Israeli Crisis Management During the 2006 Lebanon Conflict – by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Benjamin Rosenbaum argues that, short of a war, the 2006 conflict in southern Lebanon is best understood through the image of a crisis: an event which breaks out suddenly, presents threats to the status quo, and demands quick decisions under stress. He analyzes the management of the crisis from the perspective of the Israeli government, indentifying the points of escalation, opportunities for de-escalation, and eventual end of the crisis.

Benjamin Rosenbaum is a second year MALD student concentrating in International Security Studies.  He was studying Arabic at Hebrew University in Jerusalem during the outbreak of the 2006 Crisis.


On the night of July 11th, 2006, Hezbollah operatives infiltrated Israel and the following morning, attacked an Israeli reserve unit patrolling along the Lebanese border.  The next 34 days would leave an indelible mark on the region.  Despite six years of ‘relative calm,’ the ensuing events ended any optimism that Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 would lead to renewed stability in the Levant. Israeli troops, albeit temporarily, returned to Lebanese territory.  Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel.  Beirut, for the first time since the Lebanese civil war, was the target of a sustained air strike campaign.  Reports of casualties and destruction on both sides would headline broadcasts worldwide.

The 2006 conflict in southern Lebanon is best understood through the image of a crisis: an event which breaks out suddenly, presents threats to the status quo, and demands quick decisions under stress.[i]  Short of war, a crisis involves a sequence of interactions between adversaries where each side has the opportunity to change or preserve the status quo.

Within this framework, this paper analyzes the management of the crisis from the perspective of the Israeli government.[ii]  Unique to other analyses, this paper identifies the points of escalation, opportunities for de-escalation, and eventual end of the crisis.  Topics of interest include Israeli military actions, official government statements, and diplomatic initiatives.  Further, this paper places Israeli decision-making within the context of classic crisis management literature and identifies how problems of strategy and intelligence hindered Israel’s response.

Israel in Lebanon: From Invasion to Withdrawal

            In 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invaded Lebanon in an attempt to install a friendly government and expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from its base in Beirut.  While Israeli troops eventually withdrew from the outskirts of the Lebanese capital, a security zone was established in southern Lebanon between the Israeli border and the Litani River.  For the next 18 years, Israeli forces stationed in Lebanon would face a brutal campaign of guerilla resistance.  Attackers, led by a group that eventually evolved into Hezbollah, subjected Israeli troops to suicide bombings, shootings, and kidnappings.  The heavy casualty toll would turn the IDF’s presence in Lebanon into a very unpopular issue with Israel’s war-weary public.

In May 2000, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon.  This action was taken unilaterally, and despite the concerted efforts of the Israeli government, it did not lead to any concessions from Lebanon or Syria[iii] to end their hostilities with Israel.  To no one’s surprise, Hezbollah rushed to fill the vacuum created in southern Lebanon and declared victory over the retreating Israeli troops.

Although Israel removed its forces in accordance with United Nations (UN) stipulations, Hezbollah declared the withdrawal to be incomplete.  The Shiite group asserted that the Shebaa Farms – an uninhabited area, understood to be Syrian territory, captured by Israel during the 1973 October War – was originally the property of Lebanon.  In the process, Hezbollah developed a new cause célèbre to reaffirm its resistance against Israel.[iv]

The Era of Containment: 2000-2006

            During the breakdown of the peace process and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Israel’s focus shifted away from the Lebanese border.  When Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers five months after the withdrawal, Israeli response was muted.  Seeking to avoid opening up a northern front, Prime Minister Barak only chose to bomb a few Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.[v]

Ehud Barak’s successor, Ariel Sharon, would continue the policy of containment.  Combating Hamas and the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the Palestinian territories would take precedent over Hezbollah provocations.  In 2004, Israel traded over four hundred Arab prisoners for the bodies of the three abducted soldiers and an Israeli businessman kidnapped in Lebanon.[vi]  The following year the IDF thwarted four planned attempts by Hezbollah to abduct Israeli patrols along the border.  In a letter of gratitude to IDF upper brass, Prime Minister Sharon acknowledged that the military “saved the country from a tricky situation.”[vii]  During the same year, Hezbollah occasionally launched rockets and mortars across the border.  Israel’s retaliations to all of these incitements were either measured or non-existent.

On January 4, 2006, Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and was incapacitated.  Finance Minister Ehud Olmert would rise to the position of acting Prime Minister, before moving into a full time role after his party won elections in March.  Although the Lebanese border was quiet, a new conflict emerged in Gaza.[viii]  In late June, Palestinian extremist groups affiliated with Hamas abducted an Israeli soldier.  Three days after the attack, the IDF launched a ground invasion into Gaza.

Outbreak of the Crisis: The Raid

            In a carefully planned mission, Hezbollah operatives infiltrated the Israeli border near the village of Zar’it.[ix]  As two Israeli humvees on routine patrol approached Zar’it, the operatives detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) and fired several anti-tank missiles at the vehicles.  Three soldiers were killed immediately and, in the chaos, Hezbollah fighters were able to abduct two other wounded soldiers before crossing back into Lebanon.  Almost simultaneously, Hezbollah fired artillery against various targets along the Israeli border as a diversionary tactic.[x]

It was not until almost two hours after the incident that the IDF made any attempt to retrieve the captured soldiers.  An Israeli tank was dispatched into Lebanon, attempting to follow a possible Hezbollah escape route.  During its rapid advance, a massive IED detonated beneath the tank.  All four soldiers inside the armed vehicle were killed.  As a rescue team entered Lebanon to recover the bodies, one more Israeli soldier was killed by Hezbollah mortar fire.  In total, eight Israeli soldiers would die in the raid and subsequent rescue missions, in addition to the two soldiers who were kidnapped.[xi]

Escalation Point One: Aerial Response

The audacious attack had an immediate impact within Israel.  The raid itself was a strategic surprise, and its high death toll shocked Israeli policymakers and the public alike.  The fact that Hezbollah held Israeli hostages ensured that there would be substantial public pressure to return the captured soldiers.  Prime Minister Olmert convened with his national security team to discuss how Israel would react to the raid.  The entire staff agreed that an escalatory move[xii] was necessary.  As an unnamed adviser would later admit, “on July 12, nobody suggested that Israel (would) wait before acting.”[xiii]

To understand why there was unilateral agreement amongst Olmert’s inner circle that an offensive was imperative, it is essential to explore the attack within the framework of Israeli military doctrine.  Surrounded by hostile states along its borders since its founding, the IDF has long followed a strategy of maintaining strong deterrence[xiv] capabilities.  While Israel, within the last four decades, made peace with or established effective deterrence against its neighboring states[xv], deterring non-state actors has proven more complicated.[xvi]  Throughout the years, groups such as the PLO, Hamas, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and Hezbollah have demonstrated the capacity to strike Israeli military and civilian targets at home and abroad.  Israeli deterrence strategy has evolved to meet the demands of each situation.

After 2000, successive Israeli leaders followed a policy of tit-for-tat in response to Hezbollah provocations.  In general, occasional rocket fire would be met with the IDF striking Hezbollah positions for a short period of time.[xvii]  However, the July 12 attack changed the rules of the game.  In this one incident, Hezbollah had killed the highest amount of Israeli soldiers since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon.  Moreover, this was the second occasion within a one-month period in which an Israeli soldier was abducted.  As investigative journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff assert, “Israel had been attacked twice in two different theaters, both of which it had withdrawn from unilaterally[xviii] in the hope of ending the military conflict.  Israel’s deterrence in the region had suffered a major blow.”[xix]

A second element also played into Israel’s initial decision to respond—strong worldwide and domestic support.  The Bush administration gave Israel the ‘green light’ to pursue a military response[xx] and objections from the European Union were muffled.  Even Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan publicly – not privately, as the Sunni states had done in the past – blamed Hezbollah for being the reckless instigators of the conflict.[xxi]  Within Israel, support for a strong response was almost universal.  Prime Minister Olmert was well aware that this ‘window of opportunity’ to attack Hezbollah might not occur again.[xxii]

Areas to strike Hezbollah were plotted throughout the country.  Most attractive were Hezbollah’s cache of Fajr rockets.  Israeli intelligence painstakingly identified the exact location of these long-range missiles.  Although Israeli estimated that targeting the Fajrs would result in the death of 100 to 400 Lebanese civilians – the rockets were mostly stored within the homes of civilians – the opportunity to deal a serious blow to Hezbollah’s arsenal was too great too pass up.[xxiii]

During a cabinet meeting with Israeli security officials, Minister of Defense Amir Peretz laid out two additional targets for consideration: Lebanese national infrastructure and the Syrian military.[xxiv]  Not wanting to open up a new theater of warfare – despite encouragement from some hawks in the Bush White House[xxv] – targeting Syria was quickly taken off the table.  It was also agreed, keeping in mind the opinions of the international community, that Lebanese infrastructure targets would be minimized.  The Beirut airport and the main highway between Lebanon and Syria would be struck for symbolic reasons,[xxvi] but crucial services such as the Lebanese power grid were not to be damaged.

In the course of the initial planning, a ground invasion was not seriously considered, as Israeli leaders had extraordinary faith in the country’s air power capabilities.[xxvii]  Not only could the Israeli Air Force (IAF) strike targets throughout Lebanon, but also the risk of an advanced fighter jet being shot down was negligible.  Although civilian casualties would be inescapable, Prime Minister Olmert was already banking on the consent of the international community for the mission.  Further, the IDF’s experiences in southern Lebanon were still fresh on the mind of Israel’s policymakers.  With eight soldiers already dead, further losses had to be avoided.

Shortly after midnight on July 13, the air strikes commenced as planned.  The Israeli Air Force (IAF’s) air superiority proved accurate, as all pre-identified targets were struck with surgical precision.  Notably, the efforts of Israeli intelligence to pinpoint the location of Hezbollah’s Fajr rockets were validated.  Fifty-nine Fajrs were destroyed and casualties from the strikes were well below even the most conservative estimates.[xxviii]  Both Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz were ecstatic with the success of the first wave of strikes.[xxix]


Hezbollah’s Response

The morning after Israel’s air strikes, Hezbollah launched a continuous barrage of short-range Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.  Although Hezbollah had frequently shot rockets into Israel in the past, this marked the first time that the targets expanded beyond border towns.  Altogether, one-third of Israel’s populace would fall within range of Hezbollah’s bombardments, including the major port city of Haifa.

Fired indiscriminately into population centers, the effect of the Katyushas on the Israeli public was demoralizing.  The strikes themselves caused immense physical damage.  To minimize casualties, thousands of civilians fled to bomb shelters for extended periods of time.   Some families even fled their homes in the north to stay out of the range of the rockets.  Beyond psychological consequences, the Katyushas brought the economy of Israel’s northern cities to a standstill.

On July 14, Hezbollah’s response would add another wrinkle to the crisis.  Acting, it is believed, under the guidance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah operatives launched a sophisticated anti-ship missile at the INS Hanel, an Israeli naval vessel stationed off the coast of Beirut.[xxx]  The attack, which killed four of the boat’s crew, shocked the Israeli military establishment.  So unexpected was the incident that the ship’s missile defense system was not even activated.[xxxi]  Although the INS Hanel stayed operational, Hezbollah successfully broadcasted the message that even Israel’s most advanced ships could be targeted.

Israel’s tactics did not change substantially in the face of Hezbollah’s moves.  The air strikes against Hezbollah sanctuaries in Lebanon continued.  In an action to punish the leadership of the Shiite group, Prime Minister Olmert granted approval to bomb Hezbollah’s headquarters and Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s private residence located in the Dahia suburb of Beirut.[xxxii]  By July 16, however, the list of pre-identified targets delineated by the Israeli military had almost been exhausted – yet, Hezbollah’s unrelenting rocket campaign continued unabated.

Preliminary Diplomatic Initiatives

            Although the international community granted Israel tacit support to strike back at Hezbollah during its initial response, by the third day of the crisis, a UN delegation arrived in the Middle East to seek ceasefire solutions.  Throughout the crisis, Israel and Hezbollah would be dependent on third-party organizations to communicate, as there existed no direct line of dialogue between Prime Minister Olmert and Secretary General Nasrallah.

Early attempts at diplomacy did not gain much traction.  The Israeli government, still basking in the success of destroying the Fajr rockets, wanted to continue pounding Hezbollah positions.  The Olmert administration was further buoyed by the concluding statements of the July 16 St. Petersburg G-8 Conference[xxxiii] where the world’s most powerful nations squarely placed the blame on Hezbollah for initiating the crisis and explicitly called for the Shiite group’s removal from southern Lebanon.[xxxiv]

Moreover, it was unclear as to what ceasefire terms Hezbollah would agree to at this point in time.  Although there is some indication that Hezbollah was prepared to transfer the two abducted soldiers to the Lebanese government, it is uncertain if the organization was willing to agree to other concessions.[xxxv]  To the Israeli government, recovering its captured soldiers without weakening Hezbollah was not an optimal solution.

Escalation Point Two: Olmert’s Speech

While Israel’s military actions spoke for themselves, on July 17, a speech by Prime Minister Olmert escalated the conflict even further.  Speaking in front of the Knesset and broadcasted live on Israeli television, Olmert boldly declared that Israel would “not be held hostage…by terror gangs or by a terrorist authority.”  He explicitly listed the conditions which would compel Israel to end the crisis: (1) the return of the kidnapped soldiers, (2) an unconditional ceasefire, (3) the deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon, and (4) the removal of Hezbollah from south of the Litani River.[xxxvi]  Olmert’s statement of intent[xxxvii] was unambiguous.  Israel’s strategy went far beyond reestablishing deterrence.

On the same day that Olmert appeared in front of the Knesset, the IDF launched its first limited ground operation into Lebanon.  While less than a week earlier the Israeli military had scoffed at the idea of sending troops across the border, the mission was now expanded.  Challenging Hezbollah on the battlefield would provide the IDF the opportunity to project its strength.  As military historian Matt M. Matthews notes, the initial raids were not designed “to destroy Hezbollah or its rockets but to craft a ‘consciousness of victory’ for the Israelis and a ‘cognitive perception of defeat’ for Hezbollah.”[xxxviii]

Despite the confidence of the IDF, its elite units would face fierce resistance.  Unexpectedly, it took multiple days for the Israel’s special forces to capture Maroun a-Ras, a small border town just about a kilometer into Lebanese territory.  AMAN, Israel’s military intelligence agency, underestimated the potency of the Hezbollah units stationed in the village.[xxxix]  Five Israeli soldiers were killed in the battle.[xl]  The IDF had failed to ‘demonstrate its fighting prowess,’ while more than 100 Katyushas still fell into northern Israel each day.

Escalation Point Three: Israel Mobilizes its Reserves

The battle of Maroun a-Ras demonstrated to Israeli leadership that it could not rely solely on its standing army to combat Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Around July 22, [xli] the decision was made by Prime Minister Olmert to mobilize the IDF’s reserve forces along the Lebanese border.  Although no plans had yet been made about launching a large-scale invasion, the mobilization orders physically communicated that the Israeli government was serious about escalating the conflict.[xlii]

While the reserve forces amassed on the border, Israeli raids into Lebanon continued.  On July 25, an Israeli paratrooper brigade was ordered to attack Bint Jbeil.  The town, located four kilometers across the border, was a very symbolic target.  It was in this location that Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech declaring victory over Israel following the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

Once again, the AMAN misjudged Hezbollah’s fighting capabilities, and Israeli forces struggled in their attempts to secure the town.  After intense fighting, nine Israeli soldiers were killed and twenty-seven were wounded.[xliii]  In a public relations blunder, Brigadier General Gal Hirsch announced to the media that the IDF had complete control of Bint Jbeil well before the fighting had ceased.[xliv]  Hezbollah took advantage of this indiscretion, publicly calling into question the credibility of Israeli military leadership.

The First Serious Turn to Diplomacy

It was not until July 24 that the Bush administration put its weight behind finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis.  U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was deployed to the region to oversee negotiations.  Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora tendered a seven-point proposal to end the fighting.  Noteworthy features of the plan included: an exchange of prisoners,[xlv] the deployment of the Lebanese army south the Litani River, the reinforcement of a UN international force in southern Lebanon, and the transfer of Shebaa Farms, which was to be placed under UN administration.[xlvi]  While Hezbollah at first resisted the plan, by July 27, it signaled that the terms were acceptable.[xlvii]

Israel on the other hand, objected to the arrangements.  While the proposal included several tolerable conditions, giving up the Shebaa Farms area was an unacceptable provision of the plan.[xlviii]  The position of the Israeli government was that withdrawing from more territory on the heels of Hezbollah’s raid would significantly decrease its capacity to deter future attacks.  Additionally, Israel was attempting to change the status quo.  Under Siniora’s proposal, it was unrealistic that the Lebanese army or an enhanced UN multinational force could remove Hezbollah from southern Lebanon.  Besides, with 30,000 reservists assembled at the Lebanese border, the IDF had alternative plans to quell Nasrallah’s forces.  Israeli officials requested breathing space from their American counterparts on the diplomatic front so that they could carry on the fighting for 10 more days.[xlix]

Temporary Ceasefire

As Israel’s pre-crisis list of Hezbollah strongholds had all been struck (and in some cases repeatedly), the IAF’s targets evolved.  Through heavy surveillance of southern Lebanon, the Israeli military attempted to identify new Hezbollah targets.[l]  Most pressing were possible locations where the Katyushas were stored.  Despite intensive efforts of Israel’s intelligence agencies, only approximate locations of the short-range rockets could be ascertained.[li]  This created a conundrum for Israel as Hezbollah purposely stockpiled its rockets within the homes of civilians.  However, even with the heightened risk of civilian casualties, the IAF continued its air strikes.  The air force could not be seen to stand idly by as Katyushas rained down on northern Israel.

On July 30, the inevitable occurred—a heavily populated apartment building in the village of Qana was hit by two Israeli bombs.[lii]  The attack resulted in the death of 28 civilians, including 17 children.  Images of the destruction and loss of life were aired globally.  Hezbollah, astute in the game of public relations, deliberately exaggerated the original death toll to make the incident seem even more horrific.[liii]

While international pressure was already mounting against Israel’s campaign, the incident in Qana would prove a turning point.  The large civilian death toll prompted extensive condemnations for Israel’s tactics.[liv]  As a measure of goodwill, Secretary Rice compelled Prime Minister Olmert to agree to a 48-hour ceasefire with Hezbollah.[lv]  For the first time in over two weeks, rockets did not fall on northern Israel and there were no air strikes in Lebanon.  The quiet would not last.

Stagnant Diplomacy

            The temporary ceasefire did not lead to any progress on the diplomatic front.  Neither Israel nor the Lebanese government (let alone Hezbollah) agreed to the terms of a French-led initiative which would deploy an international force into southern Lebanon.  The crux of the opposition to the plan from both sides was that Jerusalem and Beirut could not come to agreement on the size and authority of the international force.[lvi]

Escalation Point Four: Reservists Enter Lebanon 

Meanwhile, the lull in fighting provided Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon the freedom to rearm and regroup.  At the same time, the Israeli government reaffirmed its intentions to continue hostilities.  In a speech declaring sorrow for the victims of the Qana bombing, Prime Minister Olmert added that “there is no ceasefire, nor will there be one in the coming days.”  When the 48-hour respite reached its conclusion, Hezbollah launched a daylong volley of 250 Katyushas into Israel, a record number up to that point.[lvii]

At the behest of Israel’s military leadership, on August 1, Prime Minister Olmert approved a plan that sent IDF reserve forces across the border into Lebanon.  The operations were essentially larger scale versions of the raids on Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbeil.  The IDF would enter into southern Lebanon en masse in order to inflict heavy losses against Hezbollah forces.  Reaping a psychological victory still took priority over stopping the Katyusha rockets.[lviii]

Within five days, approximately 10,000 IDF soldiers had entered southern Lebanon.  However, in a recurring theme, the soldiers were met with heavier resistance than expected.  Israel’s few tactical successes were overshadowed by the IDF’s failure to anticipate Hezbollah’s elaborate bunker network.  By August 8, the IDF had already sustained 61 casualties, yet Israeli forces were unable to advance more than a few kilometers into Lebanese territory.[lix]  While the IDF was bogged down in southern Lebanon, a direct Katyusha strike on a reserve base in northern Israel resulted in the death of twelve more soldiers.[lx]

On August 9, Prime Minister Olmert’s cabinet convened to discuss the possibility of expanding Israel’s military operations in Lebanon.  However, despite much support for the plan, the ministers could not come to a unanimous decision.  It was agreed that proposals for a large ground operation would be postponed for the time being.  Accordingly, a window for diplomacy was set in place.[lxi]

An Agreement Reached

By mid-August, an impending ceasefire agreement seemed inevitable.  Early hopes from the international community that the IDF would be able to sufficiently batter Hezbollah wilted away.  The rising toll of civilian casualties in Lebanon left Israel with few allies.  While domestically, Prime Minister Olmert maintained his popularity, questions began to arise about the performance of the IDF north of the border and the inability of the military to hinder Hezbollah’s capacity to fire Katyusha rockets.

French and American diplomats worked feverishly to develop a ceasefire proposal acceptable to all sides.  The most pressing issues were: (1) resolving the status of the Shebaa Farms, (2) preventing arms transfer into Lebanon through the Syrian border, and (3) determining the mandate of an international force to be deployed in southern Lebanon.[lxii]  There was no serious discussion about the fate of the abducted soldiers.

After tense negotiations, a breakthrough occurred.  It was agreed that Israel would maintain control over the Shebaa Farms and no weapons embargo would be placed upon Lebanon.  An enhanced UN force would deploy into southern Lebanon but under its mandate, the armed force could only settle disputes through peaceful means.[lxiii]  A phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon was formulated.[lxiv]

On night, August 11, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to pass Resolution 1701 based on the aforementioned compromises.[lxv] Additionally, the resolution called for a full ceasefire to be implemented within 48 hours.  The following evening, the Lebanese government, with the full backing of Hezbollah approved the agreement.  It was not until August 13 that the Israeli cabinet voted to back the resolution ending hostilities.[lxvi]

Escalation Point Five: The Race to the Litani River

            With an internationally sanctioned resolution to the crisis imminent, it was clear in Jerusalem that the time frame for one last push into Lebanon was coming to its end.  Nevertheless, there was still much support amongst Israel’s military leadership for a large-scale ground operation.  Reaching the Litani River would provide the IDF a final chance to demonstrate its military prowess.[lxvii]

On August 11, hours before the UN Security Council proposal would pass, Minister of Defense Peretz successfully lobbied Prime Minister Olmert to approve the military’s recommended operation.[lxviii]  The IDF invasion force would triple to 30,000 soldiers. The military was granted 60 hours to obtain its elusive victory before the ceasefire came into effect.

This last gasp operation would prove chaotic and deadly.  The time constraints hampered Israeli military planning, and  tactical guidelines to division commanders were often unclear,  sometimes adjusted on an hourly basis.[lxix]  Concerns about Hezbollah’s anti-tank weaponry were also discounted.  In a blow to the IDF, 11 Merkava IV tanks were destroyed in a Hezbollah ambush while crossing through Wadi al-Saluki.[lxx]  Overall, 34 Israeli soldiers were killed during the concluding assault.[lxxi]  The IDF did not reach the Litani River.  In a final act of defiance, Hezbollah unleashed 250 Katyusha rockets into Israel on the day before the ceasefire became official.[lxxii]


            Despite a few skirmishes, in every practical sense, the fighting ended on August 14.  By October, almost all of Israel’s troops had withdrawn from southern Lebanon under the terms of the ceasefire agreement.  An international force of more than 10,000 soldiers would deploy south of the Litani River.  In 2008, Israel and Hezbollah agreed to a prisoner exchange.  In return for four Hezbollah operatives captured during the crisis, a Lebanese member of the Palestinian Liberation Front convicted of killing Israeli civilians three decades earlier, and the bodies of almost 200 Palestinian and Lebanese militants, Israel received the bodies of the two soldiers abducted at the outset of the crisis.[lxxiii]  Up to that point, it was unknown whether the Israeli soldiers were dead or alive.[lxxiv]

The general mood of the Israeli public following the end of the crisis was unnerved.  The UN settlement did not provide a mandate to disarm Hezbollah and the two abducted soldiers remained captives of Hezbollah.  Israel’s policymakers were held responsible.  Prime Minister Olmert’s once robust popularity sunk.  Two generals as well as the IDF’s chief of staff would resign.[lxxv]  Less than a month before the anniversary of Hezbollah’s raid, Amir Peretz quit his position as Minister of Defense.  Almost at the same time, the Winograd Commision, a state-sanctioned inquiry into the Hezbollah-Israel War, repeated what was apparent to many: the Israeli government mishandled many aspects of the crisis.

In contrast to Israel, Hezbollah was quick to declare victory following the cessation of the crisis.  The guerrilla organization had survived Israel’s onslaught and performed competently on the battlefield against one of the most advanced militaries in the world.  A 2008 Zogby International public opinion polls identified Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as the most admired leader in the Arab world.[lxxvi]  Three years after the crisis, Hezbollah’s political party would be included in Lebanon’s ruling government.

In reality, the outcomes of the crisis are mixed for both sides.  While Israel did not meet its objectives on the battlefield, it did destroy much of Hezbollah’s infrastructure and killed many of the Shiite group’s elite forces.  Furthermore, Hezbollah would be blamed by many within Lebanon for instigating vast devastation within the country.  Revealingly, two weeks after the end of hostilities, Hassan Nasrallah in a rare moment of candor, admitted on Lebanese television that if he knew Israel’s response would be so drastic, he would have never ordered the abduction raid in the first place.[lxxvii]

It is still too soon to tell the effect of Israel’s response in restoring its deterrence capabilities.  In the six years since the crisis, Hezbollah has rearmed and the IDF has recently estimated that the group’s arsenal of rockets and missiles has increased tenfold.[lxxviii]  Nevertheless, the border between Lebanon and Israel has remained remarkably quiet.  Up to this point, Hezbollah has not attempted any raids similar to that of July 12, 2006.


            Security theorist Alexander George acknowledges that while the management of every conflict is context specific, there are generic problems that contribute to the mishandling of a crisis.[lxxix]  In particular, he identifies two issues which are endemic to poor crisis management: (a) the selection of inappropriate and inept strategies and (b) the failure of intelligence agencies to provide reliable information to policymakers. The following section investigates how these problem areas hindered the Israeli government’s ability to manage the crisis optimally.

Lack of Strategic Thinking

The Winograd Commission’s investigation of what went wrong during the crisis specifically criticized Israel’s political and military leadership for lacking strategic calculations.[lxxx]  The failure of Israeli decision making occurred in three ways: overlooking alternative options, setting unrealistic goals, and providing unclear directives.

The Israeli government lacked sufficient contingency plans as the crisis evolved.[lxxxi]  Facing the continued threat of Katyusha rockets and losses on the battlefield, Israel’s only response was to intensify the conflict in an exponential manner (see graph).  Israeli leadership did not adequately consider the possibility that its ground troops would not be able to rout Hezbollah.  In hindsight, greater emphasis on the diplomatic track should have been explored earlier in the crisis.

This model captures Israel’s decision making process during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.  It portrays how the hostilities escalated in an exponential manner: from an aerial campaign, to mobilizing the reserves, to a small deployment of troops into Lebanon, to a full-scale ground invasion.  It should be noted that it was difficult to capture the diplomatic initiatives within the model since they mostly occurred simultaneously to the escalations.

Click to enlarge
This model captures Israel’s decision making process during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. It portrays how the hostilities escalated in an exponential manner: from an aerial campaign, to mobilizing the reserves, to a small deployment of troops into Lebanon, to a full-scale ground invasion. It should be noted that it was difficult to capture the diplomatic initiatives within the model since they mostly occurred simultaneously to the escalations.

Prime Minister Olmert erred in raising improbable expectations for the crisis.  His speech in front of the Knesset five days into the conflict provided goals which were too specific and set Israel up for failure.  Olmert should have been aware that retrieving the abducted soldiers and expelling Hezbollah from southern Lebanon were both very unlikely outcomes.  All Hezbollah had to do from that point on was hold onto its positions and declare victory. [lxxxii]

In the early stages of the crisis, Israel’s strategy was straightforward.  The IAF launched a large aerial assault into Lebanon as part of a campaign to reestablish deterrence against Hezbollah.  However, when Israeli ground troops entered Lebanon, the equation changed.  Beyond reestablishing deterrence, the IDF was directed to generate heavy losses on Hezbollah.  What this exactly meant was unclear.  Often, Israeli soldiers on the ground received no specific targets, left only to confront Hezbollah operatives who had already established strong defensive positions.  Ambushes were inescapable.

Israel’s response was further hindered back its lack of preparation.  On the heels of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, strategies for re-invasion were neglected.  In fact, the IDF had prepared only one operational plan for a ground campaign in Lebanon.  By the time of Hezbollah’s raid, some facets of the IDF’s lone plan were already outdated as it anticipated confronting Syrian forces that withdrew from Lebanon in 2005.[lxxxiii]

Furthermore, the IDF was ill-prepared for the type of combat they would encounter in Lebanon.  Since 1982, the Israel had fought exclusively against poorly armed resistance groups in the Palestinian territories.[lxxxiv]  Consequently, Israel’s soldiers had almost no combat experience against warfare of conventional means.  It should be unsurprising that some of the IDF’s most unsatisfactory performances, such as the tank ambush at Wadi al-Saluki, resulted from relatively rudimentary mistakes.[lxxxv]

Failure of Intelligence

The collective efforts of Israel’s intelligence agencies failed to anticipate Hezbollah’s raid.  While AMAN correctly estimated before the crisis that there was a ‘medium to high probability’ of an attack, the intelligence agency was unable to forecast the incident’s location.  This was in spite of the fact that in May 2006, AMAN received information on a planned Hezbollah attack near the border town of Zar’it. [lxxxvi]  Additionally, on the night of July 11, IDF border patrols failed to receive preliminary evidence of Hezbollah operatives infiltrating into Israel.[lxxxvii]

Israel’s intelligence apparatus also did not accurately assess Hezbollah’s strength.   While it was understood that Hezbollah controlled a large amount of Katyusha rockets, Hezbollah’s anti-tank weaponry was underestimated.[lxxxviii]  Further, the fact that Hezbollah controlled sophisticated anti-ship weapons was completely unknown.

As the crisis commenced, the performance of Israel’s intelligence community would not improve.  Despite intensive efforts, the location of majority of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets could not be ascertained.  Following the ground invasion, AMAN failed to provide the necessary tactical information to support the IDF in battle.[lxxxix]

A Note on the Future

It is unlikely that a future clash between Israel and Hezbollah will be contested in an identical manner.  Recognizing the havoc caused by the Katyusha rockets, Israel has invested heavily in the Iron Dome missile defense system.  During the 2012 Israel-Hamas conflict, Iron Dome intercepted around 85 percent of the short-range rockets aimed at population centers.[xc]  Hezbollah, for its part, has rebuilt and expanded its defense network both north and south of the Litani River and has also upgraded its arsenal to include unmanned aerial vehicles.  As the facts on the ground have evolved, Israel must prepare for a milieu of threats and develop fluid strategies that adapt to the nature of future crises.

Furthermore, policymakers in Washington must study the outcomes of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War intently, as the lessons learned from the crisis are applicable to American strategy against asymmetric threats in Afghanistan and beyond.


Figure 1: This model captures Israel’s decision making process during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.  It portrays how the hostilities escalated in an exponential manner: from an aerial campaign, to mobilizing the reserves, to a small deployment of troops into Lebanon, to a full-scale ground invasion.  It should be noted that it was difficult to capture the diplomatic initiatives within the model since they mostly occurred simultaneously to the escalations.

Paul Lauren, Gordon Craig and Alexander George, Force and Statecraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

While there is a wealth of in-depth literature available analyzing the crisis from the perspective of the Israeli government, Hezbollah remains a black box.  Hence, this paper investigates the decision making processes of Israeli policymakers, making reference to Hezbollah primarily as a secondary actor.

At the time, Syria was the major sponsor of the Lebanese government and essentially dictated its policies.

Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 38.

Harel and Issacharoff, 14.

David Makovsky and Jeffrey White, “Lessons and Implications of the Israel-Hizballah War: A Preliminary Assessment,” Policy Focus, no. 60 (Wash. DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 2006): 12.

Harel and Issacharoff, 5-6.

By this time, the suicide bombing campaigns of the Second Intifada had come to an end.

[ix]            It is unclear whether Israel’s invasion of Gaza affected Hezbollah’s calculus.  Although the IDF was distracted in the South, Hezbollah had previously planned many similar types of kidnapping missions during calmer times.

Matt M. Matthews, “We Were Caught Unprepared: The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War,” The Long War Series (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2008): 34.

Harel and Issacharoff, 12-13.

Escalation is defined as a deliberate move which intensifies the level of violence.

Harel and Issacharoff, 77.

Deterrence, as described by Yair Evron (pg. 34), “is a highly complex process compromising the threat to use force to deter the opponent (the ‘challenger’) who aims to change the status quo from resorting to violence.”

Israel has not fought a classic state vs. state conflict since the 1973 October War.

Yair Evron, “Deterrence and its Limitations,” in The Second Lebanon War: Strategic Perspectives, eds. Shlomo Brom and Meir Elran (Tel Aviv, Israel: Institute for National Security Studies, 2007), 36-37.

Ibid., 38.

In 2005, Israel disengaged from Gaza unilaterally, removing all settlements and soldiers.

Harel and Issacharoff, 88.

Ibid., 81.

Makovsky and Jeffrey White, 3.

Harel and Issacharoff, 76.

Ibid., 80.

Ibid., 76.

Ibid., 104.

Israeli leadership argued that the targets were legitimate since Hezbollah smuggled in arms through the airport and from Syria.

Sarah E. Kreps, “The 2006 Lebanon War: Lessons Learned,” Parameters, 27, (1), (Spring 2007): 72.

It is believed that only twenty Lebanese civilians died as a result of the strikes against the Fajrs.

Harel and Issacharoff, 91-92.

Ibid., 101.

Matthews, 38.

Harel and Issacharoff, 99-100.

The annual conference which brings together the heads of government from: United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and France.

Harel and Issacharoff, 106.

Harel and Issacharoff provide an excellent account of negotiations throughout the crisis from the perspectives of Israeli, American, French and UN diplomats.  This paper relies heavily of their accounts on the diplomatic initiatives.

The Knesset, Documents of Interest, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Address to the Knesset During the Conflict in the North, July 17, 2006,  <; (accessed December 17, 2012).

A statement of intent is defined as words – not actions – which intend to communicate to an adversary.

Matthews, 43.

Ibid., 43-44.

Harel and Issacharoff, 134.

Sources conflict as to whether the mobilization orders were given on July 21 (Matthews, 44) or July 23 (Markovsky and White, 15).

It is important to note, that in a deliberate move, the IDF refrained from reinforcing its troops on the Syrian border in order to demonstrate to the Bashar Assad regime that Israel had no intention of escalating the conflict into Syrian territory (Harel and Issacharoff, 154).

Matthews, 47.


It is unclear if this included the two Israeli soldiers captured at the onset of the crisis and/or Hezbollah operatives held in Israeli prisons from previous conflicts.

Harel and Issacharoff, 145-146.

Ibid., 157.

Ibid., 147.

Ibid., 160.

Ibid. 161.


To this day, the accuracy behind Israel’s intelligence during the incident remains unclear.  The only pieces of evidence produced by the IDF to justify targeting the apartment building were recordings of Hezbollah operatives firing Katyushas within the vicinity of Qana.

Hezbollah was accused of transporting dead bodies from other bombings to the site of the Qana incident.  Original reports listed sixty deaths (Harel and Issacharoff, 162).

Kreps, 81.

Harel and Issacharoff, 166.

Ibid., 168-170.

Ibid., 170-172.

Ibid., 173.

Matthews, 50-51.

Harel and Issacharoff, 188.

Ibid., 195-196.

Ibid., 202-203.

Ibid., 210- 212.

Matthews, 51.

Harel and Issacharoff, 218.

Ibid., 235-236.

Matthews, 51-52.

Harel and Issacharoff, 212.

Matthews, 52-54.

Ibid., 55.

Markovsky and White, 17.

Harel and Issacharoff, 238.

Isabel Kershner, “Yielding Prisoners, Israel Receives 2 Dead Soldiers,” The New York Times, July 17, 2008, <; (accessed December 19, 2012).

It is still unknown when the soldiers died and whether they succumbed from their wounds during the assault or were executed.

Harel and Issacharoff, 242-243.

Shibley Telhami, “2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll” Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland (with Zogby International),: <; (accessed December 19, 2012).

Harel and Issacharoff, 250.

Gilli Cohen and Jonathan Lis, “IDF: Israel in Range of Nearly 65,000 Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Rockets,” Haaretz, May 23, 2012, available from <; (accessed December 20, 2012).

George, 553

“Winograd Commission Final Report,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 30, 2008  <; (accessed December 20, 2012.

Anthony H. Cordesman, George Sullivan and William D. Sullivan, Lessons of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2007), 57.

Harel and Issacharoff,108.


Cordesman, Sullivan and Sullivan, 91.

Matthews, 63.

Uri Bar-Joseph, “Israel’s Military Intelligence Performance in the Second Lebanon War,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, vol. 20, (2007): 584-585.

Harel and Issacharoff, 13.

Uri Bar-Joseph, 591.

Ibid., 593.

Barbara Starr, “Watching Israel’s Missile Defense,” Security Clearance,, November 20, 2012,<; (accessed December 12, 2012).


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