The Profound Difference between Hamas and Hezbollah

The next possible confrontation with Hezbollah will compel Israel to develop a different concept regarding the defense of the home front and critical infrastructure

The Profound Difference between Hamas and Hezbollah

In a previous article published in Israel Defense Magazine (September 2014), I suggested that it would be wrong to learn too many lessons from Operation Protective Edge (July – August 2014) when preparing for a future confrontation with Hezbollah.

Before getting into this issue, a few words are in order regarding the paradigm of military "rounds" between Israel and its adversaries: since the symmetrical confrontations in the Middle East have ended to give way to armed conflicts with non-states, or more accurately, "semi-state" organizations, the role of the civilian front in Israel (unjustly referred to as "the rear"), alongside the military front, has become increasingly more significant. Without delving into a detailed discussion of the characteristics of those asymmetrical confrontations, one particular disconcerting issue should be emphasized. These confrontations are becoming more frequent and longer in duration. This has been clearly demonstrated in the very short span between the round of Pillar of Defense (November 2012) and the recent one, which lasted almost three times as long as the duration of the Yom-Kippur War of 1973, regarded justly as one of the most difficult wars fought by the IDF, against two strong and well equipped countries simultaneously.

To this one should add the prevailing estimate, that the last round ended in a "strategic tie", which means that the IDF failed to crush Hamas militarily, even after more than seven weeks. This is a cause for a severe concern. The tantalizing question is whether Israel is now, or in the near future, better prepared for the next round against Hamas or against the more capable Hezbollah?

So, how will a future confrontation with Hezbollah be different from what Israel had experienced during Operation Protective Edge? This article offers three primary criteria for evaluating that difference: the duration, the breadth and the depth of the next conflict. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to address these elements and offer some guidelines for an enhanced systemic response for them, so as to elevate the resiliency of the civilian front.

Regarding the duration criterion: In the Second Lebanon War, the actual fighting lasted for 33 days. Operation Protective Edge, waged against a significantly lesser opponent, lasted 51 days. Accordingly, it may be rationally deduced that the next round against Hezbollah, under similar circumstances, could last even longer, to the extent of developing characteristics of a "war of attrition", which might have sever implications on the civilian front. This might suggest that the IDF needs to develop and readily utilize its existing offensive capabilities – in the air and on land – that would make a substantial contribution to shorten the span of a future conflict on the northern front. Previous rounds have proven that Israel operates militarily under distinct external political restrictions, which are expected to be at least as applicable next time. If this "glass ceiling" remains, it would necessitate a different concept of preparations for the civilian front, based on the assumption that most of its population will be under heavy attacks, for long weeks, of rockets and missiles, with an intensity scale of 7-10 times over what it experienced in the past (120-150 rockets per day). Hezbollah acquired the capacity to launch intensive salvos of dozens of rockets against selected targets, which would elevate the threat on the civilian front to a level never experienced by the Israeli civilian population. This calls for a more effective systemic response capacities, at least until the active defense system's coverage will suffice to provide adequate protection to military primary objects, critical infrastructure, as well as the population centers. This is far from being the case as of now, which means that at present the Israeli home front will be only partly protected in case of a full pledged attack by Hezbollah.

As to the breadth criterion: In the last round, Hamas's offensive capabilities turned out to be quite limited. The real threat was confined to the southern areas (mortar bombs and offensive tunnels around the Gaza Strip, and rockets with reduced warheads within the longer ranges). Subsequently, about 60% of all rockets launched from the Gaza Strip (including mortar bombs) landed on the area within 20 km, about 32% reached areas within 40 km, and only 8% reached populated areas beyond that range. The high-trajectory threat imposed by Hezbollah is much more severe, as it covers most of the populated areas of Israel. But beyond the range factor, the amount of their rockets and missiles is ten times larger, their warheads are significantly heavier, and mostly, they possess a significant arsenal of relatively accurate guided missiles. This places Hezbollah as a much more ominous threat to the Israeli civilian front. Coupled with the duration factor discussed above, this poses severe challenges for Israel. An outstanding example could be the need for a massive evacuation of civilians for extended periods of time. Reportedly, Israel has designed systemic plans for such a scenario (not only of military nature). However, similar to what happened during Operation Protective Edge, also in future cases, a decision by the government to implement such a massive evacuation will be highly sensitive and probably difficult to take. This was and might be the case due to the unjustifiable stigmatic narrative associates with the notion that people who leave their homes under enemy offensive pressure, manifest public weakness, if not utter demoralization, which might represent a success of the adversary. Beyond these emotional and political considerations, there also stands the question of the actual implementation of the plan, under wide scale chaotic circumstances of multiple major disruptions in numerous population centers simultaneously. Evacuation to remote areas (the Arava in the Negev?) of a large number of people is an extremely complex operation from the organizational and logistical point of view. It further raises a serious question regarding the functional continuity of the Israeli economy for a protracted period. The national economy might be challenged by the long conflict, but the consequences can be more dire if a large scale evacuation is being carried out.

Finally, regarding the depth criterion: in the last confrontations with Hamas, the rockets hit mostly and modestly the civilian population. In a confrontation with Hezbollah, one should add to this possible serious disruption to the critical national infrastructures, and military installations. Israel has no experience with major disruptions of its critical infrastructures, such as the electric grid, the water system or the transportation systems. The potential capabilities of Hezbollah, mainly owing to the ever-improving accuracy of their missile systems, together with the potential cyber attacks, will impose a new threat on the functional continuity of the Israeli economy. Adequate local solutions to specific threats will no doubt be presented. But as the Head of the National Emergency Management Authority has correctly stated recently, "the national infrastructures are not ready for an emergency". This, too, calls for a comprehensive national preparedness plan that would address the primary issue of authority and responsibilities, which is of vital necessity for the integration and collaboration of the various agencies, public and private, so that they may all be adequately prepared for coping with an extreme disruption and for an effective management of the systems in the case of an emergency.

As the professional literature proposes, advance preparations are essential for any scenario of extreme disruptions. The traditional Israeli approach to challenge the security risks primarily with offensive response and improvisations might be helpful, but hardly sufficient. The defensive response should be augmented, mainly based on the active defense systems, which already proved their high value. But beyond that, there is no way to ignore the systemic implementation of the resilience approach, which is designed to improve the capacity of the national systems to swiftly recover after sustaining severe disruptions. In this realm, Israel is still in a preliminary stage, both in terms of the development of a holistic concept, as well as in terms of the preparation of the home front for scales of hazards that have not been known in past confrontations.

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