By Or Heller, Israel Defense—
Anyone travelling this summer through the northern part of Israel or, more specifically along the northern border, will see another, different border. The sun beats down hard when you drive along the border, but if you listen to the assessments of senior IDF officers, this summer will only be hot because of the temperatures. This time, Hezbollah will try to avoid engaging in a confrontation with Israel. Every warfighter, officer and reservist reporting to the Lebanese border memorizes the following axiom from the very first second: the beautiful green scenery around here is misleading. It can change from heaven into hell in the blink of an eye. The only question is in whose shift will evil arrive and the Lebanon border will become the focal point of a war the likes of which the Israeli rear area never experienced.
On the one hand, Hezbollah is undergoing a crisis: the Iranian tap is still closed, Sunni refugees are escaping from Syria and threatening to change the demographic balance between the different communities in Lebanon, and above everything, 45% of Hezbollah’s regular fighting OrBat is physically deployed in Syria, where it is intensively involved in a war against the rebels, at the command of Hezbollah’s Iranian masters.
A Mutual Balance of Terror
The military competence of Hezbollah – the result of the combat friction in Syria – is improving, but the number of warfighters as well as morale are declining. IDF are aware that certain operations – if carried out – could escalate into an all-out war. On the opposite side, Hezbollah also treads very carefully, so that none of their explosive charges or antitank missiles should lead to the war that both sides are trying to defer to the maximum extent possible. So, it may be concluded that a mutual balance of terror is in effect. A part of that balance of terror involves Hezbollah’s efforts to establish a feasible option for a ground incursion into Israeli territory.
The IDF entertain no doubts in this regard. When you analyze the latest speeches delivered by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and his bragging about “conquering the Galilee”, with the tactical maps behind him depicting fictional arrows that reflect Hezbollah’s intentions to position the red arrow of this Shi’ite organization in the cities of northern Israel, and when you watch the videos of Hezbollah forces in the bloody civil war in Syria, there can be only one conclusion. In the Third Lebanon War, it is estimated that Hezbollah will fulfill their threats and attempt to have the fighting transferred into the enemy’s territory and gain territorial achievements inside Israel. What would such an achievement look like? It would not involve the capturing of Metula or Hanita. A senior officer of the eastern formation, the IDF 769th Brigade, says: “Beyond any intelligence I am receiving regarding the state of Hezbollah, today YouTube is an efficient and reliable intelligence source. We can see from their combat operations in Syria what they can do and what they are preparing for and the kind of combat experience they are gaining. Hezbollah can produce a company-level attack with a holding force, they can operate with UAVs, tanks and artillery.” Yes, today’s YouTube videos the civil war in Syria produces so extensively are mandatory study material for the warfighters of IDF in their attempts to find out what they can expect in the next round.
How are the IDF preparing for a Hezbollah ground operation? Will the inhabitants of Israel wake up on the third or fourth day of the Third Lebanon War to be told that a Hezbollah force had intruded into Israel and captured a few houses in Metula – a settlement surrounded on three sides by Shi’ite villages that provide the power base for Hezbollah – embarked on a killing spree and possibly attempted to abduct a few civilians? Information of this type will have a profound effect on Israeli public opinion, on morale, and possibly on decision making by the Israeli political and security leadership.
“The conquest of the Galilee is within the reach of the Lebanese resistance,” brags Nasrallah. Incidentally, Hezbollah has learned its operational lessons not just from the civil war in Syria, but from Operation Protective Edge as well. They observed IDF fighting its weakest enemy, Hamas, for 51 days. Hezbollah realized that beyond each rocket and mortar bomb of the 4,000 munitions fired into Israel, the one thing that frightened Israeli public opinion more than anything else was a potential ground incursion. The tunnel-based attacks executed by the Nukhba, Hamas’ special operations unit, shattered time and time again against the defensive wall erected by IDF along the border with the Gaza Strip, and the numerous casualties notwithstanding, none of those attacks succeeded in reaching a Kibbutz or Moshav settlement located close to the fence in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip. But Hezbollah observed, learned and internalized. Beyond its titanic rocket and missile arsenal, now totaling about 150,000 munitions, they fully understand the effect a yellow Hezbollah flag flying over a house in Metula, Manara or Hanita would generate.
Regrettably, we saw that in the 2006 abduction of the late Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, an abduction that catapulted Israel into the 34 days of the Second Lebanon War. Those soldiers were abducted inside Israeli territory, through an enclave of dense, tangled undergrowth out of which it was very convenient for the Hezbollah detachment to intrude, seize the soldiers and take off deep into Lebanese territory. The name of the game is kill zones – creating kill zones for the defending force, within which the attacking force may be eliminated before it had a chance to reach the Kibbutz, Moshav and other settlements straddling the border.
To establish such kill zones, ground intervention is required: the Israel-Lebanon border area abounds with thick, tangled vegetation that provides ideal cover for the Radwan Company, Hezbollah’s special operations force, for the purpose of reaching the border and staging a ground attack with limited objectives and a limited timeframe. The commander of the western formation, the IDF 300th Brigade, Colonel Alon Madanes from the paratroopers who has been replaced recently, dealt extensively during his tenure with the task of preparing the border for war. The projects Madanes initiated at the border would have made a civilian drilling company proud: initiated blasting operations, construction of roads and paths and clearing of afforested areas. In some places, IDF erected a man-made cliff that rises to a height of 5-7 meters. The Hezbollah warfighters who manage to cross the kill zone that is fully visible and closely observed by the IDF defenders would be defeated by this cliff, which would make it easier to block an attack by the Radwan Company (Hezbollah’s special operations force) and then eliminate that force.
150,000 Rockets in Storage
A senior IDF officer at the Lebanon border defined the situation as follows: “To force Hezbollah to invest substantial efforts in their ground movement, even before they encounter the first IDF soldier and definitely before they encounter the first Kibbutz member or Moshav settler.” Hezbollah is preoccupied by what they regard as a “Victory Image” – and that is what they will attempt to achieve in the next war. Meanwhile, the IDF patrols along the border are ordered to reach the very last meter of Israeli sovereignty, yes – including activity in those enclaves on the other side of the border fence that are Israeli territory.
At the IDF 91st Division, the Galilee Division in charge of the border with Lebanon, they know how to spot them – the Hezbollah operatives coming to the border and attempting to photograph and document the activities of IDF. The warfighters of IDF are familiar with the modes of operation of the Hezbollah operatives approaching the border fence under the guise of shepherds or news photographers: they approach the fence, take their photographs and leave. Some of the intrusion tactics of Hezbollah are sea-oriented: they intend to send in naval commandos in the style of Hamas’ sea incursion into Kibbutz Zikim at the outset of Operation Protective Edge. For this reason, the IDF Navy prepares to seal the area around Rosh Hanikra on as well as under the surface.
What about tunnels? IDF are not currently aware of any tunnels at the northern border. If Hezbollah analyzes the local soil as we do, they will not invest much in tunnels. “They have to take advantage of the dense vegetation and use their ability to fight,” says a senior officer at IDF Northern Command.
It is not clear how the Third Lebanon War would end, but it is fairly clear how it would break out: a negligible border incident will lead to a misunderstanding and a response followed by a counter response – all the way to an all-out war that neither side is interested in. In the new ISIS-inspired Middle East of 2016, wars are no longer initiated – the parties involved deteriorate into them. Fire will speak first: the Israeli rear area will sustain fire the likes of which it never experienced since the establishment of the State of Israel, and yet – being in Metula will still be worse than being in Tel-Aviv. Out of Hezbollah’s 150,000 rockets, almost 100,000 are short-range rockets – capable of covering the range of the northern region. IDF will attempt to mobilize reserve forces and transport the regular forces to the north as quickly as possible, but at the same time, they will embark on a fire campaign led, as always, by IAF. A senior IAF officer has recently spoken about a strike capacity where all of the strikes executed by IAF in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge can now be executed in a significantly shorter time. IDF and the political echelon will attempt, as always, to bring the war to a close using only an aerial offensive. Will it suffice? No one can say for certain.