Israel Struck Syrian and Hezbollah Arms Convoys Nearly 100 Times in Five Years, Top General Says

'When Israel has a vested interest, it acts irrespective of the risks,' says Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, revealing for the first time the scope of military effort to foil weapons smuggling in the past five years

An Israeli F-16C.
An Israeli F-16C. Ilan Assayag

Israel has attacked convoys bringing arms to Hezbollah and groups on several Israeli fronts dozens of times over the last five years, a top Israeli military commander has confirmed for the first time. The number of Israeli attacks on such convoys since 2012 is approaching triple digits, said Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the outgoing commander of the Israel Air Force.

Various people, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, have openly admitted to Israeli attacks on arms convoys to Hezbollah, but no numbers have been cited. Until now, Israel has been reluctant to talk about the scope of such attacks beyond its borders. This is the first time that a senior Israel Defense Forces officer has specifically revealed the practice.

“An action could be an isolated thing, small and pinpointed, or it could be an intense week involving a great many elements. Happily, this goes on under the radar,” Eshel said. Aside from the direct achievement of destroying weapons designated for attacks on Israel, “there is another thing that I believe is very significant,” he says: “We had the good sense not to drag the State of Israel into wars.”

Outgoing Israel Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, August 14, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

“Escalation to war is trivial in the Middle East,” Eshel told Haaretz, and Israel could have easily been dragged into one if the military made mistakes in its campaigns to foil arms smuggling to Hezbollah. “It is no great trick to be a bull in a china shop. When Israel has a vested interest, it acts irrespective of the risks. I think that in the view of our enemies, as I understand things, this language is clear here and also understood beyond the Middle East.”

In recent years the IAF has materially improved its attack capabilities. The ability to attack targets based on accurate intelligence has increased four or five times in the space of just a few years, Eshel said.

Fifty years after the Six-Day War, the air force has restored its ability to preemptively strike Hezbollah in the north. “I am not saying that Israel should conduct preemptive strikes,” Eshel said. “That is a strategic dilemma and everything needs to be considered. But today we have that ability against new enemies as well – terror organizations with relatively dispersed control.”

Israel can do something phenomenal, he said: It may not be able to end a war within three hours, but it can shorten it dramatically.

Eshel, who had been considered close to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, also defended the decision of the army regarding Hebron shooter Elor Azaria, who was convicted of killing a subdued Palestinian terrorist and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

The army very quickly realized that the incident was irregular by any standard, Eshel said. Azaria was questioned in a professional manner and the army responded properly. He added that the case clearly involved failures at the professional level and in values, and that two levels of courts had spoken to that. “The ability of commanders to investigate, to say clear, ethical and professional things, is the soul of the army. If that ends, we will fall apart and can close up shop,” he said.

An attack attributed to Israel on an airport in Damascus, Syria, December 2016.
John Arterbury's Twitted account

However, the army’s moral positions need to be backed up outside the army itself, Eshel clarified. Commands won’t be honored if the people do not honor and support the army, and the alternative is a slippery slope.

Hezbollah vehicles are seen in Jroud Arsal, Syria-Lebanon border, August 1, 2017.
ALI HASHISHO/REUTERS