Former Israeli Major General Warns of Perils of Hezbollah War

SUBSCRIBER+ EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW — Calls for war on Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy army that controls southern Lebanon, come almost daily from Israel’s right wing, as Hezbollah’s seemingly limitless supply of rockets and missiles turns Israel’s once-vibrant northern region into a wasteland. 

Israel’s far-right nationalist Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said Sunday the country has no choice but to launch a “short, sharp war” against Hezbollah to “remove it from the game.” But the centrist Haaretz newspaper argued that Smotrich is misleading the public when he describes any war with Hezbollah as “short and sharp.” 

Indeed, Hezbollah is not the minor militia it was in 2006, when Israel last launched a major invasion of Lebanon; armed and financed by Iran, Hezbollah now boasts some 30,000 fighters and another 10,000-20,000 reservists, according to a recent report by The Atlantic Council. And Hezbollah has a vast arsenal of advanced drone weapons, Russian-made supersonic anti-ship missiles and 130,000-150,000 rockets and missiles, many of which can reach deep into Israel. A war would also likely drag in Iran, which in April fired a barrage of missiles and drones at Israel. 

Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned during a visit to Washington that Israel could bomb Lebanon “back to the Stone Age” in any war with Hezbollah, but he also said his government prefers a diplomatic solution to restore peace on the Israel-Lebanon border. On Wednesday, another 100 Hezbollah missiles landed in Northern Israel, after an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Hezbollah commander. 

Israel faces a dilemma: How much can it take? And how best to respond? Israel has a long history of pursuing foreign militias in Lebanon, most notably its 1982 invasion of the country after continued attacks from Lebanon-based terrorists of the Palestine Liberation Organization. During its last major incursion into Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon, in 2006, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) pushed Hezbollah back behind the Litani River, and the United Nations drew the so-called “Blue Line,” beyond which Hezbollah was not supposed to stray.

But Hezbollah has repeatedly breached the Blue Line. And that – along with the recent Hezbollah strikes – is why Israel has been preparing for an invasion of Lebanon that would push Hezbollah back to the Blue Line and end its ability to attack Northern Israel.

The stakes are high: Hezbollah’s attacks have forced some 60,000 people from their homes, ignited large forest fires, and shut down Northern Israel’s economy. Israel has “lost sovereignty” in the north from Hezbollah’s attacks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday. But if Israel decides to invade Lebanon, can it stop Hezbollah? And if so, at what cost?

Cipher Brief reporter Peter Green spoke with Giora Eiland, a retired major general who served as planning and operations chief of the IDF and later as national security adviser to the late prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Eiland takes a dim view of Israel’s chances of defeating Hezbollah in a full-on military confrontation. Instead, he says, Israel must make clear to Lebanon – and the world — that continuing to allow Hezbollah to operate with impunity means Lebanon is responsible for the attacks on Israel.


THE CONTEXT


  • Israel and Hezbollah have regularly exchanged fire across the Israel-Lebanon border since the October 7 Hamas attacks.
  • Roughly 60,000 Israelis have fled communities along the border with Lebanon due to Hezbollah’s cross-border attacks. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week Israel has “lost sovereignty” in its north because of the hostilities. Some 90,000 people in Lebanon have also been displaced by Israeli strikes.  
  • The IDF has said that plans for an attack against Hezbollah have been approved, and that the army had taken measures to “accelerate readiness in the field.” Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz posted on X that “In an all-out war, Hezbollah will be destroyed and Lebanon will be severely hit.”
  • Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Q. Brown has warned that an Israeli offensive into Lebanon against Hezbollah risks triggering an Iranian response, leading to a broader war. Brown said the U.S. is unlikely to be able to help Israel defend itself as well as it helped Israel during an Iranian missile and drone assault in April. Brown also said the larger conflict could put U.S. forces in the region at greater risk.
  • U.S. and European mediators have pressed Hezbollah to stop cross-border attacks against Israel. Diplomats have also warned Hezbollah that it should not expect the U.S. to stop an Israeli offensive into Lebanon.

THE INTERVIEW



Major General (Ret.) Giora Eiland

Major General (Ret.) Giora Eiland has held senior positions in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). He was head of the IDF’s Operation Directorate and Planning Directorate. From 2004 to 2006, he served as head of the Israeli National Security Council.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

The Cipher Brief: There seems to have been a fundamental shift in Hezbollah’s position toward Israel, and a much greater willingness to fight. What’s happened? 

Giora Eiland: There is significant change in the situation along the northern border, and it is not only reflected in the way that things are happening on the ground. There is a shift in the policy of Hezbollah. In the very first days (after) October 7, Hezbollah opened fire against Israel as a symbolic political act, to show the Palestinians in Gaza they have some support from Hezbollah. So despite the hatred between Shia and Sunnis, as long as Israel is concerned, they are actually brothers, and they can help each other. 

But Hezbollah was not really keen to open a new front. And when we managed to achieve a temporary ceasefire in November, Hezbollah immediately stopped all their attacks against Israel. But today, Israel is finding it very, very difficult to win in Gaza, and Israel is completely isolated in the international arena. So Hezbollah has become more confident that it can continue to fight Israel. But more than that, until April, Hezbollah assumed that in a full war with Israel, it would have to fight Israel more or less alone. Now, we understand that if such a war breaks out, there is a good chance that Iran will attack Israel directly. That gives Hezbollah much more confidence that Israel is actually deterred [by the threat of Iranian involvement]. And the more deterred Israel is, the more aggressive Hezbollah can be. So we are in a very delicate situation. 

The Cipher Brief: What about the Americans? Can they help?

Giora Eiland: The American position is very problematic, to say the least. The United States is actually telling Israel not to open total war in Lebanon, that we, the United States, are not only against it, but actually, we do not believe that you will be successful. And more than that, if Iran decides to join the party, we are not sure that we are going to help you. This is something that brings Israel to a very delicate strategic situation. And then the Americans say, If and when you will be in total war in Lebanon, because you have no other choice and it might be understandable, you should attack only Hezbollah targets. Don’t you dare touch the state of Lebanon. And this is a complete recipe for Israeli defeat. So all in all, we are in a real deep hole strategically. That’s why I am so worried.

The Cipher Brief: Is there any way that Israel could defeat Hezbollah, or at least bring an end to the assault on Northern Israel? 

Giora Eiland: The only real way to win a war in Lebanon is to fight against the state of Lebanon and not against Hezbollah. 

I need to explain something very fundamental and important – and completely missing in the international press or in international dialogue. And that is that whenever we [call an armed movement] a terrorist organization, whether it is Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen or elsewhere, we underestimate the real character of our enemies. A terrorist organization is a group of a few hundred or a few thousand people with Kalashnikovs. ISIS was a terrorist organization, al-Qaeda was a terrorist organization. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, some of the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, are not terrorist organizations. These are really advanced armies that enjoy all the characteristics of a modern army, they have an unlimited number of fighters because these organizations are the only ones that can offer good pay for young people in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Syria, or Iraq. So everybody wants to join them because they get a decent salary. 

They have a huge amount of weapons and ammunition, they have unlimited financial resources, and more than that, in the past decade, they got all of Iran’s advanced technology. So they managed to bridge the technological gap between them and us, especially with regard to precision weapons. And of course, they are not committed to [respect] any international norms. They can still be assimilated within the population, so when you shoot at them you kill civilians, and then everybody in the world is mad at Israel.

The Cipher Brief: So then how do you fight Hezbollah?

Giora Eiland: The only potential leverage over Hezbollah is the simple fact that Hezbollah is an official part of the Lebanese government, it has ministers, and representatives in Lebanon’s parliament. And more than that, Hezbollah presents itself as Lebanese patriots, saying “We defend Lebanon, we care about Lebanon, we have the defensive forces that keep Lebanon alive and safe.” That’s what they claim, and they depend very much on their internal legitimacy in Lebanon. 

And that’s why the only real worry of [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is a scenario in which Israel will attack the infrastructure of the state of Lebanon: energy, communication, transportation, everything. And if the condition of [Lebanon’s] roads will look like the condition of Gaza, then Hezbollah understands that many Lebanese including from [Hezbollah’s] own Shia community will come to them complaining, “Why the hell did you bring such a catastrophe on our heads, just to signal some support to these crazy cousins in Ramallah and Gaza?” 

If we decide to fight only against Hezbollah, they know that they can absorb a large number of casualties among their combatants because it is not difficult to draft others. They can use a lot of missiles and other weapons systems because Iran will bring others. So the only thing they are concerned about is the protection of the state of Lebanon in that they pretend they are defending Lebanon.

The Cipher Brief: How does Israel capitalize on that?

Giora Eiland: To pursue this strategy, it is not enough that Israel will make a unilateral decision. It needs diplomatic cooperation, which is completely missing today. When I’m told the Americans will not agree to something like this, my only answer is that Israel actually has only two options: either to agree to be defeated, or to choose the strategy that I recommend. So we have to choose between these two options, there is no other.

The Cipher Brief: So you’re saying turn Lebanon into Gaza?

Giora Eiland: No, we made a similar mistake in Gaza. We never said that we are fighting in Gaza against the state of Gaza, although Gaza in practical terms was and is a state. The party that won the election is the government in command. But we failed because we said we’re fighting only against the terrorist organization, we have nothing to do with the state of Gaza, we have nothing to do with the people of Gaza. It was a terrible mistake, and that’s the main reason why we failed to win this war.

The precondition for something like this is to give a different definition to the simple question of “Who is the enemy?” So everything begins with the narrative, not with military moves. 

To be successful in Lebanon, we must begin with a diplomatic dialogue, and we have to explain this point. Otherwise, we will be in a terrible situation again. We are not fighting terrorist organizations. Not more than 10% of the countries of the world have an arsenal more impressive than the arsenal of Hezbollah. The Houthis in Yemen can launch precise ballistic missiles to the range of 2,000 kilometers. We are speaking about Iranian armies deployed around Israel or in many other places in the Middle East.

The Cipher Brief: So unless Israel can build international diplomatic and political consensus, it won’t defeat Hezbollah within Lebanon? 

Giora Eiland: Hezbollah is not deterred by anything, especially when they have such strong Iranian backing. The only way to make the war shorter or maybe to deter Hezbollah even before we come to an [all-out] war, is if everybody understands that such a war will lead to the full devastation of the state of Lebanon, something that no one wants. Neither the United States nor France, Saudi Arabia, but also Iran. The only real ability that we have [to prevent a war] is to convince their patrons that we have no choice but to destroy the country that is not only hosting Hezbollah, but that is actually fully occupied by Hezbollah. Lebanon and Hezbollah are in fact one entity.

The Cipher Brief: And if you don’t get the U.S. and the Saudis and the Lebanese onboard? 

Giora Eiland: At some point, we might have no other choice than to begin a war and hopefully to be able to explain our position during the war. But it is better to have some dialogue with the Americans in advance.

The Cipher Brief: And is that a failure on the part of the Israeli government or the Americans or both?

Giora Eiland: Both. The Israeli leadership today is in a totally weak situation. There is a mutual lack of trust, and the Americans fail to understand the real nature of the war here.

The Cipher Brief: But if Israel has to go it alone, does it have the ability to wage war on a second front in Lebanon while it is still fighting in Gaza?  

Giora Eiland: Yes, and again, it depends on which kind of war. If you rely mainly on massive ground operations, we might be very short of enough troops to deploy. But if the main goal would be to destroy everything that belongs to the state of Lebanon, we have enough air force capabilities. So we can do it in parallel to whatever is happening now.

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