Analysis

As Israel and Hezbollah Trade Barbs, Army Sees Opportunity in Coronavirus Crisis

Even when the government’s attention, and a good deal of the Israeli army’s efforts, are invested in fighting COVID-19, Israel has not deviated from the red lines it has set in the north

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers monitoring the movement of United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on the Lebanese side of the border, April 18, 2020.
Israeli soldiers monitoring the movement of United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on the Lebanese side of the border, April 18, 2020.Credit: ALAA MAREY/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, it seems that Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged threatening messages over the past few days. First, according to foreign media, the Israel Air Force attacked a Hezbollah vehicle on the Syrian-Lebanese border on Wednesday. Two days later, on Friday night, Hezbollah sabotaged the border fence between Israel and Lebanon in three different places. The bottom line: Despite the fact that Israel and its neighbors are preoccupied with fighting the coronavirus, the military friction between the sides is expected to continue, although their patience has frayed and their room to maneuver has decreased.

Even when the government’s attention, and a good deal of the Israeli army’s efforts, are invested in fighting COVID-19, Israel has not deviated from the red lines it has set in the north: Stopping Hezbollah from obtaining advanced weaponry, especially precision systems, preventing the Iranian army from gaining a foothold in Syria, and preventing Hezbollah and pro-Iranian groups from deploying along the Syrian border on the Golan Heights.

Some in the Israel Defense Forces even believe that there is an opportunity here. According to this approach, the American assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in early January hurt Iran’s ability to lead ambitious action in the north. And the coronavirus delivered a harsh blow to Iran itself. Moreover, claims that the virus is being spread in the region by Revolutionary Guards’ aircraft have restricted Iran’s and Hezbollah’s actions in the north. It seems that this is what is behind the decision to continue ratcheting up the so-called battle between the wars.

According to reports from Syria, the attack on Wednesday was preceded by a warning missile fired near the Hezbollah vehicle. After the Hezbollah men left the vehicle another missile was fired at the vehicle, destroying it. Presumably it contained weapons or components designed to upgrade the precision of Hezbollah weaponry. This time Hezbollah decided to respond. The fence was damaged in three different places at the same time. That appears to have been a coordinated operation intended to convey a message: Hezbollah will not remain silent when it believes Israel struck one of its vehicles near Lebanese territory.

Israel and Hezbollah have a long history of exchanging such messages. After a strike attributed to Israel in which missiles were fired into Lebanese territory near the town of Janta in Lebanon in 2014, Hezbollah responded with a series of attacks on the Israeli border from the Syrian Golan. In September of last year, after what Hezbollah assessed was an Israeli bombardment of a component of Hezbollah’s precision upgrade project in the Dahieh quarter of Beirut, Hezbollah fighters waiting in ambush fired antitank missiles at an Israeli military ambulance near the Lebanese border.

But as opposed to ordinary times, the tension is palable now that all sides are preoccupied with other troubles. Iran, as noted, has been hit hard by the coronavirus (with the number of dead much higher than the official toll of 5,000 that the regime cites). Lebanon is mired in a severe economic crisis, exacerbated by the damage of the pandemic. Israel too has little patience for taunts that could lead to escalation. The fight against the coronavirus is the first priority, but the old clashes are still there in the background, and show no real signs of letting up.

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