Analysis |

From Lebanon to Jenin: The 'Gray Rhinos' on Israel's Doorstep

The Israeli army has applied this term, coined by analyst Michele Wucker, to two fronts. One of these rhinos has already charged

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers conducting an operation in the West Bank town of Jenin last week.
Israeli soldiers conducting an operation in the West Bank town of Jenin last week.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The nuclear talks in Vienna, an Israeli security source says, aren't being conducted as a dialogue but as two monologues. The room for compromise isn't very large, in part because both Iran and the United States are preoccupied with domestic issues.

The Tehran regime is busy addressing protests over the cancellation of fuel and bread subsidies that have driven up prices a few fold. This is compounded by a teachers’ protest and occasional violent incidents. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is preparing for the midterm elections and fears a loss to the Republicans.

LISTEN: 'Putin's own paranoia will bring NATO to his doorstep'

Regarding the nuclear agreement, Washington's promises to Israel – to hammer out a “stronger and longer” (in duration) accord – have dissolved. Remember that the world’s focus on the Iranian nuclear project is limited because eyes are largely on Ukraine (and Washington remains preoccupied by the China challenge).

In contrast to reports in recent weeks, Russia hasn't revised its deployment in Syria as a result of the war in Ukraine. Of course, the situation in Syria isn't the Kremlin’s top priority, and the forces, centered around the Khmeimim air base in the northwest, have decent maneuvering room.

It’s not clear whether this was the backdrop to the incident at the end of last week, which was reported by Channel 13. According to foreign sources, Israel's air force attacked the Syrian complex at Masyaf in central Syria and anti-aircraft missiles were fired from an S-300 battery whose commanders are Russians and soldiers Syrians.

The planes apparently weren't in danger, but this was the first incident of its kind, and it's a matter of concern in Israel. If Russia makes this a habit, it will worsen Israel's situation in the north.

In the past decade, the “black swan” concept has taken hold in the intelligence world, based on the theory by economist Nassim Taleb. According to Taleb, certain seminal historic events were considered unexpected, but in retrospect we can see logical causes. The analyst Michele Wucker developed a follow-on concept, the “gray rhino.” When you spot a rhino sprawled on the grass, you have to estimate when it will suddenly gallop toward you.

As 2022 approached, Military Intelligence spotted two possible gray rhinos: Lebanon's economic and political situation, which could slide into total chaos, and the state of affairs in the West Bank, where a new wave of terrorism could intersect with a deterioration in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' health and an intensified succession battle.

Militants during the funeral of Islamic Jihad's Shaas Kamamji near Jenin in April.Credit: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP

In the meantime, concerns about a terror wave became a reality two months ago. What started as attacks by Arab Israelis who supported the Islamic State quickly morphed into attacks by lone assailants, or pairs of assailants, from the West Bank.

Jenin remains the focal point. The army operates in the city and its adjacent refugee camp almost nightly, arresting wanted men, most of them independents or low-level players. But every foray provokes hefty Palestinian gunfire and casualties among the armed men, and in some cases among Palestinian civilians. Last Friday, Noam Raz of the Israel Police's counterterrorism unit was killed in a gun battle during an arrest operation in the refugee camp.

While most of the West Bank remains relatively quiet, the bloodletting in Jenin, while damaging to the militants, is also leading to revenge attempts inside the Green Line. The army, which has already begun to repair the separation barrier, plans to deploy extensive reinforcements there at least until the end of the year.

As a result, training of regular units will be hampered and there will be an unplanned call-up of reserve battalions for routine operational duty. This call-up is triggering mixed feelings in the reserve units; not all the commanders are convinced it's needed.

This week the prime minister paid a condolence call, which turned stormy, on Raz’s family in the settlement of Kida north of Ramallah. Naftali Bennett was greeted with curses outside the house and extremely abusive language inside. To his credit, he didn't answer back.

This is a phenomenon we've seen in the past, but it seems to have worsened in the past year, as it also occurred after the death of the Border Police's Barel Hadaria Shmueli, who was killed on the Gaza border. Both the political and military leaders absorb verbal attacks by bereaved families. In part, this is due to politically-linked anger (which is fueled by certain people), but it also seems to reflect a diminishing readiness to accept military losses in the confrontation with the Palestinians.

There's a paradox here. Raz’s son lashed out at the prime minister over his “weakness” against terrorism. In reality, Raz was killed in an offensive operation of the sort Bennett is urging the security forces to carry out: confronting the terrorists on their own turf.

The truth is, Bennett isn't taking flak because of the alliance with the United Arab List (an alliance Benjamin Netanyahu would have been happy to forge himself), or because of a "surrender to terrorism" or “crooked behavior” (Netanyahu did worse, without blinking).

The real issue is that by sitting in the prime minister’s chair, he's blocking the path of the person who was anointed to reign eternally. That’s the real reason for the tremendous anger at Bennett on the Bibi-ist right, which sometimes drifts into threats of physical harm. That’s the one and only story.

Exercise and reality

In the past two weeks the General Staff has been functioning in split-screen mode, more or less. On one side is the military exercise simulating a multi-arena conflict but whose chief arena is a war in Lebanon against Hezbollah. On the other side, in real life, Israel faces its worst terror wave in seven years.

The major exercise that the Israel Defense Forces planned for May 2021 was halted at the last minute when, on its second day, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem from Gaza. This time, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi was determined to avoid a rebroadcast. The exercise is proceeding almost normally, and with every report that the major generals hear, a clarification is required: which scenario is real-world and which isn't.

A demonstration against Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Kida in the West Bank on Wednesday.

In the exercise, Hezbollah sends heavy rocket fire into Israel. Heavy civilian deaths ramp up pressure on the government and military to respond powerfully from the air and then send troops into Lebanon to halt the barrages.

It’s no secret that in the 16 years since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has built up an offensive and defensive alignment that wouldn’t shame a midsized country. In the exercise, the IDF will be called on to address this forcefully.

This will entail attacks on military targets deliberately scattered in, and sometimes below, civilian areas. In the background is the Russian model, which doesn't make things easier for Israel. Russia is attacking indiscriminately in Ukraine and inflicting many civilian casualties while citing arguments that recall those used by Israel.

Israel is liable to be seen abroad as another Russia, even though Israel is more cautious in using force and will only act during a concrete danger to civilians.

Another question touches on Israeli attacks on Hezbollah. In 2006, the IDF sought to heighten these onslaughts by targeting civilian infrastructure in Lebanon – the power grid, bridges, interchanges, the Beirut airport. Washington demanded that Israel stop, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed.

Hezbollah supporters in southern Lebanon during the country's parliamentary election Sunday.Credit: Issam Abdallah/Reuters

Today, the General Staff believes that this will be necessary because of the scale of the damage to Israeli civilian areas, but the decision is in the hands of the security cabinet, and once again American counterpressure is a possibility.

The destruction of infrastructure is portrayed as a way to pressure the Lebanese government, but it has a minor effect on Hezbollah. In recent years, Lebanon has been weakening due to a nasty economic and political crisis; the question now is whether that country is a “failed state” or a “fake state.”

In 2006, the chief of staff at the time, Dan Halutz, threatened to send Lebanon back to the stone age. This time, the ability to make good on that threat is greater, but it entails difficulties for Israel, not to mention the moral aspects.

In any case, the danger of a slide into a confrontation with Hezbollah in the near future, as with Iran, isn't considered high. According to Military Intelligence, the organization’s first priority is Lebanon's economic and political situation (Hezbollah didn't do well in Sunday's parliamentary election). And in that picture, Israel is still a secondary player.

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