Mesrob Kassemdjian comments upon the ongoing Israeli-Hizbullah security dilemma.
On Monday April 7th, Hizbullah claimed responsibility for an explosion that targeted an Israel Defence Force (IDF) patrol, on March 14. This was inside the contested border area of Shabaa farms, and they asserted that the attack was in retaliation to two earlier Israeli air strikes, both on February 24, on Lebanese territory, situated in Eastern Lebanon near the border with Syria. Hassan Nasrallah, the General-Secretary of the paramilitary organisation, stated that the attack was designed as a deterrent to further air raids on Lebanese territory. Whereas, in the past, Israel regularly breached Lebanon’s sovereignty by frequently conducting ground, aerial and maritime military operations within Lebanese territory, the increased material capabilities and relative power of Hizbullah has constrained Israel’s ability to act without fear of reprisals. The two operate within an inversely proportional power relationship where relative power increases for one directly impact the power and behavioural choices of the other. This is in line with the Realist conceptualisation that material power capabilities are the only factor capable of significantly affecting a rational actor’s behaviour and course of action, when operating within an anarchic international system.
Israel’s strike tested Hizbullah’s current level of preparedness and military capabilities on the Lebanese frontier. Hizbullah‘s leader asserted that failure to retaliate to Israeli provocation would lead to further aggression. The same argument is used to explain the recent series of unreciprocated Israeli strikes on Syrian territory. Civil-war torn Syria’s inability to respond to such attacks is therefore a function of the Israeli state’s asymmetric capabilities. During 2013, the Israeli Air force (IAF) attacked inside Syrian territory six times, ostensibly targeting advanced “game changing” guided weapon systems, such as the Iranian-made, medium range surface-to-surface missile, and the Yakhont surface-to-sea anti ship missile systems in Latakia. Israel has vowed to halt the transfer of sophisticated weaponry from Iran, via Syria, in order to curb the increased power of Hizbullah and isolate the group.
The recent events are not exceptional but rather typical of the low intensity intermittent conflict between Israel and Hizbullah. Since the early 1990s, the protagonists have informally observed the ‘rules of the game’, mediated through third party negotiations, which stipulate acceptable conduct specific to the conflict. The rules specify that in return for Hizbullah limiting its operations to Lebanon, Israel would restrain from targeting Lebanese civilians and villages provided that Hizbullah do not target Israeli civilians and territory. Therefore, Hizbullah is within its right to wage a guerrilla insurgency, targeting Israeli military personnel operating within occupied South Lebanon. This understanding has been broken by both sides in the past but has remained intact as the only reference for judging acceptable conduct within the conflict.
Hizbullah is within its right to wage a guerrilla insurgency, targeting Israeli military personnel operating within occupied South Lebanon.
Israel possesses a sophisticated missile defence infrastructure including 6 Iron Dome batteries, as well as multiple Patriot anti missile systems. These short range surface-to-surface anti missile systems can destroy projectiles with a range of 70 Km. The medium range 200-700km David’s Sling missile defence system is set to be operational this year. Finally, the Arrow 2 medium to long range 300-1700km, missile defence system will operational by 2017. These systems provide Israel with an effective layered missile defence shield. However, a prolonged barrage can overwhelm even the most effective shield. Israel understands that its defensive capabilities do not ensure its security and instead relies on deterrence and containment through its asymmetric offensive capabilities and preventive strikes. However, the IAF would be unable to launch preemptive strikes to destroy the thousands of hidden launch sites, built deep beneath the mountainous Lebanese terrain. Most sites utilise multiple firing ports and are supplied by underground railway tracks and operated by highly trained specialised units. Another round of hostilities would ensure the mutual, although disproportionate, destruction of cities on both sides of the border.
The Israeli-Lebanese border is subject to a chronic security dilemma. This denotes a situation in which insecurity, due to uncertainty and imperfect information, causes an actor to behave in certain ways to ensure its own security. These defensive measures are perceived as offensive by alternative actors operating within the same inter-relational system. The antagonised actor reacts by taking their own defensive measures, which in turn are considered to be aggressive by the original actor who is subsequently forced to initiate further, easily misunderstood, defensive measures. Such a situation readily transpires into bitter rivalries, breaks down diplomatic relations, instigates arms races and can easily spiral into full-blown conflict. Thus, the protagonists exist within a zero-sum relationship and are subjected to systemic pressures, compelling one another to employ aggressive deterrence policies and risk a war which neither side desires.