Israel's Secret Weapon in the War Against Hezbollah: The New York Times

Israel is turning to the media and diplomacy to head off an almost inevitable new round of confrontation with Hezbollah. Its message: Israel won't be able to avoid attacks on Lebanon's civilians so long as the Shi'ite militia uses them as human shields.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In a prominent article on Wednesday, The New York Times reported detailed Israeli allegations about Hezbollah’s military deployment in Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon. The paper cited a briefing by Israeli military officials as its source, added an evasive response from “a Hezbollah sympathizer in Lebanon,” and noted that the Israeli claims “could not be independently verified.”

The Times cited data, maps and aerial photographs provided by the Israel Defense Forces in regard to two neighboring villages, Muhaybib and Shaqra, in the central sector of southern Lebanon. The former, according to Israeli military intelligence, houses “nine arms depots, five rocket-launching sites, four infantry positions, signs of three underground tunnels, three antitank positions and, in the very center of the village, a Hezbollah command post” – all in a village of no more than 90 homes. In the latter village, with a population of 4,000, the IDF claims to have identified no fewer than 400 Hezbollah-related military sites.

Throughout southern Lebanon, Israel has identified thousands of Hezbollah facilities that could be targeted by Israel, according to the report by Isabel Kershner.

Israel, Kershner writes, is preparing for what it views as “an almost inevitable next battle with Hezbollah.” According to the IDF, Hezbollah has significantly built up its firepower and destructive capability, and has put in place extensive operational infrastructure in the Shi’ite villages of southern Lebanon – a move which, Israel says, “amounts to using the civilians as a human shield.”

Although Kershner’s Israeli interlocutors don’t claim to know when or under what specific circumstances war will erupt, they pull no punches about its likely consequences. In such a war, the Times report says, the IDF will not hesitate to attack targets in a civilian setting, with the result that many Lebanese noncombatants will be killed. That will not be Israel’s fault, an unnamed “senior Israeli military official” says, because “the civilians are living in a military compound.” Israel “will hit Hezbollah hard,” and make “every effort to limit civilian casualties,” the military official said. However, Israel does “not intend to stand by helplessly in the face of rocket attacks.”

The Times reports that Hezbollah, as part of the lessons it drew in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, moved its “nature reserves” – its military outposts in the south – from open farmland into the heart of the Shi’ite villages that lie close to the border with Israel. That in itself is old news; Hezbollah began redeploying along these lines immediately after the 2006 war (as reported in Haaretz in July 2007.

In July 2010, Israel presented similar data to the local and foreign media, which revealed in great detail Hezbollah’s military infrastructure in southern Lebanon. The village that was singled out then was Al-Hiyam.

On all these occasions, Israel made it clear that in the event of a war it would have to operate in the villages, and that civilians would inevitably be harmed. In the current incarnation of warnings, as conveyed in this week’s Times report, the potential consequences of the situation are noted by two former senior officials of the defense establishment.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former director of Military Intelligence, is quoted as saying that the residents of villages in southern Lebanon do not have full immunity if they live close to military targets. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, formerly head of the National Security Council, asks why the international community is doing nothing to prevent Hezbollah’s arms buildup. A few years ago, at the instruction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Amidror, as head of the NSC, presented similar aerial photographs and maps from Lebanon to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Why again now?

The question is: Why again now? The IDF says that the briefing by the senior officer, together with the information provided to the Times, is intended to reinforce the ongoing Israeli messages to Hezbollah and to the international community. The essence of those messages is that Hezbollah is continuing to violate UN Security Council Resolution 1701 by smuggling increasing quantities of arms into Lebanese territory and by deploying its forces south of the Litani River; that Hezbollah’s military infrastructure is an open book to Israeli intelligence and that the IDF can inflict serious damage on it when needed; and that, because Hezbollah chooses to shelter among a civilian population, strikes at its military targets will entail the non-deliberate killing of innocent persons.

An additional explanation for why these points were emphasized in the briefing to the Times lies in the spirit being dictated to the IDF by the new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. In his view, the army’s mission, under his leadership, is “to distance war.” This involves preparing the IDF as thoroughly as possible for the next possible confrontation – alongside an active effort, in the sphere of public diplomacy and to a degree even in the state-policy realm, to prevent war. This is the reason for the frequent emphasis on training as the IDF’s first priority, following a lengthy period of compromises and budget cuts in that sphere. Recent weeks have seen a fairly extensive series of training exercises by the ground forces, a trend that is slated to continue in the months ahead.

Proper management of the daily risks to Israel, most of which stem from possible indirect consequences of the region’s chronic instability, could reduce the danger of an all-out war. At the same time, a higher level of fitness and readiness displayed by the IDF could help deter Hezbollah – at present, the most dangerous and best-trained enemy Israel faces – from setting in motion a deterioration of the situation that would lead to war.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also hinted at this, in a talk he gave at a meeting of officials from regional councils on Tuesday. Ya’alon warned that “Israel could unite all the forces in the region against it, if it acts incorrectly.” Israel’s approach, he said, consists of “surgical behavior based on red lines, and those who cross them know we will act.” Those lines include “violation of sovereignty on the Golan Heights, the transfer of certain weapons.”

Israel is apparently deeply concerned by Hezbollah’s effort to improve the accuracy of its rockets. The organization has in its possession vast numbers of missiles and rockets – 130,000, according to the latest estimates – but upgrading its capability is dependent on improving the weapons’ accuracy, which would enable Hezbollah to strike effectively at specific targets, including air force-base runways and power stations.

“There are some things for which we take responsibility and others for which we don’t, but we do not intervene in internal conflicts unless our red lines are crossed,” Ya’alon reiterated. In other words: Israel is upset at the smuggling of weapons by the Assad regime in Syria to Hezbollah, but understands that launching a lengthy, systematic series of attacks is liable to affect the delicate balance in the north, generate a confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, and, as a consequence, foment a change in the civil war in Syria. Israel does not wish to see any such change, preferring a continuation of the status quo.

Ratcheting up the risk

In recent weeks, the Arab media have been flooded with reports and conjectures about the imminent fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israeli intelligence is voicing more cautious appraisals, to the effect that the war in Syria has not yet been decided. If the regime does fall, it’s likely that Hezbollah will greatly step up its efforts to smuggle out from Syria the advanced weapons systems that remain in its hands there. That scenario would ratchet up immensely the risk of a confrontation with Israel, as the latter is likely to launch a broad effort to disrupt the smuggling efforts, while Syrian rebel organizations intensify their pressure on Hezbollah and the Assad camp.

In any event, even without the war in Syria being decided, it’s clear that a confrontation of tremendous intensity is under way, in which all the parties involved are making immense efforts, and that the clash of the blocs in the Arab world over Syria, Lebanon and also in Yemen is overshadowing other issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that appeared so central in the past.

Israel is not alone in having to walk a thin line in the north. Hezbollah, too, is obliged to preserve a deterrent image: outwardly, in order to ensure that Israel does not act as it pleases in its backyard (which is apparently how Hezbollah perceived several assassinations and attacks on convoys that it attributed to Israel); and inwardly, to rebuff criticism within Lebanon that it is an emissary of Iran and is involving Lebanon needlessly in the war in Syria.

An occasional terrorist attack of limited scope, on the Golan Heights or in the Har Dov area near the Lebanese border, could serve its purposes. Nor is it certain that, from Hezbollah’s point of view, accounts have been settled regarding the events on the Golan Heights in January, when six Hezbollah personnel and an Iranian general were killed in an attack on a convoy that was attributed to Israel. Ten days later, an officer and a soldier from the IDF’s Givati infantry brigade were killed in the Har Dov area when their vehicle was struck by antitank missiles during a Hezbollah ambush.

Nevertheless, Israel is now a secondary front for Hezbollah. The organization’s main force is deployed in Syria, particularly in the fighting in the Kalamun Hills, on the border with Lebanon. Dozens of combatants from both sides are being killed there every day in battles being fought by the Syrian army and Hezbollah against the organizations of Sunni rebels. Even though Hezbollah tried to conceal its losses in Syria (the IDF estimates that more than 600 of its personnel have been killed), the casualty rate is now probably too high to keep secret.

Last week, a mass funeral was held in Beirut for Hezbollah fighters who have been killed in the Kalamun battles, among them, according to reports, a colonel. The Arab media are describing the campaign there as “battles of retreat and advance”: one step forward, two steps back. The two sides are deployed on adjacent ridges, and at this stage, neither is apparently able to gain a significant advantage.

The fighting at Kalamun, an important area because it is a corridor for the transfer of reinforcements and arms between the Assad regime and Hezbollah, is only a small part of the overall picture in Syria. Most of the attention lately has been devoted to the decline in Assad’s status and to speculation that he will ultimately have to flee Damascus under rebel pressure, and focus on defending the Alawite region in the north of the country. Concurrently, however, another important process is taking place. Iran is now the salient master of the Assad camp and is dictating the military strategy of the gradually collapsing regime.

Together with thousands of fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and from Hezbollah, tens of thousands of members of Shi’ite militias are pouring into Syria to take part in the religious war against the Sunnis. Those combatants are more likely to heed the Iranian Guards than the Assad regime, which is rapidly losing its reserves of potential soldiers from among the Syrian population.

There’s an extra benefit here for Iran: Its involvement in the fighting affords it a presence in the northern Golan Heights, creating a type of border with Israel by means of which it can take action against Israeli targets.

In the civil war in Syria, Hezbollah is the spearhead of the Shi’ite armies, and Iran’s behavior is disturbing to all the Sunni Arab states. So much so that even U.S. President Barack Obama, when opening the conference of leaders of Persian Gulf states that he convened this week at Camp David, lashed out at Iran for the negative role it is playing in the wars in the Middle East.

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