Three deadly foes appeared surprised to find the opposite side acting with rare restraint for cutting short an outbreak of hostilities between Hizballah and Israel on Sunday, Sept. 1. After trading blows for less than two hours – Hizballah fired 2 Kornet 9M anti-tank missiles from Lebanon at Israeli troops patrolling the border and the IDF hit back by blasting open ground in south Lebanon – both sides stepped hard on the brakes before the incident went up in the flames of an all-out war.
This incident, in which neither side suffered casualties, was the first test in 13 years of on-and-off hostilities, including two wars, of how far each was ready to take their feud – namely, up to full-fledged war. This time, both opted for restraint – and that includes Hizballah’s patrons in Tehran. But the last word has not been said. (Read a separate item on how an IDF hoax tactic boomeranged.)
The heated oratory on both sides portended that the worst may still be to come.
After the big threat receded on Sunday, Hizballah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, seemingly relieved, went on the offensive the next day with a threat to hit “deep inside Israel.” There are no more red lines in Hizballah’s confrontation with Israel, he said. “If you attack us, your borders, soldiers and settlements – including those on the border and those deep inside Israel – will be threatened and targeted,” He then raised his voice to shout: If there is any aggression against Lebanon, there will be no such thing as international borders!”
Prime Minister/Defense Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, were just as hard-hitting: “Israel with help from Iran is converting ‘dumb’ rockets into highly accurate missiles using small and hard-to-detect GPS guidance kits. If they begin mass-production of this missile, Israel will embark on a full-scale war with Lebanon for destroying this new Hizballah capability.”
The potential for war is certainly there, therefore, although both Hizballah and Israel appeared this week to share a reluctance to go all the way.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that Hizballah has so far converted 50 surface missiles to precision weapons, most of them Iran-made Fateh-110s and Zelzal-5s. This stock is insufficient to support total war by the Lebanese Shiite group, since even a simultaneous multiple launch on this scale would be repelled by Israel’s highly sophisticated air defense systems. Three to five may manage to get through and cause substantial damage inside Israel. Still, Hizballah would not be able to claim victory or evening the score and would certainly be far short of the resources for deterring or warding off a massive Israeli retaliatory blitz that wipes out its entire military inventory both in Syria and Lebanon.
The latest round ended in a tie. Although both say they came off best, they also appreciate that the real test of strength is still to come. Iran has not given up on its strategy to shut Israel within a chokehold of precise missiles in the hands of Hizballah and its other proxies, Iraq Shiite militias and even ultimately the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
The Lebanese group was assigned the first batch. In six years of fighting in Syria alongside Russia Iranian and Syrian forces, Hizballah’s commanders have been transformed from paramilitary militia chiefs into the commanders of a trained professional army of 30,000 fighters who believe they are capable of gaining important strategic achievements in a war with Israel and if not victory, then a tie with the IDF. Its leaders could then boast they are leading the only Arab army to have twice ended battles with Israel in a draw. Israel’s current tactics are examined in the next article.