Israel Faces Military Dilemma as Hezbollah Amasses Weapons

This week's alleged attack on a Syrian missile convoy intended for Hezbollah was different from earlier ones, and could further exacerbate tensions between Israel and the organization.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel’s northern front is far more sensitive at present than one might glean from the media, and more than the public is aware. The accepted wisdom on the Israeli side until now was that, in the north, there is nothing new under the sun. Once every few weeks or months, when Syrian President Bashar Assad tries to move advanced weapons systems to his close associates in Hezbollah, the Israel Air Force intervenes (according to foreign sources) and scuttles the plan. And because Assad now has other things on his mind – not least the murderous war of survival he is waging against the rebel forces in his country – the Damascus regime will not respond to the attack. It will pretend that it was rain, that it’s characteristic of the season. Given the fact that Israel, too, assiduously avoids commenting on the event publicly and directly, both sides can go on pretending that everything is routine, and thus avoid a head-on clash.

But this week something different happened. According to reports from Lebanon, the most recent Israeli attack, on Monday night, was launched on the Lebanese side of the border. Hezbollah initially denied that the incident had occurred, but admitted a day and a half later that Israel had in fact hit one of its convoys. Time magazine quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying that the attack targeted surface-to-surface missiles that Syria was trying to smuggle to Hezbollah. The Lebanese press published different reports about how many people were killed in the strike – ranging from one to four Hezbollah personnel.

What makes this case different from those that were attributed to Israel last year? The answer is that this time, the specific object of the attack was Hezbollah. And not only did the organization sustain casualties, the attack itself was carried out for the first time within Lebanon. When an attack is carried out in Syria, in a regime-controlled area, it’s easier for Assad and his loyalists to obfuscate the results. The media in Lebanon, however, are freer, and some of the papers, certainly those that are hostile to Hezbollah, are quick to report what they know. Furthermore, even though Hezbollah is part of the Iranian-led Shi’ite alliance, its considerations might be somewhat different.

It is apparently no coincidence that the previous attacks were aimed at weapons convoys that were still on Syrian soil. Assad’s freedom to maneuver with regard to reprisals is more limited than that of Hezbollah. The decision to operate in Lebanon this time might have been due to a constraint: Possibly there were civilians close to the convoy when it was still on the Syrian side of the border; or there might have been intelligence information that was not verified until the last minute, just before the weapons would have been distributed among different sites in Lebanon.

In the past, Assad did not respond to three attacks in his territory that were attributed to Israel – the bombing of the nuclear reactor, and the assassinations of both the senior Hezbollah figure Imad Mughniyeh and Syrian general Mohammed Suleiman. All three strikes occurred long before the eruption of civil war in Syria. Hezbollah declared that the “book was open” in regard to avenging Mughniyeh’s killing in Damascus in February 2008. Since then, at least 15 attempts by Hezbollah and Iran – the latter seeking to avenge the death of its nuclear scientists in operations attributed to Israel – to attack Israeli and Jewish targets abroad have been thwarted.

One Hezbollah effort was successful: the murder of five Israeli tourists and a local bus driver in a suicide attack in Bulgaria in July 2012. But that has almost certainly not settled accounts from Hezbollah’s point of view. A month earlier, the Shin Bet security service uncovered a large quantity of professional C-4 explosives in a cache in Nazareth.

Neither those who deposited the material nor those who were supposed to pick it up were ever found, but the intelligence assessment was that it was a shipment smuggled in from Lebanon via the village of Rajar and intended for a professional assassination operation, not necessarily for a suicide attack. Only recently, as reported this week in Haaretz, was security beefed up for senior Israeli figures, in view of an assessment that Hezbollah is still looking for an operational opportunity to carry out an assassination.

Israel, as a matter policy, does not launch massive military operations against weapons buildups by an enemy state or organization (with the exception of preventive operations carried out against nuclear capabilities in Iraq and Syria). But the ongoing weapons buildup by Hezbollah is making the dilemma acute. The director of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, estimated last month that the Shi’ite organization now has in its possession more than 100,000 rockets and missiles, though there is also a problem related to the weapons’ range and capabilities.

Of all the weapons systems facing Israel on the northern front, the most disturbing is probably the Yakhont shore-to-sea missile, which allows for a very accurate strike from a range of 300 kilometers, not only against maritime craft but also against infrastructure sites along the Israeli shoreline.

In a talk with reporters this week (but arranged long before), a day after the attack that has been attributed to Israel, the commander of the naval base in Haifa, Rear Admiral Eli Sharvit, said that the navy operating under the assumption that a wide variety of the weapons systems in Syria’s hands have also been transferred to Hezbollah. The Israeli army says it does not possess definite intelligence about the transfer of Yakhont missiles, but at least two of the attacks last year on the port of Latakia, in northern Syria, that have been attributed to the air force, were aimed at Yakhont stockpiles.

Hezbollah’s possession of this missile could cripple maritime traffic to Israel in wartime – a scenario that was almost realized during the last round of fighting between the sides, in 2006. Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah has already threatened in a public speech that his organization will respond to the imposition of another Israeli maritime blockade of Beirut (as happened in the Second Lebanon War) by firing missiles at ships seeking to drop anchor in “the ports of Palestine.” Hezbollah already has Chinese-made shore-to-sea missiles, which it used to hit and almost sink the Israeli missile boat Hanit in 2006. If Hezbollah gets its hands on the Yakhont, Israel will view that as a serious problem.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his pronounced caution about the use of military force since his return to power in 2009, has to make a critical decision here. Let’s say, for example, that Israeli intelligence comes into possession of information that Yakhont missiles have been successfully smuggled into Lebanon, but are being held on the ground floor of a populated building in the heart of Beirut – a well-known mode of action with both Hezbollah and the Palestinian organizations. Does Israel eliminate the threat, even at the expense of a possible mistake that will lead to mass deaths among civilians, or does it take into account that even success is liable to lead to potent revenge by Hezbollah?

Clear message

With all due respect to dangers in the north, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon held a long meeting involving many participants early this week that was devoted to the demolition of the home of Sagi Keisler in the settler outpost of Kida, in the northern West Bank. Beforehand, an additional investigation of the episode was carried out by the chief of staff, Benny Gantz, no less.

As Chaim Levinson reported in this paper, Keisler, a well-known wine dealer, built a new house on the edge of the outpost, which is located north of Ramallah, by combining two mobile homes. Because Ya’alon’s declared policy is that the state will demolish illegally built structures that are not occupied, Keisler slept in the house, even though it was still being worked on, to prove that the structure was already inhabited. Nevertheless, the Civil Administration demolished the house at the beginning of the month, stirring a furor among settler circles along with an airlift of solidarity visits by right-wing MKs.

Ya’alon takes a rigid approach to the enforcement of the law. At the same time, he is looking to become the Likud leader after Netanyahu, and has for some time been flirting with the settlers and the ideologically hawkish wing of Likud. How can one manage all this simultaneously? The communiqué issued by Ya’alon’s bureau at the end of the investigation is instructive.

Ya’alon found that the house had been built illegally, without a permit, rejected the settlers’ allegations that the demolition was a matter of personal revenge by army officers against Keisler, and stated that he was backing the officers, the Civil Administration and the police. In the same breath, he however ordered the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, to take disciplinary measures against Civil Administration officers with respect to two matters: the fact that in prior discussions with the minister, the issue was presented in Civil Administration documents as the “demolition of transportables [mobile homes],” at a time when Keisler had already yoked them together, and had presented outdated photographs of the site to the minister in advance discussions.

The communiqué intimates that Ya’alon had been dealing with this critical issue even before the demolition. Let’s hope he finds time here and there to keep tabs on Hezbollah, too.

Be that as it may, the spirit of the commander was conveyed well. Unlike others in Likud, Ya’alon did not buckle in the face of the settlers’ spin about the wrong done to Keisler. He knows that the building of the house was illegal and he knows the facts on the ground. But the time and energy that Ya’alon devoted to the incident sent a clear if not explicit message to the army and to the Civil Administration: If you don’t have to, don’t mess with the settlers, because they have a direct channel to the bureau of the current minister.

If in recent years, senior officers thought they were preserving quiet in the West Bank so that the politicians would be able to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians peacefully, it now looks – and precisely against the background of the Kerry initiative – as if things have been reversed. Alongside the goal, justified in and of itself, of protecting the security of Israeli civilians (both inside the Green Line and in the West Bank), the quiet being promised by the Shin Bet and the army are making possible the attainment of a different goal: the settlers’ ability to continue building with full steam. And not just without interference, but with explicit encouragement from Netanyahu and Ya’alon.

Israeli soldiers on the northern border this week. Credit: AP

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