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Is a Third Lebanon War Imminent?

With the Gaza blockade/flotilla incident consuming the international media another problematic Israeli security front has faded into the background: the threat of another outbreak of war on the Israel-Lebanon border. It has been nearly four years now since the 34-day Second Lebanon War ended with an inconclusive ceasefire on August 14, 2006. During that time the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been able to digest some of the lessons learned from their encounter with Hezbollah guerrillas and Israel has bought itself a period of relative quiet along its northern border.

Within the context of the Israeli security environment this in itself could be viewed as an achievement. Yet there is also a flip side to the halt in fighting, this one favoring Hezbollah: it has allowed the organization its own breathing-room with which to replenish its arsenal, recruit new members and revisit its own strategies. Hezbollah has also been able to study the improvements made by the IDF in terms of coordinating its ground, air and naval operations as witnessed during the 22-day Israeli Operation Cast Lead campaign in the Gaza Strip from December 2008 – January 2009.

What concentrates minds in the IDF and the Israeli government most is the ongoing buildup of Hezbollah’s rocket and missile stockpiles. At the onset of the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah had 13,000 rockets in its inventory; today it is believed to have up to 45,000 rockets. Some of these missiles reportedly include Scuds and – more ominously from the IDF perspective – the Syrian-produced M-600.

A knock-off of the Iranian Fateh-110 missile, the M-600′s range and precision provide Hezbollah with greater strike capabilities than it possessed in 2006 and would allow it to hit areas as far into Israel as Tel Aviv. That element was missing during the last campaign when Hezbollah’s long-range missiles – the Iranian-made Fajr – were destroyed in 34 minutes by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) during its Operation Specific Weight. Instead, the problem for the IDF during the war was Hezbollah’s continuous barrage of some 4,200 short- and medium-range rockets into northern Israel.

As the Second Lebanon War first unfolded IDF commanders dismissed the potential impact of short-range Katyusha rocket strikes on Israel soil as insignificant due to their relative inaccuracy and small warheads. But the constant Hezbollah rocket salvoes subjected upon the northern portion of Israel forced over one million civilians to scramble to bomb shelters and another 300,000 to flee south. This created pressure on the Israeli government to undertake a concerted ground action that would bring the Katyusha barrage to an end – a course former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been hesitant to undertake.

Ultimately the short-lived ground campaign was launched too late and exposed weaknesses in IDF logistics, intelligence-sharing and quality of its reserve forces, who entered the fray without sufficient strength, training, or supply.

The aftermath of the war in Israel resulted in an outbreak of finger-pointing between the political and defense establishments, but also forced the IDF to reexamine its strategic concepts, including what some in the military believed to be an over-reliance on air-power. An emphasis was made on replenishing and training the reserve combat units, purchasing more armored ground vehicles and upgrading the IDF’s Merkava tanks with Trophy active protection anti-missile systems in order to withstand attacks from Hezbollah anti-tank missile squads.

Is a Third Lebanon War Imminent?

The next time around, the IDF vows, things will be different. This time the Israeli government intends to hold Lebanon – not simply Hezbollah – accountable for the groups’ actions. A maritime blockade and targeted strikes on national infrastructure will likely be part of any Israeli strategy. Of course this begs the question as to how much more politically-isolated Israel intends to find itself – particularly in that the U.S. is a supporter of the Lebanese government (of which Hezbollah controls 10 of 30 cabinet seats) and provides military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces. But from the Israeli vantage point so long as Hezbollah remains armed another clash is all but inevitable.

Perhaps even more importantly from a broader regional perspective is whether or not in the event of another outbreak of fighting Israel will expand its list of targets to include Syria. Not only is Syria accused of transferring arms to Hezbollah in contravention to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, but has recently been accused of allowing the group to utilize its territory as both a base of operations and an arms depot. During the previous war Israel refrained from striking Syria, despite the Hezbollah-Damascus relationship. This time around the Assad regime might find itself in the cross-fire.

So with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah amplifying his rhetoric, Syria’s complicity in strengthening Hezbollah under greater scrutiny and the IDF chiefs intent on erasing any doubts among its neighbors that it remains the preeminent power in the region, speculation grows as to whether or not a Third Lebanon War is imminent.

Yet despite persistent tensions and signals indicating the tipping point may be soon approaching, the short answer is no.

Israel would prefer not to undergo another round of fighting, which only brings more international pressure upon the country at a time its few solid regional relationships have become strained.

Of almost greater importance is that the IDF is still in the process of constructing its multi-layered missile-defense network which would serve to protect its civilian population and strategic infrastructure in the event of another clash with its Iranian-backed foes to the north. Its Iron Dome system – the short-range layer of the network designed to intercept Katyusha and Qassam missiles – is tentatively scheduled to begin initial operational capability during the summer. However, this may represent merely a token deployment as testing on the system continues.

The other crucial defense system is David’s Sling, jointly developed by Israel’s Rafael Ltd. and U.S. firm Raytheon. David’s Sling is the second-rung of the five-layer network and is designed to counter ballistic missiles, heavy rockets and mortars from ranges of 40 to 250 kilometers. But it, too, remains under development, leaving Israel to rely on Arrow-2 and Patriot PAC-2 batteries.

Meanwhile Hezbollah seems intent on refraining from another round of fighting – at least for now. The group wants more time to build up its inventory of accurate and long-range missiles. Also, as a member of the Lebanese government it might suffer from a political backlash if seen by the non-Shiite Lebanese population as inviting another war upon the country.

Still, all it would take is an event such as the Hezbollah hostage-taking of two IDF soldiers in 2006 to touch off another war at any moment. For now, however, both sides seem intent on building up their strength for a future round of fighting – meaning a Third Lebanon War is not a question of if, but of when.

Photo of Israel-Lebanon border by david55king.

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