Israel’s Lost Deterrence and the Coming Conflict with Hezbollah

On June 11, an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon killed a senior Hezbollah commander, Taleb Abdallah, prompting the party to launch scores of rockets deep inside Israel in retaliation. As the two countries inch closer to all-out war, the coming months may be the most dangerous time in Lebanon’s history. Since Israel’s incursion into Rafah, increasingly violent skirmishes with Hezbollah on the Lebanese border have heightened the risk of such a conflagration. The increased sophistication of Hezbollah’s attacks, which are reaching deeper into Israel, signal that the party can sustain a protracted conflict, raising alarm within Israel. This comes as Israel finds itself unable to achieve total victory on the Gaza front and maintain its escalation dominance.  Israel has utilized this deterrence tactic, which uses excessive force retaliation to increase the cost of opponents’ defiance and deter foes, for the past 76 years. Israel will need to restore its dominance and transform its security outlook through the elimination of Hezbollah—whose strikes have displaced tens of thousands of Israeli civilians from the border region—precisely because it has been unable to defeat Hamas in Gaza.

In the next phase of the conflict, Lebanon thus risks becoming collateral damage in a war conducted at Hezbollah’s behest that violates the Lebanese state’s sovereignty over foreign policy and on the basis of an ideological commitment to defeat Israel rather than serve the country’s interests. This will likely seal Lebanon’s end as a sovereign entity and abort any prospect of Hezbollah—whose military capabilities are believed to be stronger than the Lebanese army’s—being reined in or absorbed into the Lebanese state. Once hostilities cease, Lebanon will have more deeply become part of Iran’s sphere of influence, as Hezbollah deploys violence against anyone who threatens its power, intimidating opponents and critics of a war with Israel.

The State of Play

Months into the crisis following October 7, Israel is stuck. The strategic goals of the Israeli Army’s ground incursion into Rafah to eliminate Hamas after weeks of fighting with massive damage inflicted, are unclear, as is Hamas’s ability to survive. Though Israel has declared that it practically has won the fight, Hamas is returning to cleared areas of northern Gaza, forcing Israel to try to retake them. This situation has called into question the feasibility of Israel’s stated objective of eradicating the movement. And it has increased the Israeli military’s frustration with the lack of postwar planning for Gaza, as manifested in open calls for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to produce such a plan.

In recent days, centrist politicians Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot have resigned from Netanyahu’s war cabinet over the prime minister’s conduct of the Gaza war. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, broke ranks with Netanyahu last month by declaring that Israel needs to create a security force in Gaza to help build a post-Hamas governing body, guarantee law and order, and address the humanitarian situation. Gallant’s statement contrasted with the Israeli far right’s calls to reestablish Israeli military rule there. In this environment, it is increasingly clear that Israel needs to regain its deterrence power.

Israel will need to go to war with Lebanon to re-establish deterrence precisely because it has been unable to destroy Hamas.

Israel had previously established deterrence against Hamas and Hezbollah through the cumulative use of overwhelming force. In 2006, when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack, then chief of staff Dan Halutz infamously said, “If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.” Israel then launched a 34-day overwhelming land, air, and sea assault on Lebanon, which severely damaged civilian infrastructure, killed some 1,200 Lebanese, and displaced more than one and a half million civilians. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah later admitted in a notorious August 2006 television interview that had he known that Israel would launch such a destructive war, he would not have ordered the soldiers’ capture. That said, Israel’s mission of destruction failed to eliminate Hezbollah. Today, the power dynamic has shifted, with Hezbollah more confident than ever of Israel’s inability to sustain its escalation dominance.

Israel’s Risk Tolerance

Meanwhile, Israel has repeatedly pledged to drive Hezbollah from the border area by using overwhelming force if necessary. Israeli officials have stated that Israel will no longer tolerate security threats to citizens on the border and will have no choice but to go to war with Hezbollah once Hamas is defeated. In addition to Hezbollah’s far-reaching destruction of homes, facilities, and agriculture inside Israel, a large number of residents have been displaced from northern Israel with little hope of returning as long as Hezbollah forces—far mightier than Hamas—remain nearby. The evacuation of some 60,000 Israeli civilians has profoundly increased Israelis’ sense of insecurity. As a result, Israel has expanded the “circle of war” by repeatedly striking targets deep inside Lebanon. After dispatching an estimated 100,000 troops along the northern border, Israel demanded that Hezbollah pull back its forces to the UN-mandated ceasefire line, some 30 kilometers north. But the war of attrition has endured. The Israeli military recently announced its readiness for an offensive into northern Lebanon in a signal to Hezbollah that it is ready to transition from Gaza to the Lebanese front.

Israel’s appetite for risk has indeed grown. Furthermore, Hezbollah, is likely to cause Israel more harm. So how can “absolute victory” for Israel mean anything less than defeating not just Hamas but also Hezbollah? The question remains, however, about whether Israel can regain its escalation dominance if it destroys Gaza without crushing Hamas. Israel will need to go to war with Lebanon to re-establish deterrence precisely because it has been unable to destroy Hamas. And Israel has an established interest in striking Lebanon forcefully because, for the first time in history, it has had to move tens of thousands of civilians out of the north. In addition, Israel is keen on reducing the risk posed by Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces on the border,  underscoring the imperative of hitting Hezbollah hard rather than seeking a diplomatic solution.

Hezbollah’s Calculus

Central to Hezbollah’s revolutionary and anti-imperialist ideology has been its struggle against Israel, and the party has derived much of its legitimacy from fighting it. Hezbollah portrays itself as the guardian of Lebanon—its doctrine, according to a 2009 manifesto, is that resistance is a “permanent national necessity” as long as there is an Israeli threat and “the absence of a strong, stable state in Lebanon.” This could change, and Hezbollah could lose support (especially from its Christian supporters) if it sparks an all-out war. Yet given its autonomy inside Lebanon due to its political influence and military strength—including tens of thousands of fighters and over 150,000 missiles, rockets, and drones—Hezbollah does not need to respond to domestic calls for restraint or attempts to curb its autonomy. Lebanese authorities have openly admitted this.

Until now, Hezbollah has had no choice but to engage in low-level intensity conflict on the Lebanon-Israel border. Hezbollah’s calculations about opening a front with Israel have been linked to military conditions in Gaza and to Israel’s degree of success there. And while the current confrontation with Israel has bolstered Hezbollah’s popularity, its leadership has been positioning it as a rational actor that cares more about national interests than its own and does not make decisions of war and peace lightly—in contrast to the contentious Israeli voices that have threatened to “turn Beirut into Gaza.” In a major speech in November, Nasrallah nonetheless underscored that Hezbollah has “been engaged in this battle since October 8,” that the “link between the supportive Lebanese front and Gaza is definitive, final and conclusive” and “no one will be able to de-link them.” Last January, following Israel’s killing of Hamas’s Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, Nasrallah asserted that if war is waged on Lebanon, national interests require a full engagement, stressing that “A war with us will be extremely costly…” and it “would then be in Lebanon’s interest to go to war to the very end.” To be sure, by dictating the rules of engagement (in addition to causing the displacement of tens of thousands of Israelis), Hezbollah helped invalidate Israel’s deterrence strategy.

Hezbollah’s leadership has been positioning it as a rational actor that does not make decisions of war and peace lightly.

Therefore, although Hezbollah recognizes Israel’s might, it also recognizes Israel’s current predicament in its failure to maintain escalation dominance. Indeed, Nasrallah notably declared in a speech last March—responding to Netanyahu’s assertion that conquering Rafah is “necessary to win the war against Hamas”—that Israel had already lost the war even if it goes into Rafah having failed to achieve any of its objectives in Gaza. Hezbollah has become confident in its ability to ‘win’ the next conflict against Israel, even if this is likely to lead to widespread devastation, civilian casualties, and displacement in Lebanon. As an indication of what could be coming, the 2006 war inflicted some $3.5 billion in damage on Lebanon’s infrastructure. The country today cannot afford another ruinous war with its economy in freefall, a crumbling state, and a paralyzed political system.

There is no doubt that the Hezbollah that Israel will confront in 2024 is more capable than it was in 2006, but it is still likely to be outperformed by a better-primed Israeli Army that will likely bring to bear enhanced military capability from its land- and air-based platforms. But because Hezbollah is widely entrenched in Lebanese society, with pervasive influence in practically every sector and institution, Israel is more likely to only give it a thorough beating than to destroy it. Furthermore, while Hezbollah will certainly suffer losses in a new war, it would likely rearm quickly and gain popularity in Lebanon and across the Arab world from having confronted Israel head on. Hezbollah, whose arms presumably would have defended Lebanon, would emerge even more potent than its domestic foes and accuse them of collaborating with the enemy, going after them with harassment, intimidation, and targeted violence.


Having embroiled Lebanon in the battle to support Hamas and subjected the country’s fate to a possible ceasefire in Gaza, Hezbollah has been in the driver’s seat in the current conflict with Israel. There is no way now for it to avoid the coming fight because doing so would negate everything its leadership has said and stood for. While Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon renders war with Israel unavoidable, it also ominously ensures that the Lebanese will pay the price of the ensuing violence. In the aftermath of such a war, Lebanon would need to contend with not just widespread damage, displacement, the loss of civilian lives, and an end to all prospects for economic recovery, but also the silencing of critics and targeting of political opponents. Unvanquished by war, Hezbollah will declare victory and then demand payback for its losses from anyone who did not stand by it. This will usher in an extremely dangerous phase for Lebanon.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors. 

Featured image: Shutterstock/Rafael Ben-Ari