(JNS) Israel has been trying to convince itself of late that Hezbollah is deterred. The terrorist group is not interested in an escalation, and its rocket barrage on Friday was a testament to its weakness and not its strength, or so the story goes.
It’s doubtful this thesis holds water. Friday’s rocket barrage was the Shi’ite group’s most blatant attack on Israel in years. True, Hezbollah chose to target open areas so as not to risk civilian deaths, but a country that makes an effort to retaliate for every incendiary balloon from the Gaza Strip cannot claim 19 rockets launched at its territory are insignificant.
The same goes for the argument that firing at open territories is a sign of deterrence. This does not necessarily work in Israel’s favor: Forty-eight hours earlier, in response to the launch of rockets at Kiryat Shmona, the Israel Defense Forces fired over 100 artillery shells at absolutely nothing in Lebanon. While the Israeli Air Force may have later struck Lebanese territory for the first time in years, this wasn’t exactly the kind of attack that will go down as one of the most important in the force’s history.
In other words, if the nature of the attack is any indication of the level of deterrence, Israel is no less deterred than Hezbollah. Israel’s reluctance to respond to rocket fire on its territory only deepens these suspicions. It’s basic math: Katyusha rockets were fired from Lebanon. Israel responded to those rockets. Hezbollah responded to the Israeli response, and Israel refrained from responding once again. Right now, it would seem that Hezbollah has had the final say.
There are quite a few things we can learn from the nature of Hezbollah’s operations. Following five rocket attacks in which it did not take part, the organization felt it was losing control and needed to restore its status as “defender of Lebanon.”
Hezbollah’s decision to act in response to events it was not responsible for relieves Israel of the dilemma of who to attack in future such incidents. The terrorist group volunteered for the role of the organization responsible for what happens in southern Lebanon, and as such, it should be the address for every violation, even if this leads to an escalation.
With what was, for now, its parting shot, the Shi’ite group determined that, despite harassment by its patrons in Tehran, its roots are firmly embedded in the Land of Cedars. Through its conduct, Hezbollah has made clear it will not risk an escalation for Iranian interests at this time, but is willing to risk an escalation when Lebanon and its grip on the country are at risk. The apology issued by Hezbollah following a confrontation between Druze residents of the south and a rocket-launching cell only reinforces this: Hezbollah is attentive to Lebanese residents, who are fuming at the privileges the country’s Shi’ite population has enjoyed while the country is in a state of major crisis.
From Hezbollah’s perspective, the rockets it fired at Israel put an end to the event. The organization responded, and through the attack, seemingly retaliated for both the killing of one of its operatives at the Damascus Airport last year as well as the killing of a Lebanese civilian next to Metula during the IDF’s “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in Gaza.
At the moment, Hezbollah is concerned by what is going on inside Lebanon and is not interested in an escalation, though it is doubtful it has complete control over matters. The five previous incidents indicate Hezbollah’s control of the territory is not absolute. There are additional forces interested in setting the front ablaze once more, and they could move to do this very soon.
Israel has reason to worry. Deterrence in the north is being diminished at a time when Israel is managing five active fronts, against Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, and in Judea and Samaria. Israel did not bolster deterrence when it refrained from responding Friday. In fact, it did quite the opposite. Neither the hordes of Israelis traveling up north nor the current coronavirus outbreak can justify this failure to act. Israel is perceived as hesitant and instead of lowering the flames, this will lead our enemies to turn up the heat.
As a side note, one cannot ignore the efforts Israeli spokespeople made when they attempted to explain Hezbollah’s rationale, and how much it has supposedly been deterred, as the reason we have failed to respond. With all due respect, it’s not the IDF’s job to engage in public diplomacy efforts on Hezbollah’s behalf.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.