Five Years After War, Israel-Lebanon Border Is Quieter Than Ever

Hezbollah has not made a single aggressive move since the war ended five years ago, but the deterrence established in that conflict may not be the only reason.

Only a few hundred meters separate an Israel Defense Forces post on the northern end of Kibbutz Misgav Am from the main road of the Lebanese town of Al-Adisa. Last August, this was the scene of the worst border incident since the end of the Second Lebanon War: Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari, commander of a reserves battalion, was killed by a Lebanese army sniper. The IDF retaliated with a massive strike on Lebanese positions, killing several soldiers.

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Lebanon - Yaron Kaminsky - July 12 2011
Yaron Kaminsky

Today, July 12, is the fifth anniversary of the war's outbreak. The incident in which Lt. Col Harari was killed is the exception that proves the rule. It was preceded by local tension over Israel's insistence on exercising its sovereignty "down to the last millimeter," based on one of the war's lessons. Before the war, Israel had given up access to small enclaves that were supposed to remain under its control but stayed on the Lebanese side of the border fence after the IDF's 2000 withdrawal.

The Lebanese, for their part, saw a limited IDF attempt to clear vegetation from the fence as a challenge to their sovereignty. A Lebanese intelligence officer incited the troops on the other side and his soldiers opened fire, killing the Israeli officer.

But since that killing, the Lebanese army is doing all it can to keep the border calm. The Shia commander of the Ninth Division, which killed Harari, was reassigned. The Lebanese army and UNIFIL have reinforced their border presence. During the Nakba Day protests in May, Lebanese soldiers went as far as using life fire to drive demonstrators away from the fence.

Hezbollah monitoring IDF

Visiting the border this week, you could see UN soldiers next to a huge road sign bearing the face of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, a short distance from a Lebanese Army checkpoint. On the hill above them was a luxurious black SUV with civilian license plates. It appeared to be Hezbollah members monitoring an IDF patrol on the other side of the fence.

"What may seem as petty insistence to enter every meter of Israeli territory sends a sharp message to the other side," said a senior officer in the 91st division, which is in charge of the border. "I served here before the war, and looking back, I'm ashamed at how we conducted ourselves. At the time we would tell soldiers our goal was to create no targets for Hezbollah abductions. There's been a tremendous psychological shift in our border activity since."

Hezbollah's behavior is no less interesting. Military Intelligence asserts that the organization had nothing to do with the sniping incident last year, and that moreover, Hezbollah has not made an aggressive move at Israel since the war. In the six incidents of Katyusha rocket fire on the Galilee - which wounded one person - those responsible were Sunni groups inspired by Al-Qaida, not Hezbollah.

Five years later, Lebanon is one of Israel's quietest borders. For the first time in 40 years, Kiryat Shmona first-graders never will have experienced sirens or Katyushas, said former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. The IDF believes that its blow to Lebanon and Hezbollah, as well as the recent turmoil in the Arab world, reduce the chances of a flare-up on the Lebanese front in the near future.

The quiet in the north is the main defensive argument of the war's commanders - then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz and then Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, as well as the officers. The longer the quiet lasts, the stronger Israel's deterrence seems and the more we are inclined to forgive the mistakes of that summer.

But the quiet is partly due to developments in the Arab world: Syrian President Bashar Assad is concerned mostly with outlasting his opponents, while Hezbollah is tied up in internal disputes. Even though it effectively controls the new Lebanese cabinet, the organization is concerned by the Hague's indictment of four members for allegedly assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Is that enough to retroactively legitimize the moves of the IDF and the Israeli government? Former Air Force commander Maj. Gen. (res. ) Eitan Ben Eliyahu wouldn't hear of it.

"That war was an unforgivable scandal because of how it was managed and especially because the actual war was justified," he said. "It's dangerous to use the quiet to blur the war's conclusions. Let's see what Hezbollah achieved: Nasrallah ordered an abduction in order to force Israel to carry out a prisoner swap, and he was 100 percent successful. Hezbollah wanted to harm Israel's strong image and succeeded there as well. It has since equipped itself with tens of thousands of missiles and completely took over South Lebanon. The war was a stunning success for Hezbollah and a bitter failure for us."

Since the war, the IDF has worked hard to fix its weaknesses, including intelligence, ground forces and home front preparedness. It can be seen as a tactical failure that brought about a partial strategic success, in terms of the quiet.

Hezbollah's situation is more complex than Ben Eliyahu's comments would suggest. It's true the organization tripled its rocket arsenal and improved its quality, but its decision to move the launchers and dumps from open grounds into the villages may yet backfire in the case of war - if Israel responds strongly, this could wreak havoc on Hezbollah's political base.