Text size

On April 27, 2000, about a month before the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from Lebanon, the heads of Military Intelligence told the cabinet that it was highly probable that terror would continue even after the withdrawal. This was because Syria and Iran had an interest in continuing the fighting and preventing peace along the northern border. Ten days before the withdrawal, Amos Gilad, then head of the IDF research branch, warned against the possibility that Hezbollah activity would lead in the end to a war with Syria. The MI position was that "Syria would do everything to heat up Lebanon and ignite the entire sector." Senior IDF officers who opposed then-prime minister Ehud Barak's intention to get out of Lebanon warned that life in the north would become hell.

More than four years have passed since then. Hezbollah has not fired Katushya rockets at the north, life in Kiryat Shmona has gone on, the lives of dozens of IDF soldiers have been saved, and war with Syria is further away than ever.

Of course, none of the senior IDF officers, the most senior of whom has meanwhile become the minister of defense, admitted his mistake. Instead, they continued to inflate the Hezbollah threat and describe its leadership as unbridled and irrational. As proof of this, they pointed to the firing of antiaircraft missiles at Israel Air Force planes. This action was perceived as so serious that more than a few politicians called for "darkening Beirut" and attacking Syria in response.

And then a new study showed that the firing of the antiaircraft missiles was not random, but came as a response to the IAF's violation of Lebanese airspace. "A comparison of IAF flight data with the data on the firing of the antiaircraft missiles shows a direct relationship between the violations and the firing," wrote Daniel Sobelman of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Sobelman studied Hezbollah activities over the past four years and concluded that the Shi'ite organization actually wants to preserve the status quo created in the north after the IDF's departure from Lebanon. He found a clear contradiction between Hezbollah's declared ideology, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and the restrained policy that it actually implements, which is based on rules of behavior that have crystalized between it and Israel.

These rules are the name of the game, according to Sobelman, and Hezbollah follows them. The most important rule is "action-reaction," that is, Hezbollah responds to Israel's "aggressive acts." Among these are overflights of Lebanese territory, border crossings into Lebanon by IDF troops or targeted killings of the organization's members in Beirut. Thus, the firing last month at the two IDF soldiers who climbed the antenna of a fortification in the north came as a response to the killing of Hezbollah operative Ghaleb Awali. Two other incidents in which IDF soldiers were killed by Hezbollah occurred after IDF soldiers crossed the border fence.

Between April and August 2003, when the rate of IAF flyovers of Lebanon increased, Hezbollah attempted to find a new means of deterring Israel from these actions. It began gradually to lower the trajectory of its antiaircraft cannons, which brought about casualties and property damage in the north. In August 2003, an antiaircraft missile killed a young boy, Haviv Dadon, in Shlomi.

Israel's response was not long in coming. IAF planes destroyed the antiaircraft position from which Hezbollah had fired on Shlomi. Another position was destroyed on September 3. After the two positions were destroyed, Hezbollah moved its cannons away from the border, while Israel adopted a new policy: The IAF stopped flying regularly over Lebanese territory and began concentrated flyovers once every few weeks. Hezbollah chalked up a reduction in the pace of IAF flyovers, which prevented the falling of shrapnel in Israeli territory. Afterward, for nine months, from September 2003 until May of this year, no Hezbollah antiaircraft fire disturbed the daily routine of life in the north. The firing started up again in May after Israel carried out 27 sorties into Lebanese airspace, accompanied by sonic booms.

"In view of the fact that relations between Israel and Lebanon are defined as a state of war and impacted by the state of war between Israel and Syria," Sobelman concluded, "Israel's northern border is stable and relatively calm, with signs of economic prosperity in evidence."

The subversive activities of Hezbollah in the Palestinian arena should not be ignored, of course, nor should the fact that it has armed itself with 13,000 rockets. These are a danger to the stability of the north, and therefore, Sobelman writes, "keeping the peace ... requires Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah to continue acting in a reasonable and measured way, avoiding disproportionate responses."

Apparently, as difficult as it is, Israel's policy makers must come to terms with the creation of a balance of fear and deterrence with regard to Hezbollah. It is not easy to admit that an organization numbering only a few hundred fighters can deter the country with "the strongest army in the Middle East," but it should always be remembered that Hezbollah is Israel's creation, and the daily occurences in the north are, among other things, the result of myopia on the part of Israel's senior defense officials. This is especially important these days as we recall that Hamas was also established under Israel's aegis and with its encouragement.