The dangerous new landscape of Arab-Israeli warfare

The dangerous new landscape of Arab-Israeli warfare
Comment: Israel's string of attacks on foes in different countries highlights a disturbing trend towards warfare involving myriad groups armed with advancing technological capabilities, writes Rami Khouri.
6 min read
26 Aug, 2019
Israel hit four targets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in a 48-hour period [Getty]
Four successive Israeli aerial attacks in recent days against Arab targets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon suggest that we have entered an unprecedented new phase of the century-old conflict between Arabism and Zionism that now engulfs half a dozen actors, including non-Arab Iran.

This new phase comprises both short-term possibilities and more complex longer-term questions.

Immediate developments have seen Israel mount four attacks in the last 48 hours: The first targeted an alleged Iranian-backed Iraqi militia's arms depot in Iraq; the second target near Damascus housed Hizballah personnel; the third hit Hizballah's urban nerve centre in the southern Beirut Dahieh district; the fourth target was in the Bekaa region of Lebanon, alleged to be a base of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command.

In all cases, the Israelis either explicitly or implicitly said their military actions aimed to prevent attacks against Israel by parties close to Iran. 

Hizballah is central to, or a major player in all of these bilateral confrontations between Israel and its growing list of well armed regional foes.

In the short-term, it's worth noting how Hizballah or others will respond - especially given that the attack in Beirut ruptures the tacit agreement that has defined Hizballah-Israel clashes since the devastating war of 2006. Since then, most tit-for-tat limited military interactions between them have taken place in Syria or the Shebaa Farms region along the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese borders.

But Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Sunday that these old rules of engagement are now defunct, and his forces would challenge or shoot down any new Israeli incursions into Lebanon.

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Sunday that these old rules of engagement are now defunct

It is likely that a limited attack inside Israel would satisfy the Arab need for retaliation, after which the old engagement rules to prevent all-out warfare would kick in once again. This is a routine dynamic whose limited consequences usually can be anticipated.

The longer-term dimensions of Israel's multiple strikes against several foes in different countries this week, however, are much more complex, and take us into uncharted territory. Yet today's trend towards widening warfare was inevitable, given the two powerful dynamics that drive it across all lands, nationalities, ethnicities and religions:

The first is the doctrine of the state of Israel since its inception that it must always maintain a technological military advantage over its combined Arab and other foes in the region; corollary to this is that Israel would repeatedly attack them viciously and selectively to maintain that disequilibrium in its favour.

In his speech, Nasrallah denounced Israel's attack on Hizballah's Beirut stronghold [AFP]

The second is the universal human will to refuse to be treated like animals or second-class humans beaten into submission, and instead to rely on their own will and capabilities to fight against those who subjugate or assault them.

This week has been the inevitable culmination of these two contradictory forces at work.

A technologically powerful Israeli state now finds itself simultaneously waging war against half a dozen state and non-state Arab and Iranian parties - Hizballah, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Hamas, and we might soon need to add the Houthis of Yemen to this list of active Israeli adversaries.

Common factors among these seven foes who Israel simultaneously attacks on a regular basis include their close links with Iran; their steadily improving technological capabilities; and their proven willingness to resist, confront, and wage battle against Israel - repeatedly if need be, despite the real risk of fatal attack.

The Israelis said their military actions aimed to prevent attacks against Israel by parties close to Iran

Hizballah is the critical link here because it has emerged as the first Arab party that has been able to develop its human and technological military capabilities to the point where it has achieved a kind of strategic deterrence with Israel, thanks to its own determination and significant Iranian assistance over the past four decades.

The superior human resources and technological capabilities that allowed Israel to maintain a steady edge over Arab state armies and Palestinian guerrillas from 1947-48 to the early years of this century now seem less daunting and ferocious in Arab and Iranian eyes.

Israel's repeated attempts to subdue its Arab foes into surrender through recurring land invasions, aerial bombardments, prolonged occupations and sieges, and savage urban destruction were less successful in the last two wars against Hizballah, which ended through ceasefires and UN Security Council action.

Read more: Lebanon says Israeli aggression a 'threat to regional stability'

Since the last war in 2006, Israel has been very careful not to get into a full-scale war against Hizballah, probably for two reasons: The fear of the destruction that Hizballah could create deep inside Israel, and the futility of yet another massive, destructive attack on Lebanon that only sees Hizballah re-emerge stronger than before. Tit-for-tat attacks have prevailed, therefore, but this might change now.

Israel still enjoys a significant advantage over all neighbouring forces in conventional aerial and missile warfare and missile defences. Yet it now seems to wage war mostly through drones, distant missiles and surreptitious electronic warfare.

For Israel, Hizballah's ability to camouflage its thousands of launchers while continuously building up its arsenal of rockets into the tens of thousands reflects the biggest failure of its traditional military doctrine of overkill, leadership assassinations, and massive infrastructural destruction and civilian disruption in its repeated wars in Lebanon.

Hamas in Gaza has visibly applied some of the same techniques that Hizballah perfected

Hamas in Gaza has visibly applied some of the same techniques that Hizballah perfected, giving it a growing ability to hide its missiles and fire them deeper into Israel if necessary. The Arab and Iranian parties now under Israeli attack seem to be sharing such critical military capabilities in training, supply, production, camouflage, logistics, strategy, communications and other fields.

The lessons of the last 40 years - or even the last 4,000 years of human history, given Jewish determination to prevail over their own inhuman foes - tell us that unjust colonial or imperial conquests will always stoke an ever more fierce determination to resist and fight by the subjugated people.

This is most obvious in the century-old battle by Palestinians against the aggressive brand of settler colonialism that successfully evicted them from their homes and lands to create the powerful Israeli state.

The more brutally Israel pressures and traumatises Palestinians, the stronger the Palestinian will to push back and resist seems to become.

The same dynamic is visible in the Israeli campaigns against Hizballah, Iran, Syria, and their assorted strategic allies and proxies who increasingly  share their technological capabilities - which is why Israel now faces the immense challenge of simultaneously fighting half a dozen foes whose military capabilities only keep increasing.

The Houthis in Yemen using missiles and drones to attack Saudi targets is just the most recent example of this.

The coming weeks and months will clarify both the immediate and longer-term dimensions of the battle between Arabism and Zionism that has now entered a much more dangerous new phase, as advanced military capabilities spread across the Middle East region among parties on all sides that have proven their willingness to fight to the end. 

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.