At a time when the defense establishment is focused on the new wave of Palestinian terrorism, the border with Lebanon appears almost pastoral. This is certainly the season to go hiking in the north of the country, but there’s no mistaking the true military order of priorities. The diversion of forces to the territories is due to a specific constraint: the public’s loss of a sense of security because of the attacks. The mood in the Israel Defense Forces, though, has remained unchanged for more than a decade: talking about Iran, preparing for war in Lebanon and, finally, once every few years, fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Next week, the officer in charge of the northern border sector will conclude his tour of duty there. Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder has been commander of the 91st Division (also known as the Galilee Formation) for two years and eight months. It was a tense period in the most sensitive military arena. But apart from a handful of incidents, which spawned lengthy periods of preparedness, Binder hopes to complete his term, as most of his predecessors did, without having to contend with any sharp plot twists.
The Second Lebanon War, in summer 2006, during which the IDF and the political leaders performed in a manner both frustrating and disturbing, actually resulted in an unprecedented period of quiet. Presumably the injuries that Israel and Hezbollah inflicted on each other created a balance of deterrence that still endures, somehow. Everyone makes lots of threats, while walking on tiptoes most of the time. At times like these, and until further notice (which as usual could come at any moment), the Galilee looks like the safest place in the country.
Binder, 47, was born in Haifa and lives in the Golan Heights. He began his military career as a combat soldier in Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff’s elite special-operations force. He went on to lead the sayeret, the Egoz commando unit and the Golani Brigade. In a few months he will, for the first time, take a desk job in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, Israel’s military headquarters. He will head its nerve center, the General Staff’s operations division. Barring a very extraordinary development, he will go on to become a member of the General Staff with the rank of major general in two or three years.
The conversation with him touches on a state of affairs that rarely makes the evening news – they’re busy with other matters – namely, the long economic and political collapse of our neighbor to the north, Hezbollah’s difficulties and the preparations on both sides for a possible third war in Lebanon.
In December 2018, even before Binder’s assignment began, a dramatic, major event occurred in the northern sector: Operation Northern Shield, in which the IDF found and destroyed six tunnels that Hezbollah had dug under the border and into Israeli territory, in preparation for a future surprise attack. Afterward, in each of the three following summers, there were long periods of tension that at times made it necessary for Binder to leave all the forces under his command at maximum readiness for weeks on end.
The tension stemmed from Hezbollah’s attempts to avenge the death of its men in attacks in Syria that were attributed to Israel (and in one case to respond to an airstrike in Beirut). The Israeli attacks were aimed primarily against arms smuggling and against Iran’s military consolidation in Syria. Hezbollah’s secretary general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, tried to establish new ground rules. In the most serious incident, in September 2019, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military ambulance on the Lebanon border. The fact that they missed the vehicle by just a few meters apparently spared the sides a significant flare-up.
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All this was happening while Lebanon became increasingly mired in a severe economic crisis, was declared insolvent and struggled to provide basic necessities such as electricity, medicine and even food to its citizens. Binder is convinced that Hezbollah’s insistence on quarreling with Israel at a time like this affected the organization’s popularity with the Lebanese.
“I think that most of Lebanon’s citizens are no longer impressed by Hezbollah’s efforts to present itself as the country’s protector. That narrative took a blow,” Binder says. “Hezbollah is not in the consensus, not even among Shi’ite Muslims. Internal opposition has sprung up. There are many people who want freedom and who object to fundamentalism. The proof is that the organization murders opponents from within the community if they attack it openly.
“A year and something ago,” he continues, “Lokman Slim, a Shi’ite journalist who was critical of [Hezbollah], was murdered in southern Lebanon. Don’t forget the explosion in Beirut Port, where Hezbollah stored explosives, the explosions in arms depots throughout Lebanon, the anger of the Druze in the south when Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel from the area of their villages last August. The Lebanese have a lot to lose. The economic situation is absolutely awful. Inflation and unemployment are rampant, and there is significant emigration to Europe and South America. Many Sunni Muslims and Christians are leaving the country. It’s estimated that nearly 120,000 people left within a period of about two years.”
According to Binder, “Amid the crisis, Hezbollah is expanding the Iranian foothold. While ordinary citizens don’t have food or fuel, Iranian-funded grocery chains and gas stations are assisting the Shi’ite community. The Iranian takeover is affecting Lebanon like the proverbial frog that gets boiled alive slowly. Even if Iran is subject to international sanctions, its aid to Hezbollah, though it has been affected, hasn’t stopped. A soldier in Lebanon’s army earns less than a Hezbollah operative. A Lebanese general makes $500 a month, like a rank-and-file Hezbollah operative. The Iranian influence is dangerous, not least because today they are more ready to be bold and play with fire in our direction.
“Is the country functioning? Their definitions are different from ours,” he says. “The bar is low: The electricity supply rises and falls, there is a large ‘black economy.’” Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May. “My assessment is that not much will change. Hezbollah is in control behind the scenes. They are the political kingmakers and in the end it will attain the balance that it wants. When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund demand [economic reforms in Lebanon], there’s a sham of it occurring. Hezbollah is entrenched in the corrupt order and won’t allow it to change. It’s a political body no less than it is a military one, and it has economic interests in the country. Nasrallah will do all he can to halt Western influence of a moderating nature in Lebanon.”
Lessons from Ukraine
Every visit to the Galilee Formation evokes memories of that gloomy summer of 2006. The division commander at the time, Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, urged – in vain – changes in Israel’s policy of response along the border, more comprehensive intelligence information and increased forces of higher quality. It ended, as will be recalled, with the abduction of two reservists, followed by a war and also the termination of Hirsch’s military career.
Binder says he does not purport to know what Nasrallah is thinking, and recalls that just recently some of the Western intelligence assessments about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine were proved wrong. “Still,” he says, “I would say that [Hezbollah] are deterred – both the leadership and the organization. But as the division commander who lives the front here on a daily basis, I constantly assume that there could be surprises and that Hezbollah might make an unexpected move. There is something almost genetic in the DNA of a territorial division. You are vigilant and uneasy the whole day. That’s a good thing. It keeps us alert. We understand that reality can jump from zero to 100 very quickly.”
Is he convinced that he will have prior intelligence about a sudden grab by Hezbollah on the border? “I deal with that a great deal. We have good intelligence on Hezbollah. But at my rank, I need to think about the capabilities of the other side, not their intentions. I see what they’re developing and try to precede them in developing our plans. In any event, I can’t afford to engage in risk management on the assumption that I will have an intelligence warning.”
The main change that has occurred on the border in recent years relates to the arrival of the Radwan unit, Hezbollah’s elite force, and its deployment in southern Lebanon, after years in which they garnered experience in the Syrian civil war. “They have tools they didn’t have in 2006, notably an attack plan and capability in our territory. They have expanded the firepower aimed at our home front and they have improved their defensive capability in the face of an IDF maneuver. The chief of staff calls them a terrorist army. One of the blatant signs of the transition from guerrilla status to an army is the development of broad offensive formations, and not only point-specific offense or defense. That is not necessarily bad for us. The more of an army they become and create permanent patterns, the more they generate targets for attack by us. An army needs to move, to accumulate forces. That leaves footprints.”
At the end of the last war, there was a clear inclination in the IDF to magnify Hezbollah’s combat capabilities and especially the fighting spirit of its troops. Binder suggests that we shouldn’t exaggerate. “In my eyes they don’t come close to our capabilities. They know how to work with an envelope of intelligence, firepower and other means, as they did alongside the Russians and the Iranians during the fighting in Syria. But that’s a less complex and less well-oiled system than ours. Our principal threat reference for many years is Hezbollah. We are planning, training and thinking about that. We have a stronger connection between intelligence, firepower and ground maneuver.”
Still, the IDF finds it difficult to define for itself the essence of victory in a confrontation with an enemy that is not exactly an army. In the first Lebanon war, in 1982, Israeli forces reached Beirut, but withdrew in a despondent atmosphere, despite the fact that Yasser Arafat and PLO officials left. In 2006, against Hezbollah, the IDF advanced only 10 to 15 kilometers and left Lebanon with the sense of a frustrating stalemate. That is a problem the high command continues to contemplate, but it’s clear that the tendency today is more to degrade the enemy’s assets than to seize territory and hold it for the long term. The goal, Binder says, will be “to finish when Hezbollah has sustained a mortal blow. We will try to reduce significantly their arsenal of all types, to strike at commanders and fighters. The hope is that it will lead to deterrence of many years.”
The war in Ukraine, which the IDF is following closely for its professional lessons, has shown once again how difficult it is for an army to capture densely built-up urban areas. For more than a month the Russians have been having difficulty in conquering Mariupol, in the southeast of the country, despite their vast superiority in combat personnel and weaponry. Paradoxically, it’s the immense destruction in the city that is aiding the defending force to some extent, as it’s easier to find shelter in that situation.
“There is a great deal to be learned from what the Russians are encountering,” Binder notes. “It’s illustrating very well what should be done and what should not be done. What a logistics convoy should look like, how important it is to maintain tanks and to invest in emergency depots, and to protect armor from aerial attacks.”
One blatant difference between Israel and Russia is the latter’s ability to continue the campaign for a month and a half so far, despite sweeping international protests, condemnations and sanctions. In Israel’s wars, the international clock has usually ticked faster and more pressingly. Binder thinks that in case of a war in the north, the destruction that Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles will inflict, will paradoxically allow the IDF more time and space, and will generate strong domestic legitimization for its moves.
“Hezbollah,” he says, “has a great deal of advanced weaponry. It won’t be possible to portray them as an impoverished army that is just taking a beating.” But an extensive offensive thrust by Hezbollah, he believes, “will inflict disaster both on the organization and on the Lebanese state.” Even though Nasrallah has been relatively cautious for years in his long-term duel with Israel, Binder maintains that the Shi’ite leader underestimates the IDF’s current offensive capability as well as Israel’s readiness to take far-reaching measures if attacked. “That will vent something within us that I don’t think he fully grasps.”
For years, Israel made a mistake by describing its enemies not only as extremists motivated by ideological and religious hate for the Jewish state, but also as irrational. That approach prevailed regarding Iran, regarding Hezbollah and in the past two years has been voiced quite a bit even with regard to decisions made by Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar. Binder says that Nasrallah is “rational, but not necessarily with our rationality. Is he sane and judicious in making his decisions? In my opinion, yes. The question is whether that leads to expected decisions from our point of view – and the answer is: not always. I have a certain cognitive difficulty in trying to understand him: I am an Israeli, not a Lebanese Shi’ite.”