In the shadow of the incessant headlines generated by the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, an acute crisis is developing on the country’s northern border. For now, it’s an internal Lebanese crisis. Israel’s northern neighbor is in the throes of a vast economic shock that calls into question even the simplest, everyday operations. The resulting tension places Hezbollah in an uncomfortable situation. Concurrently, the organization also sustains occasion collateral damage from Israel’s partially covert military campaign against Iran in Syria.
This week, a Hezbollah fighter was killed in the area of the Damascus airport in one of the attacks attributed to the Israel Air Force. The Israel Defense Forces deployed in anticipation of a potential controlled response by the Shi’ite Muslim organization, in the light of earlier threats by the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to create an “equation of deterrence” with Israel. In August, Nasrallah said Hezbollah would retaliate against Israel from Lebanese territory for every one of its personnel killed in Syria.
On Thursday, the IDF posted a battalion of the Golani Brigade along the border with Lebanon. Israel’s assessment is that Hezbollah will seek a limited operation, meant to send a message to Israel without dragging the sides into an all-out escalation. That’s what the organization did in April, damaging the Israel-Lebanon border fence in three places after a missile strike on a Hezbollah jeep on the Syria-Lebanon border. In September, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles, missing an IDF ambulance on the border, in response to an attack in which two Lebanese personnel in the Syrian Golan Heights were killed, and to a bombing attack in predominantly Shi’ite southern Beirut suburb of Dahieh.
The intersection of the recent events – backgrounded by Iranian allegations of Israel’s mysterious sabotage of the nuclear facility in Natanz at the beginning of the month – is heightening regional edginess. On the face of it, the last thing Nasrallah wants now is a military confrontation. With the Lebanese economy tanking and the street agitated, diverting the heat to Israel will not necessarily be welcomed as a desirable way out of the crisis. Nasrallah, who emerged poorly from the strategic draw that was created with Israel in the 2006 war, isn’t eager to reprise the experience, even if it also left scars on the southern side of the border. At times, or so it appears to those observing Nasrallah from here, he behaves like the responsible adult of the Shi’ite axis and hastens to restrain overly ambitious ideas entertained by his patrons in Tehran and Damascus.
Last week, before the latest attack in Syria but deep into the crisis in Lebanon, the head of the IDF Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, sat down for a lengthy conversation with Haaretz. The location was a site with a unique landscape, which few get to see: the observation position high on the antenna of the IDF outpost in Rosh Hanikra. From a height of more than 100 meters above the grottoes from which Rosh Hanikra takes its name, the border area between the two countries is clearly visible – as is the next potential disputed area: the expanses of the Mediterranean Sea and the natural gas deposits in their depths, over the rights to which Israel and Lebanon are at loggerheads.
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According to Baram, the most distinctive feature of the present period in the region is instability, which has been intensified by the series of events that have occurred since the beginning of the year: the assassination of the Iranian general Qassam Soleimani by the United States, the sweeping economic crises in Lebanon and in Syria and the coronavirus pandemic across the Middle East.
“Economically, Lebanon is probably in its worst situation ever,” Baram says. “It’s approaching the period of the civil war there in the mid-1970s. Unemployment is running at 40 percent, and about half the population is now below the poverty line. There are reports of people committing suicide because of hunger.” This week the London Times reported that the power grids in Lebanon are only operating for a few hours a day.
“All of that is not directly related to us. If you ask a Lebanese citizen, I doubt that Israel is even 10th on his list of concerns. He is upset by the lack of hope for the future and apparently understands that one of the reasons for this is the comportment of Hezbollah. The doubts are also trickling down into the country’s Shi’ite community. Lebanon is in a true Catch-22, under increasingly harsh external sanctions which stem from American measures against Iran and Syria, compounded by the international institutions’ lack of confidence in the Lebanese economy. The coming year will be fateful for Lebanon; it could result in the country falling apart, becoming insolvent.”
Hezbollah, too, is confronting its worst-ever crisis, Baram avers. “When its personnel fought on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, the organization could claim that it was protecting the Lebanese from the Islamic State, keeping that organization away from them. That excuse faded away and most of the Hezbollah fighters returned to Lebanon. The organization is currently a dominant element in the country’s government. Prime Minister Hassan Diab is a mere puppet who follows Nasrallah’s directives.
“In principle,” Baram continues, “that’s convenient for Nasrallah: he holds the reins but is in the background. But he’s struggling to dissociate himself from the crisis. If he looks after only his people, the Shi’ites, he undermines the claim that the organization’s purpose is to protect Lebanon. In the meantime, Iran can no longer aid Hezbollah financially to the degree it once did.
This is a crisis for the entire Shi’ite axis, especially since Soleimani’s assassination in January. He was the physical embodiment of the axis of resistance, from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. For now, there’s no one capable of being in all those places and of stepping fully into his shoes.
“We have absolutely nothing to do with Lebanon’s domestic crisis. Every effort must be made not to get involved in it. I think the Lebanese recognize that the country is captive to Hezbollah, which joined up with a corrupt system. Israel has no offensive aspirations in Lebanon. It’s Hezbollah that is investing money in arms smuggling, in its precision rockets project, in building up firepower against Israel. In principle, a scenario could develop in which Nasrallah will try to point an accusing finger at Israel and heat up the situation with us. I don’t think he will do that now. He’s at a critical juncture,” Baram says. “The crisis in Lebanon is so deep that Nasrallah isn’t talking about Natanz. He is occupied with the future of his movement, with day-to-say survival. I don’t think it’s all that urgent for him to deal with other matters.”
In Baram’s view, “An internal breakup in Lebanon will be dangerous for us, too. We’ve been seeing a new phenomenon in recent months, of Sudanese citizens infiltrating into Israel and being caught near the fence. A Beirut restaurant worker is fired one morning, there are no flights home because of pandemic and he has nothing to eat, so at noon he tries to cross the border into Israel. It’s crazy: Had you told me a year ago that this would happen, I would have said you had too many drinks. But if the situation continues, it might not be only Sudanese who will try to cross.”
No fair fight
Baram, 50, became head of the Northern Command in April 2019. His father, Yitzhak Baram, who retired from the military with the rank of colonel, died the same month.
Amir Baram has served mainly in the Paratroopers Brigade. He commanded its reconnaissance unit on the eve of the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, two years later led the 890th Battalion during Operation Defensive Shield in the second intifada and was the commanding officer of the Paratroopers Brigade itself a decade ago. He has also served as commander of the 91st (Galilee) Division, of the Northern Corps and of the military colleges.
In February 1999, he dropped out of law school when he was summoned urgently to take over the command of the paratroopers reconnaissance unit after his friend, Maj. Eitan Balachsan, was killed in a clash with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The years in the Israeli security zone in Lebanon shaped him as a fighter and a commander, he said not long ago.
“I matured amid that, almost 12 years. That’s the reason I stayed in the army. It’s not that we didn’t have failures and losses. I still remember my stomach churning every time I crossed the Amiad Junction heading north, but the personal experience I came away with was one of success.”
From the Rosh Hanikra vantage point, the positions of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and the Lebanese Army are vividly visible, alongside the Shi’ite villages, in most of which Hezbollah combat systems are deployed. When the fighting in Syria ended, the bulk of the Radwan force, Hezbollah’s elite units, which bore much of the burden in the Syrian civil war, returned to southern Lebanon. Despite the economic crisis, Baram says, the organization has not ceased its spending for these units or abandoned its precision-guided missile project.
Baram is impressed by the practical experience gained by Hezbollah’s forces in the battles in Syria, but refuses to join in the army narrative to the effect that it’s necessary to frighten the Israeli public every so often about the horrors of the next war. True, Nasrallah has been threatening for years to “conquer Galilee,” but the head of the Northern Command recommends maintaining some perspective.
“In Syria, [Hezbollah] learned to shift from static self-defense to an offensive maneuver by the units. That happened in part because of what they saw in the Russian units fighting alongside. On the other hand, we’re not Islamic State. In Syria they had air superiority and Russian cover. That’s not the situation against us in Lebanon.
“They’re talking about attacks into our territory, about the evacuation of communities under fire. That could happen. We take their plans very seriously and are deploying accordingly. Our units’ training undergo is tougher and more demanding, in order to cope with them. But let’s not scare ourselves for no reason. I learned that lesson in Operation Defensive Shield. I was a young, square battalion commander, and we were told to expect that hundreds would be killed in the operation. So I added two REOs [trucks] to evacuate soldiers to our column that advanced to Bethlehem. I scared my soldiers for no reason. In a war, Hezbollah will try to capture army outposts and reach the first line of homes in [border-area communities], but there will be no conquest of Galilee. Nasrallah is the world champion in psychological warfare, but he understands well the true balance of forces. The damage he will suffer will be far greater than what he can do to us.
“Hezbollah’s advantage, in its military organizing, will also be its downfall,” Baram adds. “We will fight according to the laws of war: any house from which a Radwan platoon emerges, from which there is shooting, will be hit. Lebanese civilians know this. They won’t stay in their homes. One of our defense ministers [Amir Peretz, at the start of the Second Lebanon War in 2006] said that whoever goes to sleep with missiles should not be surprised when he wakes up with bombs. You can even write that in Haaretz. If they try to act, we won’t sit and wait until the Radwan fighters reach Shlomi. There will be no fair fight. There’s no chance we’ll let that happen.”
The rival organization’s fighters “aren’t Shi’ite suicide bombers,” Baram notes. “Intelligence overevaluation of the enemy and its intentions is worse than underevaluation. I look at the threat realistically and deploy. We have good intelligence, but we are also readying for a situation in which there won’t be enough intelligence and we’ll be taken by surprise. I’m never at ease: even if we have all the information, we might assess it wrongly.”
Tank force cuts
For several months, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick has been warning of the consequences of the IDF’s ongoing cuts to its tank force. Brick is especially concerned about the possibility that the Syrian army will be quickly rehabilitated, with external assistance, and will catch Israel unprepared.
“I too am a citizen of Israel and I am aware of the new economic circumstances,” Baram says. “If we build up the army to what it was in the past, there’ll be no money left for anything else. I’d love to have an army like the one in 1974-75, when the IDF received all the resources it wanted after the Yom Kippur War. There were 18 divisions then. The tanks covered 300 kilometers in training exercises every week. We mobilized reservists without thinking twice.
“Times have changed. We now account for every hour of engine time and every day of reserve duty. The country has other needs and it needs to manage risks. We are watching the rebuilding of the Syrian army. It will take at least three to five years before it will be a conventional force with genuine capabilities. The commando battalions of the Assad regime were the first to fall apart when the civil war broke out in 2011. I wouldn’t recommend investing in that threat as top priority in the present multiyear plan.”
We barely discussed the coronavirus. For a few hours, despite all the scenarios of a third Lebanon war, that was something of a relief.