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A string of bombings has been reported since late 2016: an airport in Damascus or a Hezbollah weapons convoy or a Syrian army post. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, although they are widely attributed to Israel. As a matter of principle, Israel does not respond to these allegations.
For reasons related to state security, Israeli media are only allowed to refer to foreign reports on the bombings. But they take the possibility that Israel is behind them seriously.
With good reason. The bombings fit seamlessly into the military strategy that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) laid out in a strategic document released in mid-2015. The keyword in the document: deterrence.
Israel has little reason to fear formal hostile armies, but fears all the more extreme, violent, and well-armed ‘sub-state’ actors. The most prominent of these is Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group based in neighbouring Lebanon that is backing al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Estimated to have hundreds of thousands of missiles, Hezbollah is capable of wreaking havoc in Israel. According to the Israeli army, the threat posed by the group is growing in size, speed, range, and accuracy every day.
If Israel were to fight a conventional war against Hezbollah, the military document says, Israel would be at a strategic disadvantage. Hezbollah militants would hide in residential areas, and attacks on these areas would cause civilian casualties, with legal, humanitarian and public consequences.
Israel faced exactly this scenario in 2014 when it fought Hamas in the Gaza Strip for seven weeks.
Even though Hamas, a Sunni Islamic militant group, lacks Hezbollah’s military muscle, Israel’s military response was to bomb houses, flats, and sometimes entire residential areas. The United Nations recorded 1,462 civilian deaths, for which Israel was widely criticized. Israel itself did not consider the number of civilians killed to be excessive.
The strategic document shows that Israel is taking steps to avoid such conventional wars, through the use of a ‘campaign in between wars’. This means that clandestine operations are carried out to neutralize enemy threats, especially their ability to handle certain weapons, thereby avoiding open conflict.
In the case of Hezbollah, there is a complicating factor: not only is it supported by Iran, thanks to the al-Assad connection, but the group is also indirectly supported by Russia. It also plays a prominent political role in Lebanon, where it is part of the government.
At first glance, Hezbollah does not seem interested in provoking a new war with Israel. Already engaged in Syria, the group would have to fight on two different fronts at the same time. Another considerable concern is the two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The group seems to have other things to worry about.
Yet the skirmishes continue. In March 2017, Syria shot at Israeli fighter jets. It even claimed to have shot a plane down, although this is unsubstantiated. In any case, no casualties were reported on the Israeli side. According to the Syrian army, the Israeli planes had attacked military targets near Palmyra.
Israel said several anti-aircraft missiles were fired at its air force from Syria, triggering rocket sirens in Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley. Eyewitnesses heard two explosions shortly afterward, but at no point was the safety of Israeli civilians compromised, according to an Israeli military spokesman.
So why is Israel focusing on Hezbollah rather than targeting the Sunni terror group Islamic State? One obvious reason is that Hezbollah poses a far more active and organized threat. In a May 2017 article in POLITICO Magazine, national security editor Bryan Bender quoted Brigadier General Ram Yavne, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Strategic Division, as saying, “If I can be frank, the radical axis headed by Iran is riskier than the global jihad one. It is much more knowledgeable, stronger, with a bigger arsenal.”
Moreover, Bender notes, al-Assad is now ‘unquestionably winning’, with help from Hezbollah, which has sacrificed an estimated 1,700 fighters. As one IDF official put it, “If al-Assad wins, we will have Hezbollah on two borders, not one.”
This raises another question: can Hezbollah still be treated as a non-state militant force, or should it, given its accumulated strength, be considered as a state itself? In an April 2017 address at a conference in Ramat Gan, Brigadier General Sharon Afek, the IDF’s military advocate-general, said that “Hezbollah’s integration into state institutions [in Lebanon] raises questions of state responsibility”.
In general, Israeli rhetoric about Hezbollah is getting bolder. In March 2017, for example, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the far-right Jewish Home party, threatened to send Lebanon back to the Middle Ages if Hezbollah provoked another war.
During the last war with Lebanon in 2006, Israel officially only hit Hezbollah targets, in order to avoid other Lebanese denominations such as Maronite Christians and Sunni Arabs. Nonetheless, the damage to civilian infrastructure, including Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, was significant.
Following the war, army officials declared that in the event of a new conflict, Israel would not limit itself to Hezbollah targets. If Hezbollah is influential across Lebanese society, officials say, then Lebanon as a whole is a legitimate target for Israeli attacks, including the infrastructure of other Lebanese population groups.
This military thinking is known as the Dahiya doctrine. It makes the destruction of the civilian infrastructure of hostile regimes a goal in itself, as a means to deter the use of that infrastructure by combatants. It also endorses the use of ‘disproportionate power’ to secure that end. The doctrine is named after the Dahiya neighbourhood of Beirut, which was heavily damaged by Israeli strikes in 2006. According to influential law professor Richard Falk, the use of such a doctrine amounts to ‘state terrorism’ by Israel.
In the meantime, Israel continues to work on its defence. In November 2016, a military officer told Haaretz newspaper that there were plans to evacuate 78,000 citizens along the Lebanese border in the event of a war with Hezbollah. This, the newspaper said, is a striking deviation from the doctrine, which states that Israel never evacuates civilians. The goal: fewer civilian casualties and an area that can be defended better.
For the time being, the bombings attributed to Israel have not provoked any major reprisals, even though, say experts, Hezbollah is capable of firing 1,500 missiles a day at Israel for a long time. If necessary, Israel itself can hit several thousand targets a day.
Since 2008, Israel has fought three wars in Gaza. Yet the northern border with Lebanon remains the greatest threat.