Israel’s Lebanese Dilemma

Operation “Northern Shield” against Hizbullah’s tunnels crossing into Israel arouses once again some old questions. In the case of a new war between Israel and Hizbullah, should Israel attack only Hizbullah’s targets or also some Lebanese ones? On the one hand, Hizbullah is both parliament and cabinet member; hence, it is part of Lebanon’s leadership. Its allies, from all sects, are in key positions and support its activity. A clear example is the current president Michel Aoun, who supports Hizbullah and considers its military actions part of official Lebanese policy. Thus, Lebanon and Hizbullah are one and the same, and it would be legitimate to attack Lebanese targets. On the other hand, Hizbullah does not defer to the Lebanese government but acts independently. Thus, the Lebanese government does not necessarily endorse Hezbollah’s actions. Moreover, not all the Lebanese people support Hizbullah—in fact, not even all the Shi’ites do—and some even want to see its downfall or at least its weakening, so why should they pay the price for Hizbullah’s deeds?

            The Israeli dilemma whether to fight solely against terror and guerrilla groups or also against the states “hosting” these group is not new. In fact, it began during the 1950s, when armed Palestinians infiltrated Israel and attacked civilians. David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, considered the “host” states responsible for these infiltrations, and hence legitimate targets. However, concerning Lebanon, there was a dispute between Ben-Gurion and his foreign minister, Moshe Sharrett. While Ben-Gurion considered the Arab countries to be all of one piece, Sharrett considered Lebanon a unique case. According to Sharrett, there were friendly elements in Lebanon, and thus Israel should not turn Lebanon into an enemy state. Sharrett’s attitude prevailed.

            The dilemma arose once again after the Six-Day War and the increase in Palestinian armed activity from Lebanon. Israel decided that Lebanon should also pay the price for enabling Palestinian operations on its borders. Israel’s goal was to ignite a conflict between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian organizations after which Lebanon would thwart any Palestinian action, and the Israeli-Lebanese border would be calm. For this purpose special operations were conducted, such as Operation Gift in December 1968, in which IDF commandos detonated 13 airplanes of the Lebanese national airline in Beirut International Airport, and Operation Spring of Youth in April 1973, in which IDF commandos killed three leaders of the Black September organization, in the heart of Beirut. In the aftermath of these operations, the Lebanese Army attempted to subordinate the Palestinian organizations to the Lebanese state—but failed. The Palestinian organizations continued with their actions, and the Israeli-Lebanese border remained explosive.

            Since the battle against the Palestinians in Lebanon, much water has flowed under the Lebanese bridge. Lebanon descended into a bloody civil war, which took place between 1975 and 1989—and recovered. The Shi’ite community, which was on the sidelines of Lebanese politics and society, turned into the leading power in the country. Hizbullah, the most influential player within the Shi’ite community, became the king-maker in Lebanon and a sworn enemy of Israel. Unlike the Palestinian organizations, which were considered aliens in Lebanon, the Shi’ite community (and Hizbullah) is an integral part of Lebanese society.  

            Despite these changes, one basic fact remained constant: the Lebanese central regime is weak, thus enabling the political elites to run their own autonomies. In these autonomies or mini-states, the elites are responsible for the welfare of their subjects and sometimes even for their security. In this manner, one can find the “Jumblatt State” in the Chuff Mountains, the “Hariri State” in areas in Beirut and Sidon, and also the “Hizbullah State.” However, while the elite “states” need the Lebanese institutions in order to supply services for their followers, Hizbullah operates its own independent institutions. In fact, the “Hizbullah State” is the strongest and most efficient of all the elite’s “states.”

            In light of this political reality, if Israel would attack Lebanese targets and not just Hizbullah ones, it would undermine other autonomies in Lebanon. Some of these autonomies oppose Hizbullah and yearn for its downfall, and hence harming such “states” would weaken the opposition to Hizbullah within Lebanon. Moreover, attacking Lebanese targets would reduce the ability of the autonomies to supply services to their supporters. While they would collapse alongside the Lebanese state, Hizbullah’s independent institutions would survive and perhaps thrive. Therefore, I believe that in a future conflict with Lebanon, Israel should attack Hizbullah’ targets only. Alongside hitting the party’s military installations, Israel should also target Hizbullah’s ability to supply services, such as electricity and so on, to its followers. Hurting Hizbullah’s institutions is better than harming Lebanese institutions, as it is in Israel’s interest to weaken the “Hizbullah State” and not the other “States” that exist in Lebanon.