Israel's Concerns over Hezbollah Gaining Battle Experience
Lebanon’s Hezbollah was originally a small-scale guerrilla group in Southern Lebanon formed to resist Israeli invasion in the 1980s. In the present scenario, Hezbollah is considered a Shiite Islamist militia, political party, social welfare organisation and a designated terrorist organisation.
Hezbollah built its reputation on a dogged ability to repeatedly hold its own against Israeli forces – an achievement nearly unprecedented in the Arab world.
Hezbollah has traditionally defined itself and its paramilitary actions as a legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory and as a necessary response to the relative weakness of Lebanese state security institutions.
Further, Hezbollah’s main goals includes – liberating Jerusalem, destruction of the State of Israel in what it considers to be all of Palestine; and forming an Islamic government in Lebanon using the Iranian regime as its model.
Besides, the acrimonious equation between Hezbollah and Israel can also be attributed to Israel’s occupation of all of Southern Lebanon, the Shebaa Farms and half of the Lebanese village of Ghajar.
Hezbollah’s primary modus operandi comprises of kidnapping Israeli soldiers in cross-border raids, attacking Israel with short or long-range rockets, suicide bombings and paramilitary guerrilla warfare.Though Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Ghajar in 2010, Hezbollah sees Israel as continuing to occupy Shebaa Farms, which is at the heart of present day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. As recent as January 2016, Hezbollah bombed Israeli military in Shebaa Farms to avenge the death of one of its members.
Given that Hezbollah and Syria fought each other during the War of the Camps from 1985-1986, Israel proclaims Syria along with Iran as the main sponsors of Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s present engagement in fighting for the Assad regime in Syria against a complex amalgamation of forces aiming to overthrow the incumbent President not only vindicated Israel’s claims but also instilled concerns about Hezbollah gaining war-fighting and tactical experiences, which Israel feels Hezbollah would use to their advantage in fighting them in future conflicts.
After the 2006 War with Israel, Hezbollah vastly expanded its sophisticated weaponry with the help of Iran and Syria, which is argued to have flown through Syria. As such, the protracted war in Syria has presented a significant strategic alliance threat for Hezbollah. In other words, in the eventuality of the Assad regime’s downfall in Syria, Hezbollah would be denied of their critical Iranian and Syrian support. While Iranian support for the Syrian regime has been well-documented, Hezbollah is said to have augmented Iran’s considerable investment in Syria by providing capabilities that Syrian fighting forces lacked. Hezbollah fighters offered the Syrian Army, which is otherwise made up of heavy mechanized units with light infantry, reconnaissance and sniper fire to fight against lightly armed guerilla forces.
While Hezbollah extended its support (May 2011) to the Assad regime within weeks of the first protests in Syria and before the uprising turned violent, Hezbollah’s role in Syria evolved dramatically by early 2013. Since then, from primarily an advisory mission, Hezbollah forces assumed direct combat role, operating in larger numbers alongside Syrian military and paramilitary forces. Subsequently, Hezbollah led the ground offensive on al-Qusayr, a town located near strategic routes connecting Damascus to Syria’s coastal provinces as well as those that run into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The victorious offensive in al-Qusayr marked a rhetorical shift for Hezbollah wherein there was an assertion that Hezbollah stood not only in defence of Lebanese Shia communities but also openly committed to ensuring President Assad remained in power. In this context, it has been argued that once a proxy of Syria, Hezbollah has become the main guarantor of President Bashar al Assad’s regime.
Additionally, in the aftermath of a successful al-Qusayr offensive, Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah made it clear that the struggle in Syria should also be seen as an extension of the resistance against Israel and the West.
Analysts are of the view that despite its involvement in Syria, Hezbollah’s most important front remains the border with Israel. Hezbollah insists that resistance to Israel is its foremost goal. As an organisation that has serious implications for Israel, it is noteworthy to mention that Hezbollah has come a long way from once known for car bombs and assassinations to one that is most visible pro-Assad fighters in the Syrian conflict. Today, the militia not only uses armour and guided missiles but also possesses fleet of armed drones.
Hezbollah is also seen to have evolved from a guerrilla force to one that is far more capable of a wide range of operations. Today, Hezbollah is considered as the world’s most sophisticated and most militarily capable terror organisation.
Israel’s existing concerns over Hezbollah rests in certain alarming indicators – massive arsenal of advanced weaponry amassed since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, technological advancement, battlefield experience it has gained in Syria – suggesting Hezbollah becoming stronger than ever. Israel fears that all these advancement and experiences will help Hezbollah turn into its most dangerous enemy in a generation.
Coupled with high-technology weaponry, Hezbollah is now considered to be on the cutting edge of terrorist and jihadi warfare considering the fact that it has gained substantial combat experience from its battles with Israel and especially with Syrian rebel forces in the ongoing Syrian conflict. It has been argued that due to the asymmetrical nature of combat between terrorist organisations and state military forces, Hezbollah have adopted strategies such as “counter-value strategies”, which target civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Such strategies at play allegedly makes such groups extremely difficult to fight especially for armies like the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) that go to great lengths to protect civilian lives. As such, military officials in Israel are now beginning to view the Hezbollah threat as strategic rather than tactical. In other words, Israel is preparing itself for a confrontation with Hezbollah as a foreign Army rather than a terrorist group.
Finally, in assessing the Syrian War’s effects on Hezbollah, Intelligence officials in Israel might be interested in looking at the erosion of Hezbollah as an organisation; but with the tilting scales in favour of Assad’s regime brought about by Russia’s intervention, Hezbollah stands to benefit. In other words, the organisation is now identified with the side that appears to have upper hand in the war. The close work with Iranian commanders and recently with Russian officers seems to have upgraded Hezbollah’s fighting capability.
Commanders and fighters of Hezbollah who have survived years of war are seen as accumulating very valuable experience in difficult battles. Additionally, Hezbollah’s Syrian engagement in wide range of operations including joint actions with airplanes, helicopters, drones, artillery, tanks and advanced intelligence capabilities ascertains the organistion’s capabilities for future simultaneous attacks on a number of Israeli locals and military outposts along the border with possibility of a war.
Notwithstanding the battle experiences gained by Hezbollah in the Syrian War, Israeli analysts are of the view that Hezbollah’s experience in Syria should not be overstated since the group is fighting rebel forces like the Free Syrian Army and jihadist groups, not a modern, regular army. At the same time, the Israeli military is conducting a covert military campaign to maintain a qualitative edge over Hezbollah and curb buildup of the group’s weaponry. Israeli leaders have opined that they will act to prevent transfers of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah from Syria. It has further been observed that under the cover of the chaos in Syria, Israel has been taking actions against the weapons buildup without fear of retaliation with the assumption that Hezbollah, embroiled in Syria is not in a position to open another front against Israel.
 U S State Department has designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. For details see US Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” [www.state.gove], Accessed on 5 March 2016, URL: http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm
 Alyssa Fetini, “A Brief History of Hizballah”, Time, 08 June 2009, URL: http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1903301,00.html
 For details see Casey L Addis and Christopher M Blanchard (2011), “Hezbollah: Background and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service, [www.fas.org], Accessed on 5 March 2016, URL: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R41446.pdf
 For details see The Henry Jackson Society (2012), Timeline of Terror: A Concise History of Hezbollah Atrocities, London: The Henry Jackson Society
Shebaa Farms is a small strip of disputed land at the intersection of the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Israeli-Occupied Golan Heights. The territory is about 11 Km long and 2.5 Km wide. For details see Asher Kaufman (2004), “Understanding the Shebaa Farms Dispute: Roots of the Anomaly and Prospects for Resolution”, Palestine-Israel Journal, 11 (1)
Ghajar is an Arab village on the Hasbani River on the border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights, internationally considered to be de jure part of Syria. Its inhabitants are members of the Alawite community.
 The War of the Camps was a sub-conflict within the 1984-1989 phase of the Labanese Civil War, in which Palestinian refugee camps were besieged by the Shiite Amal militia (the Amal militia was the militant wing of the Movement of the Disinherited, a Shiia political movement) one of the most important Shiia Muslim militias during the Lebanese Civil War. Amal strengthen himself with the support from Syria and fought a bloody battle against rival Shiia group, Hezbollah for full control of Beirut, which provoked Syrian military intervention. For details see Daniel Byman (2005), Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
 Marisa Sullivan (2014), “Hezbollah in Syria”, Middle East Security Report, 19
 The Economist, “Hezbollah in the Crosshairs: The Israeli army raises the stakes in the fight against its arch-foe”, [www.economist.com] Accessed 7 March 2016, URL: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21650163-israeli-army-raises-stakes-fight-against-its-arch-foe-hizbullah
 The Economist, “Hezbollah’s Learning Curve: Deadly Experiences”, [www.economist.com], Accessed on 7 March 2016, URL: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21661826-costly-valuable-lessons-guerrilla-army-once-fought
 This is distinguished from traditional “counter-force strategies”, which target military infrastructure. For details see Shai Oseran and Stephane Cohen (2014), “Don’t Be Fooled: Hezbollah is Bigger and Badder Than Ever”, The Tower, (12)
 Amos Harel (2016), “Israel’s Military Now Sees Hezbollah as an Army in Every Sense”, Haaretz, 07 March 2016