Israel's Military Now Sees Hezbollah as an Army in Every Sense

The Shi'ite Lebanese militia's battle experience in Syria raises its game considerably.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Members of the Baath Party carry a picture of Assad and Hassan Nasrallah during a funeral in southern Lebanon, March 2, 2016.
Members of the Baath Party carry a picture of Assad and Hassan Nasrallah during a funeral in southern Lebanon, March 2, 2016.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

For about three and half years, since the summer of 2012, Hezbollah has been actively involved in the Syrian civil war. From protecting its weapons caches on Syrian soil and guarding assets essential to the regime of President Bashar Assad, the Lebanese organization moved on to frontline positions. In many cases, it is Shi’ite fighters who led Assad’s attacks on rebel organizations, and paid a price accordingly. At the beginning of this year it was estimated in the Israel Defense Forces that at least 1,300 Hezbollah fighters had been killed in the war in Syria and about 5,000 wounded. At any given moment Hezbollah has about 5,000 of its fighters in Syria, nearly a quarter of its standing force.

Intelligence officials in Israel pondered for quite some time how to assess the war’s effect on Hezbollah. The long fighting and heavy losses have created a problem of erosion in the organization, which has been subjected to severe criticism at home about sending Shi’ite young men to their deaths in Syria only to save the tyrant from Damascus. Hezbollah does not publish the official count of its dead and has buried some of them in nighttime funerals with the aim of avoiding media coverage.

The organization’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has had to explain time and again that the fighting in Syria is essential in order to save the Muslim world from Al-Qaida, Islamic State and their ilk. Hezbollah found it difficult to continue to depict itself as defending Lebanon when Sunni suicide terrorists blew themselves up in the heart of Beirut in response to the organization’s involvement in the Syrian war. The flames in Syria, said former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz in a speech in June 2013, are already licking the hem of Nasrallah’s robe.

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters through a giant screen during a rally commemorating the annual Hezbollah Martyrs' Leader Day in Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 16, 2016. Credit: Reuters

However, the tilting of the scales in favor of Assad’s regime brought about by Russia’s intervention in Syria also is also benefiting Hezbollah. The organization is now identified with the side that appears to have the upper hand in the war. The close work with Iranian commanders and recently, to a lesser extent, with Russian officers as well, has upgraded Hezbollah’s fighting capability. Those commanders and fighters who have survived the war years have accumulated very valuable experience in difficult battles. In Syria, Hezbollah has engaged in a wide range of operations including joint actions with airplanes, helicopters, drones, artillery, tanks and advanced intelligence capabilities.

Though at present the organization does not have planes or tanks of its own, in every other respect its capabilities are nearly equal to those of a mid-level army. It has about 45,000 fighters, including 21,000 standing forces, more than 100,000 increasingly accurate rockets and missiles, of which several thousand are mid- and long-range.

From Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the UN General Assembly last October, it can be inferred that Hezbollah has succeeded in smuggling advanced weapons systems from Syria into Lebanon, including accurate surface-to-surface missiles, SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles and Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles. The continuous supply of high-quality weaponry and the battlefield experience it is accumulating in Syria have also given Hezbollah independent capability in essential areas like commando fighting and operating drones, including attack drones.

In the mid 1990s, when the fight against Hezbollah in the security zone in southern Lebanon was escalating, it was the chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who determined that the army had to treat Hezbollah as a guerilla organization rather than as terrorists or terror cells. In the context of the Syrian war, the IDF is now coming to the recognition that the Lebanese enemy has become an army in every respect.

In an article published about two years ago in the military journal “Ma’arakhot,” a military intelligence officer outlined Hezbollah’s possible intentions in another war against Israel: a surprise attack along the border in which commando forces from the organization try to attack a community or a small military base with the aim of opening the fight with a perceived achievement, creating an impression Israel would have difficulty overcoming. This, argued the officer, is the real meaning of Nasrallah’s threats of “conquering the Galilee.”

Since then things have become somewhat clearer. Today it can be assumed that the organization aspires to achieve the capability for simultaneous attacks on a number of Israeli locales and military outposts along the border with the opening shots of the war. Such a plan, were it to succeed, would enable it to try to interfere with the mobility of IDF units along the border and also hinder conscription of reserve units. The terrain along the border with Lebanon is mountainous and complicated. This topography affords the attacker significant ability to surprise, which almost eliminates the need to dig attack tunnels.

It has already been written a number of times that currently Hezbollah does not have a motivation for war because Nasrallah’s mind is thoroughly engaged elsewhere, in Syria. Yet while this year the military intelligence assessment for the north holds that the risk of a Hezbollah-initiated war is low, it also raised to moderate likelihood the possibility that a war could break out as the result of a miscalculation between the sides. The army is preparing itself accordingly, from extensive engineering works along the border with the aim of impeding penetration by attacking forces, through tightened intelligence coverage of Hezbollah activities, to practice maneuvers.

In any case, there is a need for a move to coordinate expectations between the IDF and the Israeli public. It is doubtful the average citizen has digested what the officers understand – that any additional war in the north will cost the IDF many losses, that the mass of rockets Hezbollah will fire into communities along the border will require a partial evacuation of inhabitants and that missile damage to the center of the country will be far worse than what we experienced in the previous wars in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

If a war breaks out, Israel will have to apply unprecedented force in Lebanon. Heavy bombardments from the air will not suffice. The IDF will need a considerable ground advance to exact a price from Hezbollah. At the same time, under significant public pressure, the government will apparently also consider an attack on civilian infrastructure of the Lebanese state in an attempt to bring about the quick cessation of the firing of missiles into the home front.

In the north there is a challenge of a magnitude the IDF has not dealt with in recent years – and from Israel’s perspective this is another reason to maintain the deterrence against Hezbollah and delay the next war as much as possible.

The Buchris scandal

The truth in the accusations against General Ofek Buchris will apparently become clear only at the end of a legal proceeding. To the detailed claims by a demobilized female soldier who served in his bureau when he was commander of the Golani Brigade concerning sexual offenses against her, Buchris has replied with a categorical denial.

Long acquaintance with Buchris confirms that he is indeed what has been said about him: an outstanding officer who evinced courage in battle, was severely wounded, underwent a lengthy rehabilitation process with tremendous effort and came back to command the best combat units in the IDF. In many encounters, he has come across as a thoughtful, wise officer. But all the attempts made in recent days by his comrades at arms, female soldiers who formerly served with him, media people and ordinary citizens who have tried to extrapolate from this what happened in a closed room between a commander and a female soldier are doomed to failure.

There is not necessarily any connection between functioning in the battlefield and commanding fighters, and sexual conduct. Ultimately, it is a question of the credibility of the evidence, of one version versus the other. Precisely for this reason there is a military police investigation and later on, if the military prosecution finds the claims credible, perhaps even a military court.

Ofek Buchris, 2010.Credit: Itzik Ben Malki

The decision by Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan to suspend Buchris for two weeks would not have been taken without consulting Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Military Advocate General Sharon Afek. It is hard to believe that the three of them would have taken such a significant step, on the eve of Buchris’ entry into the position of head of the Operations Division at the General Staff, if they did not give at least some credibility to the suspicions.

A complaint filed by another female soldier on Wednesday is expected to complicate Buchris’ situation further and prolong the controversy. Even if in the end it is decided to close the investigation, he will not be appointed in time to his position. At the General Staff they are putting our feelers for a replacement. One possibility is Brigadier General Tamir Yadai, Buchris’ friend from the Golani Brigade, who is now on study leave after completing his stint as commander of a division in the West Bank last summer.

The role of commander of a regular infantry brigade, especially commander of the Golani Brigade that is always in the thick of activity, is considered a promising springboard to integration into the General Staff forum. Surprisingly, this is not what has happened in Golani in recent years. The last commander of the brigade who was taken in as a major general was Chief of Staff Eisenkot, who completed his stint as commander of the brigade in 1999. Five other brigade commanders – Shmuel Zakai, Moshe (Chico) Tamir, Erez Zuckerman, Avi Peled and now, it seems, Buchris as well – attained the rank of brigadier general and did not advance beyond that, for various reasons. Yadai, commander of the brigade in the second Lebanon War, could be the only exception in this bunch.

Battle for the beard

In the Buchris affair, too, there were those who insisted on framing the complaints about him as a plot against an outstanding kippa-wearing officer, as though the female soldiers who have complained are partners to some conspiracy by Breaking the Silence. This is a strange argument, even considering that throughout the years Buchris has taken care, including in an interview to Haaretz in 2012, to keep his religious way of life and his political opinions completely private.

Even as the scandal broke, the religious sector was in a frenzy for another reason: a new military order forbidding soldiers to grow a beard without permission from a command adjutancy officer with the rank of colonel. The order was aimed at improving the neglected appearance of many soldiers, who cited religious reasons to exempt themselves from the requirement to shave daily.

A religious IDF soldier praying Credit: Alex Levac

Originally, the IDF was lenient with religious soldiers, allowing them to make do with permission from a rabbinate officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel. However, a petition by secular soldiers to the High Court of Justice compelled the army to make one set of regulations for everyone. This is what caused a stir in the association of rabbis of hesder yeshivas (combining religious study and military service) and other senior rabbis, who began to attack the IDF for supposedly persecuting the religious soldiers. There will even be a special session of a Knesset subcommittee on the issue next week.

Also fueling the rabbis’ wrath was the conduct of the army in the matter, as a number of unit commanders mistakenly informed religious soldiers that they would be required to shave from the beginning of March (when actually they still had time to appeal and receive permission to grow a beard). However, behind the protest there are apparently other issues, among them the criticism of the chief of staff’s decision to take the Jewish Identity branch away from the the military rabbinate. This gave rise to angry accusations by rabbis like Shlomo Aviner, who warned of “dark days in the IDF.”

However, the person who crossed the line, and also angered Eisenkot, was former chief military rabbi Yisrael Weiss. He called upon religious soldiers to disobey an order to cut off their beards, even though thus far not a single religious soldier has been ordered to do so and it is doubtful that any of them ever will be. Just a few weeks ago Weiss called on the current chief military rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, to resign because of the transfer of the Jewish Identity branch, which he described as “a bullet to the heart of Judaism.”

This is startling behavior on the part of someone who served in the IDF for decades. At the General Staff they wondered this week whether there wasn’t belated regret here on Weiss’s part for his role as chief military rabbi during the Gaza disengagement in 2005, when he squirmed for weeks with contradictory messages to religious soldiers without saying directly whether they should obey or disobey an order to evacuate settlers from Gush Katif.

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