Analysis

Hezbollah Commandos Are Back on Israel's Border, and They're Armed With the Element of Surprise

Israel believes Nasrallah is deterred since the 2006 war, but thinks Hezbollah and Iran are seeking to challenge it with a limited conflict

Amos Harel
Yaniv Kubovich
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United Nations peacekeeping forces patrol the Lebanese side of the Israeli-Lebanese border, December, 2018.
United Nations peacekeeping forces patrol the Lebanese side of the Israeli-Lebanese border, December, 2018. Credit: Mohammed Zaatari / AP
Amos Harel
Yaniv Kubovich

The main change that has taken place over the past year on the Israeli-Lebanese border involves Hezbollah’s new military preparedness. Following about five years in which most of Hezbollah’s efforts, and most of the people in its top units, were mired in the Syrian civil war, the fighters have returned home, to southern Lebanon.

Members of Hezbollah’s Radwan commando force have been released from the Assad regime’s battle for survival and have returned to their original positions in Lebanon, near the front line. Some of the units are deployed relatively close to the border with Israel, with a presence south of the Litani River as well, in violation of the terms of the cease-fire spelled out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 at the end of the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

At an observation post overlooking Lebanon from the Israeli side of the border, it’s possible to make out observation points facing in the other direction, which were established by Hezbollah more than two years ago on the pretext that they belonged to an environmental group. Some of Hezbollah’s activities along the border are carried out in civilian garb and without weapons being visible, in coordination with the Lebanese army. But Israeli intelligence has been gathering documented proof of the activity, as part of its regular wrangling with Lebanon over violations of UN resolutions.

In the Israeli army, it has been difficult to identify which of the activists are Radwan members and which belong to Hezbollah’s regional defense network, which has been deployed in the south over the years: Commando activists move around differently and are equipped differently from regional activists.

Hezbollah’s years of fighting in Syria alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Russian army officers have given the organization and its commanders critical experience in fields that were unfamiliar to them in the past. This experience, however, came coupled with heavy loses. (In Israel the estimate is that about 2,000 Hezbollah fighters were killed and more than 8,000 were wounded).

But the return to the south gives Hezbollah another advantage: The proximity of its top units to the border theoretically shortens the time it needs to carry out a surprise attack against Israel, in the nature of a move talked about it recent years – a surprise takeover of communities or Israeli army positions along the border.

The General Staff and Northern Command officers are aware of this risk and a number of changes have been made in the army’s defense and intelligence alignment to thwart the danger.

The tension along the border peaked in a series of events at the end of August, when three attacks that were attributed to Israel took place – against Iranian combatants and affiliated Shi’ite organizations in Iraq, near the Golan border in Syria and in Iraq. Israel took responsibility for only one of the attacks. Hezbollah responded with an anti-tank ambush near Moshav Avivim on September 1, when three missiles were fired at and missed an army ambulance.

United Nations peacekeeping forces patrol the Lebanese side of the Israeli-Lebanese border, December, 2018.
United Nations peacekeeping forces patrol the Lebanese side of the Israeli-Lebanese border, December, 2018. Credit: Mohammed Zaatari / AP

After the attacks, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened a war on the Israeli UAVs, which were reportedly involved in all the strikes. At the end of October Hezbollah launched, for the first time in years, an anti-tank missile at an Israeli drone circling the south Lebanon sky. The missile missed.

Missile fire is part of the rival sides’ message exchange. Despite Nasrallah’s firm rhetoric, Israeli intelligence assumes he has no current interest in starting a war and is still being held back by the harsh lessons of the 2006 war. The problem is that not everything is up to him. The regular tension along the border fits in with the regional instability. The Iranian leadership and allies are under heavy pressure, due to the bloody riots in Iraq, the massive protest refusing to die down in Lebanon and the fuel protest in Iran itself, which was brutally quashed more than two weeks ago but could still reignite.

In these circumstances, and considering the increasing pace of the changes, it’s no wonder Military Intelligence has updated its evaluation and believes the risk of war has increased in the past year.

The IDF detects Iran and Hezbollah’s desire to challenge Israel with an isolated incident that isn’t meant to escalate into a large-scale war. But Israel believes every such incident increases the chance of a mistake being made. The fear of miscalculation pertains to misreading the rival’s “war threshold.” Hezbollah could initiate a provocation that, in its opinion, doesn’t justify opening up a war, but Israel may think differently and react forcefully, bringing the sides closer to war.

In the background another source of danger is simmering – Hezbollah’s “precision project.” Israel claims it has thus far thwarted most Iranian moves to improve the Hezbollah missiles’ precision. This was done by attacking arms smuggling convoys in Syria, together with public pressure that led to the evacuation of missile-production and precision-upgrade sites shortly after they were set up in Lebanon. But Iran hasn’t given up on this activity, so sooner or later a clash with Israel is expected over new production lines in Lebanon.

At the same time the effectiveness of the “campaign between the wars,” waged by the IDF and the Israeli intelligence community, comes into question. On the northern front a large part of this campaign was focused on preventing arms smuggling. However, Israel’s freedom to act in the north has been somewhat curtailed, because as the civil war in Syria dies down, there is more friction with the other states’ interests.

Russia is concerned over the risk of the Israeli attacks to its troops in Syria, Iran is trying to establish a new equation of retaliating against every Israeli strike, and the Syrian regime is determined to respond to every bombing or shelling in Syria’s territory, as reported in Haaretz last Friday.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett thinks the opposite is true. In his opinion Israel now has an opportunity to ramp up the attacks and strive forcefully to remove all Iranian military presence from Syria.

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