Hezbollah’s Tunnels Offer Sneak Peek at Looming Major Conflict with Israel

Photo Credit: AP
For weeks, Israeli and Lebanese soldiers have eyed each other uneasily at close range while Israeli engineers neutralize cross-border infiltration tunnels. These sophisticated tunnels, clearly intended to attack civilians, embody Hezbollah’s ongoing efforts to threaten substantial harm to Israel. They are also a reminder of that border’s fragile calm, and the potential for major destruction and suffering that would befall both Israeli and Lebanese civilians in another conflict on Israel’s northern front.

Israel undoubtedly could deal Hezbollah a crippling military blow in such a conflict. Indeed, Hezbollah has no illusion of military victory. Instead, it will seek to delegitimize Israel in the court of public opinion by illegally exposing civilians to harm on both sides of the border and then exploiting widespread misunderstanding about the laws of war.

These concerns were central to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Hybrid Warfare Task Force and its fact-finding mission to Israel earlier this year. The ensuing task force report examined the operational and legal challenges Israel would face in another northern war.

Though unknown by us or the public during our visit, the ongoing discoveries of these terror tunnels offer valuable glimpses into this looming war.

For the first time since 1973, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confronts the very real prospect of a sizable incursion. Years of fighting alongside Russian and Iranian forces in Syria have transformed Hezbollah into a formidable military force capable of launching such a raid, relying on coordinated infantry, artillery, and even armor and drones. This represents a major leap from Hezbollah’s small hit-and-run tactics in the 2006 Lebanon war.

The tunnels are integral to this new threat. Built in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 prohibiting Hezbollah’s rearmament in this area, they are reportedly wide enough to move heavy military equipment and large troop units. Yet even in the unlikely event Israel locates every tunnel (five have been uncovered thus far), Hezbollah will still use the terrain and towns of Southern Lebanon to complicate Israeli counterattacks and maximize civilian casualties.

Hezbollah is under no illusion such tactics will produce anything close to decisive military victory. Instead, these raids will target Israeli civilian communities where Hezbollah will seek to inflict as many casualties, take as many hostages and cause as much destruction as possible before ultimately being annihilated or withdrawing.

By inflicting significant casualties and “planting its flag” on Israeli territory, even briefly, Hezbollah will burnish its credentials as the only force capable of standing up to Israel. This also will compel Israeli leadership to respond forcefully in self-defense.

When Israel responds, Hezbollah will exploit Lebanese civilians’ suffering – brought about primarily by its own illicit tactics of using these civilians to shield military assets – to delegitimize Israel’s self-defense.

This reflects the growing “hybrid” threat, where quasi-state enemies use combat to produce maximum carnage that is exploited in a broader diplomatic and information campaign. Thus, despite its substantially improved military capabilities, Hezbollah’s ultimate goal will be to defeat Israel politically, by exploiting public reaction to the inevitable destruction and suffering Hezbollah’s own aggression will produce.

Exercising its core tactic, Hezbollah uses civilian buildings as entry points for these tunnels. Far more pervasively, it emplaces military assets in civilian buildings and densely populated villages, knowing full well the IDF will be compelled to eliminate these capabilities – most notably firing positions, missile and rocket stockpiles and infiltration routes. And the IDF will have to do so rapidly, preventing Hezbollah from devastating Israel’s military bases, critical infrastructure and cities.

Hezbollah is banking on predictable condemnation falling on Israel for the inevitable collateral damage and civilian suffering resulting from such military action. But the true irony is that the IDF will make all possible efforts to mitigate risks to the same Lebanese civilians being exploited by Hezbollah. Its operations will be guided by international law, even as Hezbollah deliberately violates those same obligations.

But perversely, Hezbollah will use the resulting images of destruction to Lebanese villages and suffering of Lebanese civilians to stoke political and popular pressure on Israel to terminate its military campaign prematurely.

Hezbollah’s strategy relies on exploiting widespread misunderstanding of the Law of Armed Conflict, chiefly the prevalent but erroneous assumption that the army blowing something up must bear all responsibility for the ensuing suffering. In reality, as will almost certainly be the case with Hezbollah, those who expose civilians to mortal risk by attempting to shield behind them are truly responsible for the consequences.

Exploiting this misunderstanding worked for Hezbollah in 2006, just as Hamas, ISIS and others regularly find success with such approaches against armed forces that try, often in vain, to avoid civilian casualties.

As former operational commanders and military legal experts, we know first-hand how similar tactics are employed by America’s adversaries. It is therefore vitally important that American policymakers, the media and other public leaders recognize, publicize and highlight Israel’s lawful efforts to address the illicit threats posed by Hezbollah – for the sakes of our ally, U.S. national security and regional stability.

This op-ed was also published in The Hill on February 25, 2019.​