Analysis |

Israel’s ‘Ghost Unit’ for the Next War With Hezbollah

A war game this week highlighted not just new Israeli capabilities, but also the need to walk a diplomatic tightrope

Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers sit in a tent next to their mobile artillery piece near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.
Israeli soldiers sit in a tent next to their mobile artillery piece near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, August 26, 2020. Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP
Amos Harel

The northern Arab Israeli town of Kabul in Western Galilee hadn’t experienced a military exercise for decades. The police were skeptical when the Israeli army sought to hold part of a large-scale General Staff exercise this week in the town.

“You’ll be lucky if you’re not stoned there,” the police told the army, but in fact, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the reception that the town gave the army was nothing of the sort. Arab mayors have been working shoulder to shoulder with uniformed Israel Defense Force officers on a daily basis to protect residents of the communities. And the businesslike, effective spirit that has prevailed in the contacts with the army’s Home Front Command even permeated the war simulation exercises.

As in previous exercises in recent years, the simulation presented a scenario involving the eruption of a military confrontation with the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia movement in southern Lebanon. The ridge of the hills near Kabul represented Israeli territory while the Hilazon creek represented the Lebanese border. In the simulation, the villages to its north were the front, where Hezbollah deployed its elite Radwan units. According to the script, the war results from a series of discrete events that rapidly escalate from a limited round of fighting into an all-out confrontation, with implications for Syria and the Gaza Strip as well.

Hezbollah dispatches commando forces to the Israeli communities near the border while raining missiles and rockets into the interior. The Israeli army has the task of halting the offensive while at the same time launching attacks throughout Lebanon and sending ground forces north into Lebanese territory.

The battle turns on initiative and time: which side takes the reins and how fast they act. Some of the air attacks simulate air raids on Israeli territory in close proximity to Israeli army units, aimed at forcing the Radwan fighters out of the footholds that they seized.

But the principal measure of the IDF’s success in the exercise is gauged by its offensive capabilities. On that score, the aim of the Israeli forces is to uncover Hezbollah infrastructure and personnel scattered around a dense urban setting, striking at them and putting them out of action. A formidable network of intelligence, aircraft, spotters and cybertechnology units is employed to that end. Some of these capabilities are already in the hands of the units leading the ground maneuvers.

The name of the exercise, Lethal Arrow, was a poor choice that sounds more like a nod to the Egyptian army under President Nasser. But the ideas guiding it are more advanced. In a video produced in August for commanders, Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi spoke about a war that might erupt. “It almost always comes as a surprise,” he warned. “Prepare as if it were to happen tomorrow. The biggest illusion is that it would be a long way off.”

Casualty estimates in the exercise this time around appeared to be more realistic than in the past. They included hundreds of dead and thousands wounded in rocket attacks in civilian areas, in addition to a considerable price paid by the army in the ground operation.

In the predawn hours Tuesday in Kabul, the multidimensional Refaim unit – ghost unit in English – the apple of Kochavi’s eye, went into action. It’s an experimental project which, if it’s successful in integrating diverse technologies and resources in support of the ground maneuver, is planned to be replicated in other IDF units. At this point, rapid progress is reported, but it’s not yet clear how quickly these capabilities can also be rolled out among rank-and-file battalions.

Unlike exercises a decade ago or more, the IDF no longer recruits former politicians to play the role of political figures. The real Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz both made saw to it to visit the exercise this week and took the opportunity to issue warnings to Hezbollah.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, June 2020.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, June 2020.Credit: IDF Spokjesperson's Unit

The next military confrontation will not be decided solely by the confrontation on the ground, but also by what is said in telephone conversations between Jerusalem and Washington and, perhaps mainly, calls to Moscow. The participants at the level of the General Staff had to address those developments in the exercise as well.

Should action be taken against weapons that would be involved in the fighting but that are in Syria? How would Russia respond? Would Moscow demand an immediate cease-fire? Another intelligence-related question involves the sheer will of Hezbollah to fight, given the economic and political crisis in Lebanon, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and August’s explosion in port of Beirut.

The coronavirus pandemic has led the Israeli army to considerably reduce training of reservists this year, but Kochavi insisted on conducting this exercise, which involved thousands of reservists. He argued, and rightly so, that scrapping it would harm preparedness for war.

Along with the operational results, Lethal Arrow is likely to be gauged by the number of participants who get sick in the course of the exercise, particularly when it comes to reservists, who face greater health and economic risks than 20-year-old draftees.

A brigade commander who took part in the exercise told Haaretz that the rate of infection in his unit in recent months was about 20 new cases a week. “The main problem relates to those in quarantine, because every soldier who is identified as a carrier puts other soldiers in his platoon out of action,” he said. “Everyone who has gotten sick has been in very mild condition. When the reservists joined the exercise, they were very apprehensive, and we made adjustments to reduce the risk.”

The recent second coronavirus lockdown across the country isolated the army, since the soldiers in combat units were denied furloughs for a considerable number of weeks. “We actually learned about their mental resilience from this,” the commanding officer said. “It’s an accepted complaint that this generation is spoiled, but people were confined to base for six or seven weeks without even blinking.”

With the vast majority of the combat troops being so young, the coronavirus appears to be a secondary concern. If and when a war were to break out, the strict separation required by the health regulations would be abandoned and the army would focus on what was important. If required, the soldiers would cough and go on fighting.

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