It’s Time for a Policy Change on the Northern Border

Hizb’Allah leader Hassan Nasrallah must be disabused of the notion that he has managed to deter Israel.

By Jacob Nagel |
Lebanese soldiers and Hezbollah fighters taking pictures from the Lebanese side of the border across from Kibbutz Malkia, northern Israel, July 28, 2023. Photo: Ayal Margolin/Flash90

(JNS) Even as Israel is rocked domestically by protests for and against judicial reform, Tehran has continued to orchestrate a multi-theatre campaign against it.

Iran is pressuring its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and Judea and Samaria to stage provocations and terror acts, to threaten Israel with harsh reactions against an Israeli response, and to continue amassing advanced weapon systems that are either sent from Iran or otherwise financed and manufactured with Iranian money.

No doubt the Iranians have taken a page from Israel’s own book: this is their version of the WBW (war between wars)—only this time it is Iran that has the initiative.

In Lebanon, Iran has for years been building Hizb’Allah as its main force for a future conflict with Israel. Hizb’Allah has hundreds of thousands of non-guided missiles of various ranges, as well as anti-tank missiles, drones, intelligence collection tools and more. However, the main danger is their goal of assembling an arsenal of PGMs (precision-guided munitions) by transferring missiles, missile parts and production technology from Iran.

In recent years, they have also been adding guidance systems to “dumb” missiles and even manufacturing full PGM missiles in production facilities on Lebanese soil. PGMs will pose a very big problem for Israel in any future campaign, and Israel has been conducting an ongoing effort to prevent and mitigate this threat, reportedly mostly in Syria and Iran, not Lebanon.

Hizb’Allah leader Hassan Nasrallah has recently changed his organization’s behaviour patterns and even stepped up its provocations—apparently as a result of his erroneous (he has made the same mistake several times in the past) perception of Israeli weakness. His analysis is being fed by reports in the Israeli and international media and by the Israeli reaction (or rather, non-response) to his provocations.

A few examples: Sending a terrorist to Megiddo with an IED; building an outpost on the Israeli side of the Blue Line; provocations at the border fence by masked armed fighters; setting up intelligence-gathering posts very close to the fence; preparing the Radwan Force to invade Israel; creating “nature reserves” filled with tunnels, launchers and missile caches; firing steep-trajectory missiles at Israel and anti-tank missiles at a position in Avivim, and at an IDF vehicle; and threatening Israeli aircraft and drones.

I reject the misguided attempts to distinguish between a “provocation that does not constitute a threat” and a clear act of terrorism. That is exactly what Nasrallah wants, and Israeli officials should not help him set that narrative.

The time has come for Israel to change its policy in the north and implement the changes introduced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017-2018 in Israel’s National Security Strategy. Israel must punish Hizb’Allah for every provocation and attempt to change the situation on the ground in Lebanon, but this is not enough: Israel must also punish those who fund and encourage Hizb’Allah, i.e., Iran.

The Iranian punishment does not have to come immediately or directly; there are many ways and means to harm and weaken Iran.

The Israel Defence Forces knows how to carry out such a shift in policy. As has been the case in the recent operations in Jenin and many times in the past in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, this must include the element of surprise, subterfuge and a disproportionate response that will harm Nasrallah, his organization and the state of Lebanon.

The fear of escalation is understandable, but cannot be the leading factor in the decision-making process in the IDF and the Security Cabinet. The IDF is the strongest power in the Middle East; those who should fear a potential deterioration are Hizb’Allah, Iran and Lebanon. If Israel acts wisely, this will be the case, as we have seen in the past.

Israel must regain its deterrence vis-à-vis Hizb’Allah, which has been eroded in recent years.

Without getting into the debate about the merits of the latest deal with Lebanon on the maritime border and gas fields, I have no doubt that a significant part of the deterrence loss can be attributed to the way Israel conducted the negotiations with Nasrallah.

The agreement itself was marginal, and would have not even made headlines had it not been election season at the time, but Israel should have started the gas production from the field before the agreement was signed, even if for just a few days, in order to maintain its deterrence. Nasrallah understands strength and identifies weakness, and now his perception (never mind if he is right or wrong) is that Israel was deterred on that occasion. It has affected his behaviour since then, and he must be disabused of that notion.

The handling of Hizb’Allah’s provocations in the north is directly related to Iran and Israel’s wider conflict, which is likely to erupt in the upcoming years, especially if the Biden administration continues to make every possible mistake as it pursues understandings with Iran on its nuclear program while granting Iran all advantages—including a de facto green light (for the first time) to enrich uranium to 60% while receiving nothing in return except for a false sense of calm until the 2024 elections.

I am definitely not calling for a war in the north, but in order to prevent a war, Nasrallah must understand that it will not break out on his terms, nor will it end when he chooses. If Nasrallah fails to understand the message, Israel must take the initiative and demonstrate a credible military threat against Hizb’Allah, just as it demands from the United States vis-à-vis Iran, including readiness to initiate a broad pre-emptive strike.

One of the main tenets of Iran’s doctrine is the build-up of weapons and fighters around Israel so they can join the wider conflict with Israel when it breaks out. Nasrallah’s mistakes and his attempts to change the rules of the game by establishing new facts on the ground must be “exploited” by Israel in order to massively undermine the Iranian doctrine, especially by destroying Hizb’Allah’s PGM arsenal and the production facilities that manufacture new PGMs and convert dumb missiles into PGMs on Lebanon soil.

Restoring Israeli deterrence will also improve Israel’s standing in the region, including the efforts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. But it is very important that even on this important issue, the right priorities be strictly maintained. It will be a huge mistake for Israel to “pay” for normalization with Saudi Arabia using “nuclear currency,” by making concessions on the Iranian nuclear program or by giving in to Saudi demands for independent nuclear capabilities on its soil, under the guise of civilian nuclear capabilities, regardless of who supervises those facilities and which flag flies above them.

By Jacob Nagel. Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.



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