Analysis |

War With Hezbollah May Not Be Imminent, but Israel Has a Long-term Problem

A new unit in the Israeli army’s Northern Command seeks to address the shortcomings

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Members of a new unit that will face any incursion by Hezbollah, this week.
Members of a new unit that will face any incursion by Hezbollah, this week.Credit: Amir Levy
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

During Yom Kippur week 5782, the Israeli army hasn’t been particularly concerned about the possibility of a war with Hezbollah. Lebanon still seems preoccupied with itself. The country remains volatile, with some people on the brink of hunger and the new government that formed last week not expected to deliver them from the crisis.

Even Hezbollah’s launching of 20 Katyusha rockets last month from southern Lebanon at nearby Har Dov did little to shake the forecast by the Israel Defense Forces. Earlier, Palestinian cells linked to Hamas and operating in the refugee camps around Tyre fired rockets at Israel twice. Israel escalated in response, as jets bombed a road near the launch site.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah felt bound to respond to the use of planes, seen on the Lebanese side as a violation of the unwritten rules. But Nasrallah also took care only to fire on open areas, and to clarify immediately that, as far as he was concerned, the escalation was over.

In the longer term, Israel has a problem. The Shi’ite militia has more than 70,000 rockets, (and if we include mortar bombs, the number is almost double). The rockets cover every spot in Israel – and more importantly, dozens are equipped with systems allowing for precision strikes within meters of the target.

Then there’s the upgrading of the Radwan commando force, an elite unit of several thousand fighters with years-long combat experience in the Syrian civil war. This experience has led to a change in concept. Hezbollah is preparing for an attack in which, if a war breaks out, its fighters will try to seize an Israeli village or town near the border, or a series of outposts and key strongholds, delaying the IDF’s entry into southern Lebanon.

Lebanese at a rally in Baalbek, Lebanon, this week with a poster of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in the background.Credit: AFP

Israel recognized this changing approach around 2015. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, then still Northern Command head, was the first to describe Hezbollah as a “terror army,” far beyond a regular terrorist organization. The IDF has taken gradual steps to improve its defense and increase surveillance of Hezbollah. Among its steps, Israel is renovating segments of the border fence (a large budget for this was recently approved) and has opened a new training ground near the border to allow the fielding of another unit on constant alert.

But during the periodic exchanges of blows, the sides haven’t gone too far. Each time – in January 2015, August 2019 and last month – both sides apparently preferred to stop before igniting a clash with ground forces.

As part of the response to a possible incursion by Hezbollah, a new reserve unit is being formed in the Northern Command. The unit will be under the 91st Division, which secures the Lebanese border. The new unit will operate as a swift intervention force if Hezbollah attacks. On board will be several hundred combat soldiers, mostly from special units and infantry brigades, all Galilee residents.

The soldiers will keep their guns and gear at home, to be deployed as reinforcements to the non-reserve force in the area, even before the IDF can mobilize additional forces. This model is based in part on the Lotar unit stationed in Eilat, which also relies on reservist fighters. This is needed because of the distance between Eilat in the far south and the center of the country.

Col. Benny Meir, the special ops and regional defense officer at the 91st Division, told Haaretz this week that the unit, which will become operational by the end of the year, is intended “to help the army in the battle for time.”

A soldier in the new unit to face Hezbollah, at the Elyakim military base in the north this week.Credit: Amir Levy

“If Hezbollah manages to introduce forces into our territory by surprise, the quick counter-organization will be crucial,” Meir says. “Such a force should be high-quality, well-trained, and above all, available. The reservists are highly responsive because people here understand the need. We also see importance in them literally defending their homes.”

Most of the fighters will be 30 to 40 years old, people who have made the Galilee the center of their lives, and they will include a relatively high number of officers. “Age has its advantages too,” Meir says. “You’re looking for people with patience, experience, gravitas – and a sense of perspective.”

On the team forming the unit, D., a 52-year-old major in the reserves, doesn’t live in the Galilee. But for his friend, Meir, he agreed to coordinate the recruitment process for the new unit.

Visiting an exercise by the unit this week, you could tell that these are nothing like the troops in the famous Israeli movie “Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer.” These are serious, dedicated people who have joined an endeavor they find vital.

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