious nationalism, continues to introduce increasingly blatant discriminatory policies against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and continues to use draconian military tactics (including the Hannibal Protocol) which invite international condemnation.

As the 2014 Gaza War illustrated the IDF had no qualms about obliterating entire areas of the Gaza Strip much of which remains in ruins and thousands of Palestinians homeless and dependent on a trickle of humanitarian aid. The historically indifferent treatment of Lebanese civilians and infrastructure during the 1st and 2nd Lebanon wars determines that the IDF’s conduct against them is unlikely to change.

Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian refugees will be caught in the cross-fire and thousands will be forced to flee.  In the wake of three year old Aylan Kurdi’s drowning and the renewed international attention refugees have gained since early September Netanyahu has reaffirmed the Knesset’s policy of zero tolerance on providing asylum for refugees whom he contends will destabilise the geographic and demographic integrity of Israel. The alternative for these refugees fleeing a Third Israeli-Lebanon war is Assad and ISIS, an unrealistic alternative that may force thousands to flood Turkey, Jordan or flee to Europe. This will exacerbate the ongoing migrant/refugee crisis there and further destabilise a socially and economically fragile Balkans. The EU and the wider Middle East face enormous risks if Israeli-Hizbullah tensions escalate into open war.

A Third Lebanon War would only increase Israeli isolation while providing an opportunity for ultra-violent extremist splinter groups affiliated with Islamic State and radical jihadist cells to strengthen their position in a disordered eastern Lebanon, which remains fiercely contested by Lebanese Armed Forces and Hizbullah fighting against insurgents associated with ISIS who have been pushed into Lebanon by the Syrian military.

These are plausible scenarios as Israel’s stature in the international community continues to slide as typified by the wide-spread international condemnation of the brutal Gaza War, Netanyahu’s souring relationship with Barack Obama and his attempts to undermine the Iran deal, and the anti-Arab rhetoric he used against Israeli Arabs to swing the March elections in Likud’s favour. Is it possible to consider that a military stalemate in Lebanon and the diplomatic and socio-economic weakness created in Israel by war will provide a new opportunity for the Palestinians to launch a third intifada?

The Arab-Israeli conflict dynamic remains a dangerous blind-spot in the current Middle Eastern crisis that cannot be neglected. For Israel, war with Hizbullah will not only be a costly military confrontation. It will further damage Israel’s standing amongst its western allies who sense Netanyahu’s unilateral attempts to secure national security will trigger a destabilising conflict between Israel, Lebanon and Hizbullah at the expense of one of the West’s wider strategic objectives in the Middle East, namely the containment of the regional violence and instability.

Matthew Williams

[1] “A War Like No Other: Israel vs. Hezbollah in 2015,” last modified 29 January 2015, accessed September 14, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/a-war-like-no-other-israel-vs.-hezbollah-in-2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Uzi, Rubin, “The Rocket Campaign against  Israel during the 2006  Lebanon War,” The Begin-Sada Center for Strategic Studies, 71 (2007): 6-7.

[4] “Israel accused over Lebanon war,” last modified September 6, 2007, accessed September 14, 2015, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6981557.stm.

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