HERZLIYA, Israel — The next war in Lebanon will be so powerfully punishing — with thousands of targets struck in the first day of an attack — that hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians will have to leave their homes or risk falling victim to "collateral damage," according to top Israeli military commanders here.
"I have good news for the people of Lebanon," Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the commander of Israel's Air Force, told participants at the Herzliya Conference on Wednesday. "Since Hezbollah has decided to be in urban areas, in those closed apartments where they launch rockets, if the people of Lebanon are to leave those houses before an event begins, they will not be in harm's way.
"I am certain that if war breaks out on the northern front, we need to take strong action from the word 'go.' "
According to Eshel, Israeli air power — both qualitatively and quantitatively — "will surprise our rivals in ways they can't even perceive." He noted, presumably in reference to Israel's war in Gaza during the summer of 2014, that the Israeli Air Force "has had [the] opportunity to test ourselves, so what I'm saying is not just a theory."
Eshel noted that the lethality of Israeli air power, despite "unprecedented precision," has "some potential to damage those who are uninvolved," which presents limitations to Israeli war planners.
"This limitation, too, is taken into consideration. I don't want to go into too much detail, but we are trying to limit this as much as possible. Morally speaking, we want to make that collateral damage as little as possible. Not zero. I don't want to delude myself. But as little as possible."
Eshel declined to explain how Lebanese civilians would leave their homes, where they would go or who would be responsible for the evacuation. But Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Israel's top military officer, indicated that evacuations would be done by Israel.
In an address the previous evening to the same Herzliya gathering, Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, spoke about "hundreds of thousands of civilians" who would need to be evacuated in Israel's next war with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militant organization.
"The moment we know the enemy goes into urban terrain, it becomes a matter of morals and values. There are hundreds of thousands in the civilian population. We'll need to evacuate them … and we'll have to do that as quickly as possible. We need to preserve legitimacy while fighting," Eisenkot said.
Israel's top military officer declined to say how such an evacuation would be carried out without civilian consent or how Israel could possibly venture such an undertaking without ruining the element of a surprise attack and putting large numbers of Israeli forces in danger.
He noted, however, that the Air Force is capable of striking "thousands of targets a day should we be required to do so."
Eisenkot, a former commander of Northern Command with territorial responsibility for Lebanon and Syria, served as the IDF's director of operations during Israel's last war in Lebanon in 2006. In the 11 years since that war, he said, Israeli intelligence, air power and ground maneuvering capabilities have improved tremendously as a result of significant investment and training.
The IDF chief charged Hezbollah with "crudely violating" United Nations Resolution 1701, which mandated demilitarization of the area beyond Israel's northern border, and claimed 240 villages and towns in south Lebanon would be legitimate targets in the next war. "We have very good intelligence, and we know them well. Hezbollah has 240 villages and towns where almost every third or fourth house has some Hezbollah force in it."
Additionally, he said, Hezbollah has built up "thousands of underground locations" and "many tens of thousands of rockets and other capabilities," most of which has been provided by Iran.
According to Eisenkot, Hezbollah is now heavily immersed in fighting in Syria alongside Russia on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. This accruing military experience is something Israel "cannot ignore," he said. At the same time, Hezbollah has lost some 1,800 combatants over the last three years and suffered some 8,000 wounded.
The IDF chief acknowledged that Israel has made "great efforts" to stop Iranian- or Syrian-supplied arms from reaching Hezbollah, actions that until recently have been neither confirmed nor denied by Israeli officials. "Preventing weapons from reaching the hands of Hezbollah is a top priority for the IDF," he said.
He also asserted that Hezbollah was taking possession of Russian weaponry without authorization. "Russian weapons are getting into their hands under the noses of the Russians without their approval," Eisenkot said.
In his June 21 address, Eshel, the Air Force commander, said that since the 2006 Lebanon War, Israeli air power has improved to the point that it will now take the service only 40 to 60 hours to strike the number of targets attacked during the entire 34-day war 11 years ago. "I'm saying that quantitatively speaking we have doubled or quadrupled [the ability to generate and attack targets]."
Nevertheless, Eshel acknowledged that in the next Lebanon war — due to Hezbollah's acquisition of advanced capabilities — Israel should expect a worse-case scenario where it sustains fire on some of its air bases and/or airborne air assets. But, he insisted, "these two factors — fire on Air Force bases and threats on aircraft … cannot stop our Air Force.
"This huge machine that is the sum of surprise, quality and quantity will work. Don't misunderstand me. There is no magic solution or spell. But it is a potent power and a lot more than anyone can estimate."
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.