Analysis |

Hezbollah and Jewish Settlers Are PM Lapid's Biggest Challenges

While tensions have been rising between Israel and Hezbollah over a disputed maritime border, a campaign to erect three unauthorized outposts in the West Bank is gaining popularity at home. Still, defense officials seem to have some reason for optimism

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Demonstrations in the settlement outpost of Evyatar, West bank in February.
Demonstrations in the settlement outpost of Evyatar, West bank in February.Credit: Amir levy
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

From its very first days, the caretaker government headed by Yair Lapid is facing new challenges and possibly new trolling as well. On the security front, Hezbollah is inflating an essentially technical issue relating to the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon as an excuse to issue new threats.

At home, one of the settler movements is organizing an initiative to set up new outposts in the West Bank on Wednesday. The Israel Defense Forces and police are preparing to repel this venture. Such incidents are expected to continue and possibly intensify the closer we get to the November 1 election. These are attempts to test the resolve of the government, possibly locating vulnerabilities that will allow the extraction of some benefits in the future.

The tension between Israel and Hezbollah was raised a notch on July 2, when Hezbollah dispatched three drones toward the Karish gas drilling platform in the Mediterranean, which is clearly situated south of the maritime border (even though its exact location has not yet been settled, with American-brokered negotiations taking place between Israel and Lebanon.)

The IDF intercepted these drones, announcing that it had downed another one a few days earlier. This was perceived by Israel as a clear declaration of intent, an explicit threat to harm a critical economic asset, despite Hezbollah’s understanding that this would drag the region into another war.

The threats have continued since those incidents. The group’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah threatened last week to expand the area of confrontation “beyond Karish.” If the boundary issue is not resolved over the next two months, he warned, his organization would disrupt any further drilling.

Israeli defense officials doubt that Hezbollah would act on these threats given the dire economic situation Lebanon is in. However, independent analysts such as retired Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, Dr. Shimon Shapira and Dr. Daniel Sobelman (in Haaretz) describe this tension as dangerous, the gravest Israel's northern border has seen in years.

This was the backdrop for the joint visit of Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to the IDF’s Northern Command on Tuesday. Traditionally, this is the first stop for an army visit by a new prime minister, but it may also have been meant to convey a public message to Hezbollah.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz tour with the IDF Northern Command on Tuesday.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

A joint communique by Lapid and Gantz noted the “firm message” they were delivering to Hezbollah. (If you have to give yourselves superlatives, perhaps the wording itself was not clear enough?)

It’s likely that on the other side of the border, they got the message. Lapid said: “We are not interested in a confrontation, but anyone trying to harm our sovereignty or citizens will quickly discover that they’ve made a grave mistake,” he said. Gantz added that “Lebanon will be badly burned if it chooses a path of fire.”

These threats were aimed not at Hezbollah this time, but at Lebanon’s government, to the extent that this beat-up body still controls the country. The idea was not to allow Nasrallah to argue later that his threats led to Israeli concessions in the negotiations over the maritime border.

Defense officials have two optimistic assumptions: that the threats will not lead to an unplanned war this summer, and that Lebanon will not relinquish such a huge economic opportunity, ultimately consenting to draw an agreed-upon boundary. Under these circumstances, especially if the same foreign company drills on both sides of the border, there will be an incentive to maintain calm once the drilling commences.

Affair not over yet

The Defense Ministry issued an unusual announcement on Tuesday morning, noting that Gantz had been presented with information relating to the plan to set up unauthorized outposts across the West Bank on Wednesday. The minister noted that this was an illegal activity and that the army and police were instructed to prevent this from happening.

Behind the initiative are some of the people who got the country in trouble over Evyatar, the outpost established near the Tapuach junction, south of Nablus, in the midst of the war with Gaza last May. Its residents were evacuated by agreement, but the affair is not over yet. The houses that were quickly built there still stand and the IDF is guarding the place, with settlers clamoring to return and settle there.

Israeli flags wave at the entrance to the outpost of Evyatar in the occupied West Bank in March.Credit: Moti Milrod

A similar confrontation is unfolding around Homesh, an outpost that was evacuated but then re-occupied by settlers after an Israeli civilian was murdered there last December. Under Naftali Bennett, the government found it difficult to end these two confrontations. Ahead of an election, Lapid will also find it hard to dispose of them.

Defense forces have discovered that thousands of activists and settlers, including many families, wish to attend this campaign. Fliers distributed by organizers led to the wrong impression that this was a “happening” coordinated with and secured by the IDF. Gantz’s declaration was intended to reduce the number of participants. Even if settlers succeed in one or two locations, the intention is to immediately evacuate them, in order to avoid another Homesh or Evyatar.

No great ripples

The Palestinian territories are not quite calm, even though the fear of terror that gripped the greater Tel Aviv area in March and April has dissipated with the abatement of attacks within the Green Line. There was a stabbing incident in Jerusalem on Tuesday, and shots were fired from the Gaza Strip, one of them hitting a building in Moshav Netiv Ha’asara near the border. The IDF responded with an airstrike against a Hamas position along the border.

As long as things remain on a low flame, they aren’t causing great ripples. But one should remember that security events such as last May’s war or the wave of attacks last spring came at the end of the term of Israel’s last two prime ministers, Netanyahu and Bennett. Since we are in any case heading toward an election, terror organizations cannot topple Lapid, but they can certainly make his life miserable.

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