Israeli Army Readies for Flare-ups Ahead of Work on Lebanon Border Wall

Works set to begin next month; Israeli army believes Hezbollah will try to disrupt works, claiming they deviate from international border line sanctioned by UN

Concrete wall near border with Lebanon.
Noa Shpigel

Next month the Israel Defense Forces will begin upgrading the fence along two sections of the Lebanese border, including by the construction of walls near Israeli communities. This work, which Haaretz first reported in May, could increase tensions along the border.

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The IDF’s Northern Command is preparing for the possibility that Hezbollah or organizations under its influence will try to disrupt the work, on the pretext that the route deviates from the international border approved by the United Nations after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Though Israel says the route adheres to the border, it is preparing for the possibility of demonstrations, clashes or even sniper fire at the workers.

Virtually no work has been done on this fence since the withdrawal, and the army admits that the barrier is in poor condition in some areas. The current work will take place between Metula and Misgav Am in the east and between Hanita and Rosh Hanikra in the west. The project has a budget of 123 million shekels ($34.7 million). It will include walls in any area where Israeli communities are vulnerable to cross-border sniper fire or antitank missiles.

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The seven-meter-high fence, topped by barbed wire, is supposed to have similar capabilities to the one built five years ago along the Egyptian border, which brought the number of border-crossings into Israel by African asylum seekers down to almost zero. But the threat along the Lebanese border is military, whereas the Egyptian border fence was meant mainly to stop jihadists and African civilians seeking asylum and work in Israel.

The Lebanese border fence upgrade is the latest in a series of engineering projects that began three years ago under Northern Command’s previous head, Aviv Kochavi. The army realized that Hezbollah could exploit weak spots in Israel’s deployment to break through its defenses and conduct a swift incursion that could have major repercussions. The fence, together with the construction of precipices in areas where a rapid crossing of the border would currently be possible, is supposed to impede both cross-border raids and flat-trajectory fire at communities near the border.

The IDF’s engineering projects along the border, combined with the past week’s events, show that the potential for tension with Hezbollah along this border still exists, even though the Shi’ite organization’s main efforts (and almost a third of its fighters) are currently devoted to protecting the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war.

Last week, Israel announced that Hezbollah members had built around 15 new lookout posts along the border under the guise of an environmental group, in defiance of UN resolutions. At the same time, Israel warned Iran, via European countries, against carrying out its plan to build rocket factories for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

This war of words along the Lebanese border – Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned last week that thousands of Shi’ite militiamen from around the world would volunteer to help his organization if Israel launched a war on Lebanon or Syria – stems in part from increased interest in events in Syria.

The impending collapse of ISIS will lead to a swift loss of the territory it once controlled in southern and eastern Syria, and various coalitions are competing over the spoils. The Assad regime’s growing self-confidence and its renewal of fighting in various sectors have increased international interest in what’s happening in Syria, and as a corollary, it has also increased the efforts the various rival camps are investing in this conflict.

In Syrian Golan, rebels attacking regime

Meanwhile, in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, adjacent to the Israeli border, there has been a slight movement in the opposite direction. Over the weekend, Sunni rebel organizations began an assault on Assad’s forces there along a line running from the old city of Quneitra to the new one. The regime, which controls only a small section of the northern Golan, apparently feared the rebels would succeed in advancing toward the Damascus-Quneitra highway and thereby sever the main traffic artery connecting the Golan to the capital.

On Saturday there was relatively heavy fire in this area. Syrian army forces fired mortar bombs and tank shells at the rebels, and about 10 accidentally landed on the Israeli side of the border. In response, the IDF destroyed two tanks and a Syrian army position Sunday morning, killing two people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Syrians against continued fire, but in the afternoon more shells “strayed” into Israeli territory.

For now, the rival Syrian forces seem to be busy fighting each other. But the IDF is monitoring developments to ensure that this local escalation doesn’t affect the security of Israeli residents of the Golan.