Twelve years ago this month, the north was being barraged by Hezbollah rockets and the government was debating how deep to send soldiers into Lebanon to stop the rocket fire. Although the war was badly managed, at every level, since then the north has known unprecedented quiet. There are various reasons for this, including mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah, as well as the influence of Iran, which preferred to channel its huge investment in Hezbollah ($700 million-$1 billion annually) towards other purposes.
Hezbollah’s power was built (and is maintained) to threaten Israel with a harsh reprisal blow should it attack the Iranian nuclear sites. While Syria fell apart and Gaza periodically ignited, Lebanon, the front with the greatest destructive potential, has remained surprisingly quiet.
Maj. Gen. Michael Beary, the Irishman who commanded the UNIFIL forces for the past four years, will soon complete his tour. Speaking with Haaretz in Jerusalem last month, Beary said the calm had been sustained due to concerted efforts by the governments of Israel and Lebanon, with the aid of UNIFIL. This continued, he noted, throughout the last year, during which Israel began building a new barrier along certain sections of the border. The barrier, 11 kilometers long in total, is being erected in two areas – from Misgav Am to Metulla in the north, and by Rosh Hanikra in the west. There was concern about what would happen during the construction since the planned barrier overlaps with some of the 13 points where the precise location of the international border is a matter of dispute. Over the past year, the joint committee has held close to 30 meetings, three times the number of meetings in the previous year. The general thinks this helped contain tensions along the border, mainly regarding the new Israeli barrier. He talks about “good dynamics” in the negotiations and attributes the increased calm during the last two years to these talks. And he has considerable perspective: This is his fourth tour of duty with UNIFIL. His first was as a battalion commander during the First Lebanon War in 1982.
10,500 soldiers and 850 civilians from 42 countries serve in UNIFIL. The general describes Lebanese use of beaches in Nakura, north of Rosh Hanikra, as a sign of normality that would have been unheard of in previous periods. “This is not a war atmosphere,” he says. He suggests that both countries should look forward to the next stage. “Peacekeeping forces cannot substitute for a diplomatic solution. UNIFIL is 40 years old. It is time to proceed to a long-term ceasefire. It would require courage on both sides. The last thing they need now is war.”
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In Israeli eyes, UNIFIL’s main shortcoming has been its failure to halt Hezbollah’s military buildup in the area between the border fence and the Litani River. Last year, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley personally accused the general of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s moves in the south. The general says UNIFIL has increased its presence. Each month its soldiers carry out approximately 14,000 operations (patrols, checkpoints and so on) in its area of jurisdiction. But it does not carry out any searches inside buildings in south Lebanese villages, because UNIFIL needs a legal search warrant to enter them. Consequently, in Israel’s view, it is not addressing the real problem. Beary cites IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot: “The goal, as your chief of staff said, should be preventing war from breaking out by mistake.”
Beary says UNIFIL is aware of Israeli concerns and feels an obligation to maintain security along the Blue Line, which equally benefits the northern Israeli residents. As of next month, this will be the job of his replacement, Major-General Stefano Del Col from Italy.
Assad regime regains control of Syrian Golan
The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad announced in the middle of the week that it had regained control of the Syrian Golan Heights. A few days earlier the Syrian flag was raised over the Quneitra pass and the first Syrian flags appeared in the Druze townships on the Israeli side.
On Syria’s southwest corner, near the borders with Israel and Jordan, the regime is subduing the last villages that had been under Islamic State-affiliated rebel groups.
The first rebels emerged in the Golan Heights in the winter of 2011-2012, a few months after the rebellion broke out in Daraa. Gradually, they pushed the Syrian army units out of the region.
In the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State set up its caliphates in east Syria, other rebel organizations fled, including those identified with Al-Qaida. Some of them reached the Golan and in a matter of weeks had driven the Assad regime out completely, but for a small enclave on the Hermon. In the following years Israel wove a web of contacts with local rebel militias, which was exposed two years ago when Israel revealed the scope of its humanitarian aid to Syria, as part of the operation code-named “Good Neighborliness.”
The winding down of the battles reduces the immediate danger of escalation of hostilities against Israel. In the absence of fighting, there is no “spillage” of fire into Israeli territory and no reason to send drones to the border area. The IDF can shift its concerns to long-term issues, such as reinstating the 1974 disengagement agreement and the resumption of The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force’s activity.
Meanwhile, Russia said it has agreed with Iran to keep the Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militias at least 85 kilometers from the Israeli border. Can Putin’s word be trusted? That rather depends on whether one believes Moscow’s denials of poisoning former Russian military officer and spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain, and of meddling with the United States’ last presidential elections.
Veteran intelligence officers in Israel, who have been keeping tabs on Iran’s ties with Hezbollah since the 1980s, voiced doubts this week over the possibility of enforcing the agreement. They said the Iranians specialize in the long game; that is, their strategy is aimed at achieving goals years ahead, with the intention of increasing Iran’s influence in the Middle East and creating a threat on Israel from a new direction.
The Iranians are hardly likely to abandon their aspirations due to merely temporary obstacles, even if in this round Israel appears to have come out on top.