Har Dov, the area where Monday’s incident between the Israel Defense Forces and a Hezbollah cell occurred, has for years been both sides’ preferred venue whenever the Lebanese organization feels a need to settle accounts with or let off steam at Israel. It’s a remote location with no civilian communities, enabling incidents to be “contained” far from the media’s eyes so the warring sides can clash for a bit and then end it.
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But it’s also an area with which the head of the IDF Northern Command, Col. Amir Baram, is very familiar. And as of Monday evening, at least, he seems to have ended this localized clash with Hezbollah with good results for Israel.
In 2005, when Baram commanded the elite Maglan Unit, his soldiers hit a Hezbollah special forces cell that had infiltrated Har Dov with the apparent goal of abducting soldiers. One soldier from the infantry Golani Brigade was killed in the incident, when Hezbollah shelled an outpost. In 2016, as commander of the 91st Galilee Division, he was well prepared for a Hezbollah bombing on Har Dov, and it resulted in no casualties.
Hezbollah’s operation Monday was a response to an airstrike in Syria last week that has been attributed to Israel. The airstrike, which hit not far from Damascus, killed a Hezbollah operative, and under the “balance of deterrence” rules set by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah a year ago, any killing of the organization’s personnel in Syria must be met by a suitable response from Lebanon.
Nasrallah himself has kept mum since the attack in Syria, but two of the organization’s other channels for conveying information – his deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, and Ibrahim al-Amin, the editor of the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar – left no room for doubt that it would soon mount a military response.
The choice of Har Dov as the venue shows that this time, too, Hezbollah sought a limited incident that wouldn’t escalate into war. The organization has no real interest in starting a war at time when Lebanon is mired in an enormous economic and political crisis and Nasrallah is being accused by his rivals of primary responsibility for the country’s deterioration. Nevertheless, Hezbollah felt pressured to act so as not to leave an unsettled account with Israel.
While some of the details are still shrouded in fog, it’s clear that the IDF forces – soldiers from the Nahal Brigade, the elite Egoz unit and a tank crew – weren’t taken by surprise and were well prepared for their mission. An IDF lookout spotted the Hezbollah cell while it was still moving toward Har Dov. When the cell had made it about 20 meters into Israel, in a hilly, wooded area where there’s no border fence, tanks and machine guns opened fire at it from a few hundred meters away.
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The Shi’ite militiamen quickly left the area. There have been no reports of them taking casualties.
They entered Israel not that far from an IDF outpost and a road that serves troops in the area. (Har Dov is always closed to civilian traffic.) Their goal was presumably to carry out an attack – via sniper fire or bombs – on the IDF forces posted there. But given what has been reported about how the cell operated, the attempt does not seem to have been particularly sophisticated.
Thick vegetation makes it hard to hit an enemy moving cautiously even in broad daylight. The IDF has refused to say whether the soldiers were ordered to shoot to kill, or whether the plan was always to drive off the Hezbollah cell without causing casualties.
Nevertheless, there are fairly solid grounds for assuming that Israel deliberately decided on the latter course of action. Any such decision would have had to be made at the highest levels.
Had Hezbollah suffered losses in the incident, it might have felt compelled to mount an additional retaliation, and that could have escalated the situation along the border. Thus what looks like a tie with no casualties appears to be very convenient for both sides.
The question is whether the organization can make do with Monday’s attempt now that Israel has reported its failure, or whether it will soon try again. After the incident, the Lebanese media published an unofficial response from Hezbollah denying that its operatives fired at Israeli territory and asserting that its response to the Syrian airstrike has yet to come.
As of Monday night, that was also the assessment of Israel’s intelligence community: The story isn’t over yet, and Hezbollah is likely to try again.
But Nasrallah will also apparently need to take the calendar into account. On Thursday, Muslims will celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday. Residents of southern Lebanon, already preoccupied with the economic crisis that has deprived them of their livelihoods, surely won’t want to spend it in bomb shelters and basements.
At a joint press conference with Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Nasrallah that he was "playing with fire," and that any further Hezbollah operations against Israel would be a mistake and would be followed by a harsh military response against the Iran-backed movement, and against Lebanon. He didn’t include the rider traditionally added under these circumstances – that Israel isn’t interested in an escalation.
Netanyahu is managing the new security crisis in the north, like the ongoing tension with Iran, under the shadow of a widening rift with his partner in government, the Kahol Lavan party, and the continued legal proceedings against him. But his ability to leverage Monday’s incident for political gain would seem to be limited. Israelis, much like the Lebanese across the border, are currently concerned first and foremost with the coronavirus and their worries about making a living.
For now, the most we can hope for is that the tension on the border subsides, until the next time. Our other problems – the economy, the pandemic and the threat of a fourth election – aren’t going anywhere any time soon.