To what extent can Hezbollah harm Israel? While Hezbollah threatens to open a new front against Israel in support of Hamas, questions are being raised about the party’s current military capabilities. Seventeen years have passed since the July 2006 war, Hezbollah’s last confrontation with the Israeli army and since then, the party has greatly improved its military skills.
‘The big brother of little Hamas’
Hamas surprised everyone with its military success after Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on Saturday. Besides bombing major cities, including Tel Aviv and Beer Sheba, Hamas infiltrated and temporarily took control of Israeli towns bordering the Gaza Strip. “The group has demonstrated a level of preparation and weaponry that goes far beyond that of a simple resistance organization,” said Mohannad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “It’s more like the caliber of sophistication of a geopolitical axis, namely that of Iran.”
Hezbollah, Teheran’s armed wing in Lebanon, is expected to be perfectly capable of reproducing the success, especially after demonstrating its infiltration capabilities during its large-scale military exercise at Aaramta in May.
“Hezbollah is the big brother of little Hamas,” said Nicholas Blanford, a Hezbollah expert at the Atlantic Council. “The party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, claims to command more than 100,000 fighters. While this figure is probably an exaggeration, it is still an important indicator of the movement’s mobilizing power,” he added.
“Hezbollah is more powerful today than it was during the 2006 war,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut. This is due in particular to its intervention in Syria, where it fought alongside the Syrian regime. “It’s ironic, but Hezbollah fought Hamas — among other groups — in Syria and is now applying the experience it accumulated there to support Hamas itself,” said Mohannad Hage Ali.
Indeed, Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has enabled Nasrallah to improve its urban warfare skills. Its could capitalize on its experience in a potential war with Israel, in particular by infiltrating settlements in Galilee. The party has also greatly strengthened its arsenal since the July war. According to reports published by several Israeli and US media and research centers, Hezbollah has more than 2,000 drones — which it has also learned to operate in Syria — capable of carrying out reconnaissance missions or transporting explosive materials. Given Hezbollah’s stockpile of drones and the fact that they are cheap to produce, it could, for example, send a large number of drones at the same time to a single target to confuse Israel’s air defense mechanisms.
‘And then what?’
Even Alma, the security focused Israeli research center, warned in June against Hezbollah’s ability to penetrate the famous Iron Dome air defense system. The organization described Hezbollah’s arsenal as “several times larger than that of Hamas” and capable of destroying dozens of targets a day. Also according to the Israeli media, the party has “advanced” Russian SA-22 air defense systems. Although not as effective as the most sophisticated models, such as the S-400, they are an important asset in the face of the Israeli army, which relies mainly on its air superiority. Hezbollah can also count on high-precision missiles, capable of hitting distant targets with a margin of error of just ten meters, as well as anti-tank missiles.
Hezbollah appears to have the equipment needed to be considered a tough opponent. This does not mean, however, that it will surely have the upper hand. “The Hamas offensive has benefited enormously from the element of surprise,” said Khashan. Tel Aviv was not at all expecting an attack from the Palestinian group and certainly not on this scale. However, this would not be the case in a possible confrontation with Hezbollah, against which Israel has been on constant alert for months. There is another thing Hezbollah would have to consider. “Yes, compared with 2006, Hezbollah has become stronger... but so has its adversary,” said Khashan.
According to World Bank figures between 2006 and 2022, Israel increased its military spending from $9 billion to $23 billion. The Israeli army also has more sophisticated military equipment and could even count on considerable support from the United States if it finds itself at a serious disadvantage. So, while Hezbollah may initially score successes in controlling some Israeli towns, it’s unlikely that it would sustain this breakthrough for long. “It can seize a settlement,” said Khashan. “And then what?”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient Le-Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.