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IDF's New Response Policy with Hizbollah

Written by Zaki Shalomo

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The IDF's New Response Policy vis-à-vis Hizbollah: How Viable is It?
October 28, 2008
INSS Insight No. 76,  Shalom, Zaki
INSS.org.il/

A lively discussion has developed recently concerning the IDF's new response policy in the event of a renewed confrontation with Hizbollah. An article in Haaretz by Amos Harel; an interview given by GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizencout to Yediot Ahronot; the INSS Insight of early October by Gabriel Siboni; and a forthcoming piece in Strategic Assessment by Giora Eiland are among the recent forums for this debate.

 

Maj. Gen. Eizencout called the IDF's new response policy vis-à-vis Hizbollah the "Dahiyah doctrine": "What happened to the Dahiyah neighborhood of Beirut in 2006 will happen to each village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force and inflict huge damage and destruction. In our mind, these are not civilian villages but army bases...the next war must be decided quickly, aggressively, and without seeking international approval...Hizbollah understands very well that firing from villages will lead to their destruction." Gen. Eizencout explained that during the Second Lebanon War, the IDF attempted to prevent massive missile fire directed at Israel mainly through an effort to attack the missiles and their launchers in pinpoint fashion. From now on, he clarified, the policy will be different. "This won't be another 'launcher hunt' - that's total nonsense. When the other side has thousands of missiles and rockets, you don't have the option of hunting them. You might see one or two impressive operations, but the home front will get hit."

This is indeed a new policy of exercising force against Hizbollah, different from the policy implemented during the Second Lebanon War. Apparently the goals of the policy and the publicity surrounding it are to amplify Israeli deterrence and dissuade Hizbollah from escalating operations and reigniting the fire in the north. The policy's success depends on the assessment formed among Hizbollah leaders concerning the policy's credibility and Israel's determination to actually exercise it.

In this context, it is important to examine the new policy and its intrinsic risks from Israel's viewpoint. The policy is unequivocal with respect to the nature of an IDF response to a provocative action on the part of Hizbollah. In contrast, it contains a discernable vagueness as to the circumstances under which the policy would be activated. In essence, it does not provide a clear answer to the following questions:

  1. Is this a policy of response solely in the event of an overall military confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah, when it is clear that the accepted rules of the game between the sides are in any case changing dramatically, or is it also relevant in the event of a limited conflict?
  2. What intensity of fire by Hizbollah would activate the new response policy? Would sporadic missile fire justify a change in the game rules, or only massive fire?  
  3. Would this policy be activated only in the event of missile fire, or could "normal" artillery fire also invite the new response policy?
  4. Will the change be set in motion only in the case of Hizbollah fire causing numerous Israeli casualties; or might massive fire into open areas that does not cause a large number of casualties also change the policy?
  5. Will there be any distinction between Hizbollah fire at military targets and fire directed at civilian settlements?
  6. Will the response policy be activated only in the event of fire directed at strategic targets and urban centers far from the Lebanese border; or will the principle of "what goes for Tel Aviv also goes for Kiryat Shmona and Margliyot" apply?
  7. Will the new response policy be activated following a warning to village inhabitants in Lebanon, allowing them to evacuate the area; or will the response policy be implemented automatically, without enabling a retreat?
  8. Finally, how will the plan be applied if it becomes evident that village inhabitants are shunning a mass exodus? Would the IDF activate massive fire that results in hundreds or possibly thousands of civilians killed?

These and other questions have no clear answer. Hizbollah can assume that the new response policy relates solely to scenarios resembling those of July-August 2006, namely: a comprehensive military conflict in which Hizbollah levels massive missile fire at northern border settlements and cities such as Nahariya, Acre, Haifa, Afula, and Hadera.

Even in extreme circumstances such as this, Hizbollah can assume that Israel would seriously hesitate before implementing such a policy of force against Hizbollah and civilian villages as implied by the principles of the new policy. Certain arguments and past examples are likely to lead Hizbollah to the conclusion that Israel would abstain from implementing the new response policy:

  1. Throughout Israel's long history of confronting terror organizations, senior echelons in Israel repeatedly issued threats of a response policy to be activated if and when Israel would be provoked. In practice, in numerous instances Israel avoided carrying out a considerable portion of those threats. This is how Israel acted following the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and the withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. Thus it is eminently possible that Israel's fiery declarations will remain tantamount to a shelf dogma only.
  2. Israel's avoidance of hitting infrastructures in Lebanon at the beginning of the Second Lebanon War (though it was clear this was a comprehensive military confrontation with Hizbollah) and its reluctance to interrupt the supply of fuel, electricity, and water to the Gaza Strip (even when there was massive firing of Qassam rockets into Sderot and Ashkelon) are instructive of Israel's internal constraints over the use of force involving any kind of substantial injury to the welfare of the civilian population. Massive village bombings incur the more severe risk of extensive civilian fatalities. It is doubtful whether any government in Israel would be willing to risk the consequences of approving such steps.
  3. Israel's desire to spare a civilian population stems not only from its fears of international public reaction, but also from pressures from international leaders, particularly the American administration, and internal constraints. Very wide circles within Israeli society - politicians, legal experts, intellectuals, and academics - are likely to challenge the IDF on implementing a policy that entails risks of mass fatalities of civilians not actively involved in firing at Israel, but who find themselves in the area from which the firing originates.     
  4. The new response policy is indirectly based on the premise that Israel is capable of striking Hizbollah population centers and infrastructures. Hizbollah also reportedly possesses a system of long range missiles capable of striking almost any point in Israel. Israel cannot assume it would manage to destroy this system at the beginning of a campaign as it did at the beginning of the Second Lebanon War. Thus, Hizbollah can assume that it has the ability to maintain an effective balance of terror against Israel that would deter any Israeli government from implementing its new response policy.

Hizbollah may likely conclude that in the final analysis, Israel will avoid implementing the new policy of response being trumpeted today. If so, Hizbollah is liable to test Israel's credibility and determination through a varied assortment of scenarios. As such, proclamations of a new response policy carry with them no small risk. If there is no unequivocal resolve to realize this policy - which seems highly likely - the result may well be the erosion rather than strengthening of Israel's deterrent capability.


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The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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