Hezbollah Claims a ‘Nuclear Option’ in Tense Standoff with Israel

The threat of devastation on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon conflict is now enormous. Does that mean no more wars?

Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters

TEL AVIV — “Lebanon has a nuclear bomb,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared in a televised address to supporters of the Shia militant group in Beirut last month. “This is no exaggeration,” he went on, before admitting that it was, in fact, a slight exaggeration. “We don’t really have a nuclear bomb,” he said, laughing—rather, the threat was that “several missiles” launched from Lebanon onto ammonia storage depots in the Israeli port city of Haifa would “lead to the same impact as a nuclear bomb.” Citing a previous Israeli study, Nasrallah claimed that blowing up 15,000 tons of the toxic gas in a densely populated region of 800,000 people would lead to tens of thousands of casualties.

In Israel, Hezbollah’s latest threat dominated national headlines, underlining the tense cold war going on between the two old foes. Like the historic global battle between East and West, this more localized Middle Eastern version sees both Israel and Hezbollah preparing tenaciously for the next round of hostilities, a hot war of untold destruction, while maintaining the present nervy standoff and engaging carefully, when need be, in contained skirmishes.

“The missiles of the resistance cover each and every spot in occupied Palestine,” Nasrallah threatened, touting his “nuclear” option. Yet in line with classic deterrence theory, he went on to add: “We do not want war. This kind of war is not part of our strategy, but we must be ready for it, in order to prevent it and in order to be able to win it, if it takes place.”

Such a statement perfectly encapsulates Israel’s current strategic thinking regarding Hezbollah as well.

Nasrallah’s boast about his group’s expansive missile capabilities is not mere bluster. Haifa’s ammonia depots are just one of many potential targets inside Israel. Hezbollah’s rocket and missile arsenal, estimated at 150,000, is believed to now hold precision guidance systems—putting not only Haifa’s heavy industries but the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Kiryah Tel Aviv headquarters, the Knesset parliament building in Jerusalem, and the nuclear reactor in Dimona in harm’s way.

A day after Nasrallah spoke, IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot admitted that Hezbollah was Israel’s biggest threat and the “organization with the most significant capabilities” to inflict harm on the country. Indeed, in private discussions IDF officers betray a grudging respect for Hezbollah, comparing other armed groups—Hamas, ISIS, etc.—to the Lebanese militia and finding them all wanting.

Nearly everything Eisenkot has done since assuming the top military post one year ago appears to have been done with Hezbollah in mind.

The IDF is in the process of implementing a new five-year strategic plan called “Gideon” that views sub-state armed groups like Hezbollah as Israel’s main military threat—above conventional armies or even the Iranian nuclear program.

As part of Gideon, the IDF is restructuring its force posture, one element of which was the formation of an elite Commando Brigade for more agile, penetrating attacks against guerrilla groups. The Israeli Air Force, as the Jerusalem Post and others have reported, has been developing more “efficient” precision-strike capabilities that can deliver thousands of bombs onto targets daily— to exactly combat Hezbollah’s widely dispersed missile storage facilities and command and control positions. More revealing still: For the past several years IDF infantry and armor brigades have been undergoing intensive training exercises, with an eye to a major ground offensive inside Lebanon.

Just what that ground operation would look like recently was described for The Daily Beast by a senior IDF officer with responsibility for Lebanon, who spoke on condition of anonymity, according to IDF protocol.

The difference between the last major Israel-Hezbollah confrontation in 2006, when Hezbollah held out for weeks against the once-seemingly invincible IDF, and the next conflict, the officer explained, “Will be the difference between an operation and a war: 2006 was an operation and we didn’t use all of our power. Next time it won’t just be planes flying around.” (In 2006, Israel initially tried to win the fight without putting boots on the ground.) This time, said the officer, “Ground forces will be maneuvering into southern Lebanon, wherever Hezbollah is—we will use all of our power to destroy Hezbollah militarily.”

Of course, in the 2006 war, Israel did belatedly launch an ill-defined ground campaign. In the next conflict, the IDF seems to be promising, a major ground offensive likely tallying several divisions is a given.

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Based on past campaigns, whether against Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a ground component is likely the only way to stem the rate of enemy fire—via rockets and missiles—targeting Israel’s civilian population. “Indirect fire” it’s called, a brutally effective, and cynical, asymmetric warfighting strategy meant to sabotage Israeli civilian life while almost welcoming harsh Israeli airstrikes that usually bring with them high civilian casualties, since organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas are known to operate among their own civilian populations.

On the eve of the 2006 conflict Hezbollah had an estimated 12,000 to 18,000 rockets in its arsenal, and was able to keep firing at Israel for the duration of the 34-day war. Hamas in 2014 had an estimated arsenal of 10,000 rockets and was able to keep firing at Israel for nearly two months. Hezbollah has now dramatically upped the ante, with more sophisticated weapons systems and an arsenal, as mentioned, of 150,000 rockets including those precision missiles. A recent report in the Israeli Yediot Ahronoth daily stated that, in the next conflict, Hezbollah could likely maintain a rate of fire of over 1,000 rockets and missiles—per day. It’s unclear what kind of damage such firepower can wreak on Israel (and what damage Israel will feel it has to wreak in response), and how Israel’s advanced missile defense systems, operational since 2011, will cope with such a deluge.

Tellingly, it was precisely Eisenkot, in a prior position as commander of the IDF Northern Command, who gave rise to the “Dahiya Doctrine,” a strategy intended to deter Hezbollah aggressiveness through the promise of “non-proportional” devastation being brought to bear on the group’s south Beirut stronghold. This, along with the above promises of a major ground offensive, is Israel’s own version of deterrence theory, a threat of unchecked war in order to avoid war.

Neither side wants a major escalation at present, in particular Hezbollah, given its direct involvement in the Syrian civil war—a major constraining factor for the organization, according to IDF assessments.

Yet as the senior IDF officer pointed out, “Hezbollah is organizing and preparing for the next round—checking Israeli responses and border obstacles, patrolling the border, building new combat posts, training its forces deep inside Lebanon” and, of course, there are the missiles.

The officer was, indeed, “impressed” by Hezbollah’s ability to do all this while so deeply committed to the Syrian front—a commitment, he added, that may give the group tangible small-unit offensive capabilities to take the next fight into Israel itself, perhaps through underground attack tunnels similar to those used by Hamas in Gaza.

But the Syrian conflict has also opened a new front in the Israel-Hezbollah cold war, whereby Hezbollah—along with its Iranian patron—has used the anarchy to establish terror cells among the Druze villages in the northern Golan Heights bordering Israel.

Hezbollah assistance has helped the Assad regime retain this small pocket of influence; according to Israel, the largest number of Syrian rocket and IED attacks on its citizens and soldiers come from this area of the Golan.

Israel, in turn, has responded with its own version of proxy war, reportedly targeting senior Hezbollah and Iranian operatives responsible for the Golan front at least twice via airstrikes in the past year. More interesting still, Israeli officialdom concedes that it provides Druze villages on the Syrian frontier with “humanitarian assistance,” possibly beyond the medical aid that has been widely publicized. As the IDF officer stated cryptically, “The wishes of the local people are key—they want to maintain daily life, and we want to keep terror away from the Israeli border.”

Given the volatility of this Syrian front—including multiple reported Israeli airstrikes on suspected Hezbollah weapons shipments—it’s not a surprise to hear from the IDF officer, “Even a very small spark can start a confrontation.”

Hezbollah has so far been careful not to respond to the above losses with deadlier force than it deems absolutely necessary, precisely so as to avoid a wider war.

Israel, too, doesn’t officially take credit for any strikes inside Syria, allowing the Shia militia some plausible deniability. But this is a high-stakes game with great potential for strategic miscalculation. The recent decision by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to pull out of Lebanon and brand Hezbollah a terrorist organization in fact opens the door for it and Iran to establish even greater control there, and may bring a period of increased tensions with Israel. As was the case in the East-West Cold War, a local incident could undo the best-laid deterrence doctrines.

Based on the serious preparations underway and firepower available to both sides, the next Israel-Hezbollah war holds the potential to be the most destructive Arab-Israeli confrontation since the 1973 October War. Hezbollah might not have a real nuclear bomb, and Nasrallah might still be laughing for the cameras, but a whiff of mutually assured destruction still hovers over the lives of citizens in both Israel and Lebanon.