Writing five years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, US military expert Anthony Cordesman published an account of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. “Preliminary Lessons of the Israeli-Hezbollah War” created enormous interest in the Pentagon, where it was studied by planners for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and passed hand-to-hand among military experts in Washington. Cordesman made no secret of his modest conclusions, rightly recognizing that his study was not only “preliminary”, but that it took no account of how Hezbollah fought the conflict or judged its results.
“This analysis is … limited,” Cordesman noted, “by the fact that no matching visit was made to Lebanon and to the Hezbollah.” Incomplete though it might have been, Cordesman’s study accomplished two goals: it provided a foundation for understanding the war from the Israeli point of view and it raised questions on how and how well Hezbollah fought.
Nearly two months after the end of the Israeli-Hezbollah war, it is now possible to fill in some of the lines left blank by Cordesman.
The portrait that we give here is also limited. Hezbollah officials will neither speak publicly nor for the record on how they fought the conflict, will not detail their deployments, and will not discuss their future strategy. Even so, the lessons of the war from Hezbollah’s perspective are now beginning to emerge and some small lessons are being derived from it by US and Israeli strategic planners. Our conclusions are based on on-the-ground assessments conducted during the course of the war, on interviews with Israeli, American and European military experts, on emerging understandings of the conflict in discussions with military strategists, and on a network of senior officials in the Middle East who were intensively interested in the war’s outcome and with whom we have spoken.
Our overall conclusion contradicts the current point of view being retailed by some White House and Israeli officials: that Israel’s offensive in Lebanon significantly damaged Hezbollah’s ability to wage war, that Israel successfully degraded Hezbollah’s military ability to prevail in a future conflict, and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), once deployed in large numbers in southern Lebanon, were able to prevail over their foes and dictate a settlement favorable to the Israeli political establishment.
Just the opposite is true. From the onset of the conflict to its last operations, Hezbollah commanders successfully penetrated Israel’s strategic and tactical decision-making cycle across a spectrum of intelligence, military and political operations, with the result that Hezbollah scored a decisive and complete victory in its war with Israel.
The intelligence war
In the wake of the conflict, Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah admitted that Israel’s military response to the abduction of two of its soldiers and the killing of eight others at 9:04 on the morning of July 12 came as a surprise to the Hezbollah leadership.
Nasrallah’s comment ended press reports that Hezbollah set out purposely to provoke a war with Israel and that the abductions had been part of a plan approved by Hezbollah and Iran. While Hezbollah had made it clear over a period of years that it intended to abduct Israeli soldiers, there was good reason to suppose that it would not do so in the middle of the summer months – when large numbers of affluent Shi’ite families from the diaspora would be visiting Lebanon (and spending their money in the Shi’ite community), and when Gulf Arabs were expected to arrive in large numbers in the country.
Nor is it the case, as was initially reported, that Hezbollah coordinated its activities with Hamas. Hamas was taken by surprise by the abductions and, while the Hamas leadership defended Hezbollah actions, in hindsight it is easy to see why they might not have been pleased by them: over the course of the conflict Israel launched multiple military operations against Hamas in Gaza, killing dozens of fighters and scores of civilians. The offensive went largely unnoticed in the West, thereby resuscitating the adage that “when the Middle East burns, the Palestinians are forgotten”.
In truth, the abduction of the two Israeli soldiers and the killing of eight others took the Hezbollah leadership by surprise and was effected only because Hezbollah units on the Israeli border had standing orders to exploit Israeli military weaknesses. Nasrallah had himself long signaled Hezbollah’s intent to kidnap Israeli soldiers, after former prime minister Ariel Sharon reneged on fulfilling his agreement to release all Hezbollah prisoners – three in all – during the last Hezbollah-Israeli prisoner exchange.
The abductions were, in fact, all too easy: Israeli soldiers near the border apparently violated standing operational procedures, left their vehicles in sight of Hezbollah emplacements, and did so while out of contact with higher-echelon commanders and while out of sight of covering fire.
We note that while the Western media consistently misreported the events on the Israeli-Lebanon border, Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper substantially confirmed this account: “A force of tanks and armored personnel carriers was immediately sent into Lebanon in hot pursuit. It was during this pursuit, at about 11am … [a] Merkava tank drove over a powerful bomb, containing an estimated 200 to 300 kilograms of explosives, about 70 meters north of the border fence. The tank was almost completely destroyed, and all four crew members were killed instantly. Over the next several hours, IDF soldiers waged a fierce fight against Hezbollah gunmen … During the course of this battle, at about 3pm, another soldier was killed and two were lightly wounded.”
The abductions marked the beginning of a series of IDF blunders that were compounded by commanders who acted outside of their normal border procedures. Members of the patrol were on the last days of their deployment in the north and their guard was down. Nor is it the case that Hezbollah fighters killed the eight Israelis during their abduction of the two. The eight died when an IDF border commander, apparently embarrassed by his abrogation of standing procedures, ordered armored vehicles to pursue the kidnappers. The two armored vehicles ran into a network of Hezbollah anti-tank mines and were destroyed. The eight IDF soldiers died during this operation or as a result of combat actions that immediately followed it.
That an IDF unit could wander so close to the border without being covered by fire and could leave itself open to a Hezbollah attack has led Israeli officers to question whether the unit was acting outside the chain of command. An internal commission of inquiry was apparently convened by senior IDF commanders in the immediate aftermath of the incident to determine the facts in the matter and to review IDF procedures governing units acting along Israel’s northern border. The results of that commission’s findings have not yet been reported.
Despite being surprised by the Israeli response, Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon were placed on full alert within minutes of the kidnappings and arsenal commanders were alerted by their superiors. Hezbollah’s robust and hardened defenses were the result of six years of diligent work, beginning with the Israeli withdrawal from the region in 2000. Many of the command bunkers designed and built by Hezbollah engineers were fortified, and a few were even air-conditioned.
The digging of the arsenals over the previous years had been accompanied by a program of deception, with some bunkers being constructed in the open and often under the eyes of Israeli drone vehicles or under the observation of Lebanese citizens with close ties to the Israelis. With few exceptions, these bunkers were decoys. The building of other bunkers went forward in areas kept hidden from the Lebanese population. The most important command bunkers and weapons-arsenal bunkers were dug deeply into Lebanon’s rocky hills – to a depth of 40 meters. Nearly 600 separate ammunition and weapons bunkers were strategically placed in the region south of the Litani.
For security reasons, no single commander knew the location of each bunker and each distinct Hezbollah militia unit was assigned access to three bunkers only – a primary munitions bunker and two reserve bunkers, in case the primary bunker was destroyed. Separate primary and backup marshaling points were also designated for distinct combat units, which were tasked to arm and fight within specific combat areas. The security protocols for the marshaling of troops was diligently maintained. No single Hezbollah member had knowledge of the militia’s entire bunker structure.
Hezbollah’s primary arsenals and marshaling points were targeted by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the first 72 hours of the war. Israel’s commanders had identified these bunkers through a mix of intelligence reports – signals intercepts from Hezbollah communications, satellite-reconnaissance photos gleaned from cooperative arrangements with the US military, photos analyzed as a result of IAF overflights of the region, photos from drone aircraft deployed over southern Lebanon and, most important, a network of trusted human-intelligence sources recruited by Israeli intelligence officers living in southern Lebanon, including a large number of foreign (non-Lebanese) nationals registered as guest workers in the country.
The initial attack on Hezbollah’s marshaling points and major bunker complexes, which took place in the first 72 hours of the war, failed. On July 15, the IAF targeted Hezbollah’s leadership in Beirut. This attack also failed. At no point during the war was any major Hezbollah political figure killed, despite Israel’s constant insistence that the organization’s senior leadership had suffered losses.
According to one US official who observed the war closely, the IAF’s air offensive degraded “perhaps only 7%” of the total military resource assets available to Hezbollah’s fighters in the first three days of fighting and added that, in his opinion, Israeli air attacks on the Hezbollah leadership were “absolutely futile”.
Reports that the Hezbollah senior leadership had taken refuge in the Iranian Embassy in Beirut (untouched during Israel’s aerial offensive) are not true, though it is not known precisely where the Hezbollah leadership did take shelter. “Not even I knew where I was,” Hezbollah leader Nasrallah told one of his associates. Even with all of this, it is not the case that the Israeli military’s plans to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure resulted from the IAF’s inability to degrade Hezbollah’s military capacity in the war’s first days.
The Israeli military’s plans called for an early and sustained bombardment of Lebanon’s major highways and ports in addition to its plans to destroy Hezbollah military and political assets. The Israeli government made no secret of its intent – to undercut Hezbollah’s support in the Christian, Sunni and Druze communities. That idea, to punish Lebanon for harboring Hezbollah and so turn the people against the militia, had been a part of Israel’s plan since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
While IDF officials confidently and publicly announced success in their offensive, their commanders recommended that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approve increased air sorties against potential Hezbollah caches in marginal target areas at the end of the first week of the bombing. Olmert approved these attacks, while knowing that in making such a request his senior officers had all but admitted that their initial assessment of the damage inflicted on Hezbollah was exaggerated.
Qana was the result of Olmert’s agreement to “stretch the target envelope”. One US military expert who monitored the conflict closely had this to say of the Qana bombing: “This isn’t really that complicated. After the failure of the initial campaign, IAF planning officers went back through their target folders to see if they had missed anything. When they decided they hadn’t, someone probably stood up and went into the other room and returned with a set of new envelopes of targets in densely populated areas and said, ‘Hey, what about these target envelopes?’ And so they did it.” That is, the bombing of targets “close in” to southern Lebanon population areas was the result of Israel’s failure in the war – not its success.
The “target stretching” escalated throughout the conflict; frustrated by their inability to identify and destroy major Hezbollah military assets, the IAF began targeting schools, community centers and mosques – under the belief that their inability to identify and interdict Hezbollah bunkers signaled Hezbollah’s willingness to hide their major assets inside civilian centers.
IAF officers also argued that Hezbollah’s ability to continue its rocket attacks on Israel meant that its militia was being continually resupplied. Qana is a crossroads, the junction of five separate highways, and in the heart of Hezbollah territory. Interdicting the Qana supply chain provided the IAF the opportunity to prove that Hezbollah was only capable of sustaining its operations because of its supply-dependence on the crossroads town. In truth, however, IDF senior commanders knew that expanding the number of targets in Lebanon would probably do little to degrade Hezbollah capabilities because Hezbollah was maintaining its attacks without any hope of resupply and because of its dependence on weapons and rocket caches that had been hardened against Israeli interdiction. In the wake of Qana, in which 28 civilians were killed, Israel agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire.
The ceasefire provided the first evidence that Hezbollah had successfully withstood Israeli air attacks and was planning a sustained and prolonged defense of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah commanders honored the ceasefire at the orders of their political superiors. With one or two lone exceptions, no rockets were fired into Israel during this ceasefire period. While Hezbollah’s capacity actually to “cease fire” was otherwise ignored by Israeli and Western intelligence experts, Hezbollah’s ability to enforce discipline on its field commanders came as a distinctly unwanted shock to IDF senior commanders, who concluded that Hezbollah’s communication’s capabilities had survived Israel’s air onslaught, that the Hezbollah leadership was in touch with its commanders on the ground, and that those commanders were able to maintain a robust communications network despite Israeli interdiction.
More simply, Hezbollah’s ability to cease fire meant that Israel’s goal of separating Hezbollah fighters from their command structure (considered a necessity by modern armies in waging a war on a sophisticated technological battlefield) had failed. The IDF’s senior commanders could only come to one conclusion – its prewar information on Hezbollah military assets was, at best, woefully incomplete or, at worst, fatally wrong.
In fact, over a period of two years, Hezbollah intelligence officials had built a significant signals-counterintelligence capability. Throughout the war, Hezbollah commanders were able to predict when and where Israeli fighters and bombers would strike. Moreover, Hezbollah had identified key Israeli human-intelligence assets in Lebanon. One month prior to the abduction of the IDF border patrol and the subsequent Israeli attack, Lebanese intelligence officials had broken up an Israeli spy ring operating inside the country.
Lebanese (and Hezbollah) intelligence officials arrested at least 16 Israeli spies in Lebanon, though they failed to find or arrest the leader of the ring. Moreover, during two years from 2004 until the eve of the war, Hezbollah had successfully “turned” a number of Lebanese civilian assets reporting on the location of major Hezbollah military caches in southern Lebanon to Israeli intelligence officers. In some small number of crucially important cases, Hezbollah senior intelligence officials were able to “feed back” false information on their militia’s most important emplacements to Israel – with the result that Israel target folders identified key emplacements that did not, in fact, exist.
Finally, Hezbollah’s ability to intercept and “read” Israeli actions had a decisive impact on the coming ground war. Hezbollah intelligence officials had perfected their signals-intelligence capability to such an extent that they could intercept Israeli ground communications between Israeli military commanders. Israel, which depended on a highly sophisticated set of “frequency hopping” techniques that would allow their commanders to communicate with one another, underestimated Hezbollah’s ability to master counter-signals technology. The result would have a crucial impact on Israel’s calculation that surprise alone would provide the margin of victory for its soldiers.
It now is clear that the Israeli political establishment was shocked by the failure of its forces to accomplish its first military goals in the war – including the degradation of a significant number of Hezbollah arsenals and the destruction of Hezbollah’s command capabilities.
But the Israeli political establishment had done almost nothing to prepare for the worst: the first meeting of the Israeli security cabinet in the wake of the July 12 abduction lasted only three hours. And while Olmert and his security cabinet demanded minute details of the IDF’s plan for the first three days of the war, they failed to articulate clear political goals in the aftermath of the conflict or sketch out a political exit strategy should the offensive fail.
Olmert and the security cabinet violated the first principle of war – they showed contempt for their enemy. In many respects, Olmert and his cabinet were captives of an unquestioned belief in the efficacy of Israeli deterrence. Like the Israeli public, they viewed any questioning of IDF capabilities as sacrilege.
The Israeli intelligence failure during the conflict was catastrophic. It meant that, after the failure of Israel’s air campaign to degrade Hezbollah assets significantly in the first 72 hours of the war, Israel’s chance of winning a decisive victory against Hezbollah was increasingly, and highly, unlikely.
“Israel lost the war in the first three days,” one US military expert said. “If you have that kind of surprise and you have that kind of firepower, you had better win. Otherwise, you’re in for the long haul.”
IDF senior officers concluded that, given the failure of the air campaign, they had only one choice – to invade Lebanon with ground troops in the hopes of destroying Hezbollah’s will to prevail.
Next: Winning the ground war
Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry are the co-directors of Conflicts Forum, a London-based group dedicated to providing an opening to political Islam. Crooke is the former Middle East adviser to European Union High Representative Javier Solana and served as a staff member of the Mitchell Commission investigating the causes of the second intifada. Perry is a Washington, DC-based political consultant, author of six books on US history, and a former personal adviser to the late Yasser Arafat.