How Israel, Hezbollah and Iran Almost Went to War This Week

At 4:10 P.M. on Sunday, Israel Defense Forces observation posts along the Lebanese border identified Hezbollah cells firing anti-tank rockets into the Israeli side of the border. These scenes were also picked up on the screens of the Northern Command bunker, deep underground beneath the command headquarters in Safed.

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The decision, which was taken after brief deliberation, was not to respond to the launching of the rockets by striking at the main source of fire, though that was still possible. At the command they had already ascertained that no one had been wounded by the Hezbollah rockets; a lethal response would apparently have exacerbated the situation.

– Haaretz Weekly Episode 38

Haaretz Weekly Episode 38Haaretz

Hezbollah fired two rockets at the road that links Kibbutz Yaron and Moshav Avivim. They were aimed at an errant vehicle – the armored military ambulance in which the doctor in command mistakenly strayed beyond the permitted boundaries of the sector, putting himself and the four soldiers riding with him directly into the gunsights of the Hezbollah anti-tank snipers. The rockets missed their target, in one case by only a few meters.

>> Read more: Israel uncovers Hezbollah precision missile site in Lebanon ■ Lebanon pays the price for a burden called Hezbollah | Analysis

In response, IDF fired about 100 artillery shells, about three-quarters of them smoke shells. The latter were meant to create a smokescreen to make it more difficult for the Hezbollah lookouts to see what was happening on the Israeli side of the border. The exchanges of fire took place in a sector and at sites that bring back bad memories from the frustrating days of the Second Lebanon War – the Shaked Ridge overlooking Avivim, and on either side of it the village of Maran a-Ras and the town of Bint Jbeil. It is to these areas that the IDF will return in the third Lebanon War as well, should it break out in the future. This week, it emerges in retrospect, we came quite close to that.

One can only imagine what the response of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu & Co. would have been in the press and the social media, from the darling son to the least of the tweeters, had a government of the left chosen restraint in response to anti-tank rockets fired into Israel’s territory. And had this happened on the watch of former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, who has been labeled by the right as an enemy of the people, we would have been doomed this week to innumerable articles bewailing the loss of the IDF’s deterrent power, and explanations that this is what happens when an army promotes women warriors and is concerned with LGBT rights: It forgets the meaning of uncompromising war on the enemy.

The decision not to respond was justified, incidentally. The head of Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, is an outstanding commander in paratrooper units who spent most of his time in the IDF at the spearhead of the fighting forces. The new commander of the Galilee troops, Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder, previously commanded the Golani Brigade and the Sayert Matkal special operations unit. Both men’s military education, as well basic instinct, directed them to pull the trigger at a moment like this. However, both these commanders are sufficiently experienced to understand the elected officials’ directive and knew how they were expected to act in the circumstance that developed: to preserve what has already been achieved without a descent into war. In the command bunker, strategy had the upper hand, not tactics.

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Disciplinary issues

Israel entered into the current round with Hezbollah after two attacks on the night of August 24: the killing of the two Lebanese in a strike on a cell operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps intending to launch explosive drones into Israel from the Golan Heights and, a few hours later, the attack at Dahiyyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut (for which Israel did not officially take responsibility), which aimed to cripple an essential element in the Hezbollah precision-weaponry operations. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made it quite clear in two public speeches that he intended to respond with an attack on a military target near the Israel-Lebanon border.

Accordingly, preparedness was heightened along the northern border. Outposts were partially evacuated, guard posts were emptied. A reporter for the Russian RT television in Arabic even documented herself in a live broadcast walking around unimpeded in the command post of the abandoned artillery battalion at Avivim; not a single soldier remained there to ask her what she was doing.

Timeline of events over the past week amid an escalation in the Middle East involving Syria, Iraq and Israel.Haaretz

The everyday life of civilians, however, was hardly affected. Sunday was also September 1, the first day of school. The school bus for children from Avivim left the moshav as usual, despite the painful historical echoes of the terror attack in 1970 on a bus traveling that route, in which 12 civilians were killed and 25 wounded.

However, it seems that the army is having difficulty maintaining discipline over time along the 140 kilometers (87 miles) of border. The weak link turned out to have been the ambulance crew from the artillery regiment, the movement of which, contrary to orders, exposed it to harm for some tens of seconds. That it escaped unscathed in the end gave rise to a wave of hypotheses and rumors to the effect that the vehicle was bait aimed in advance at deceiving Hezbollah, or alternatively that the ambulance was not manned at all but rather operated from afar by remote control. Both hypotheses are unfounded. The truth is more prosaic: Someone in the IDF goofed, but Hezbollah was not quick enough unto the breach.

Immediately thereafter the IDF threw up an intentional smokescreen, partly with the help of the much bruited maneuver in which an air force helicopter evacuated fake casualties to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. Indeed, in Lebanon they discovered the real results of the incident only two hours later. The confusion served the aim, closing the round of attacks. Out of the same considerations, the IDF did not strike the cell, which in the meantime apparently managed to disappear into the built-up area around Bint Jbeil.

A somewhat tragic footnote to the tension in the north came on Tuesday. When the alert relaxed, there was an incident in one of the outposts along the border. Soldiers from that same artillery regiment threw stones at one another in a stupid game and one of them was seriously wounded. For a few hours there was even fear for his life, until his condition stabilized. Unbelievable: After the peak of tension, the only Israeli injured this week on the border with Lebanon was a soldier hit in the head by a stone during a game. One can assume his regiment commander would have preferred to forgo this week, from beginning to end.

Reordering military priorities

But this opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings. Nasrallah has already declared that the attack in Dahiyyeh, which was carried out with the help of drones, will lead to a more belligerent approach by his organization towards Israeli drones and other flying objects in Lebanese skies. The UMV hunting season has begun. Presumably the humiliation Hezbollah experienced when it turned out that Israel had both managed to trick it and hadn’t suffered any casualties will contribute to continuation of the friction. At Dahiyyeh a taboo was broken: Israel hasn’t attacked openly in Lebanon for 13 years, since the end of the war in 2006. This is no small matter.

But the most important issue is the struggle concerning the precision-weapons project, the effort by Iran and Hezbollah to improve and increase the number of precision rockets in the hands of the organization. In Israel’s assessment, Tehran had hoped that in 2019 Hezbollah would already be in possession of about 1,000 precision rockets, with an average accuracy of about 10 meters (11 yards) from the target. In actuality, it is apparently in possession of a few dozen such rockets. The trouble is that both sides are determined to persist. Iran is patient and plans for the long term. Israel is doubling down on its red line.

Israeli officials have indicated, this week too, that the continuation of the precision-weapons project is liable to wreak destruction on Lebanon. These messages are coming, by means of leaders in the West, to the attention of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and from him to Nasrallah. On Wednesday Hariri denounced Hezbollah in a television interview: “This organization is not only Lebanon’s problem, but rather the entire region’s. They are acting in southern Lebanon contrary to our position. Netanyahu knows this too.”

When a year ago former cabinet minister Naftali Bennett called for treating Lebanon in times of war as though it were all Hezbollah, his position sounded like a minority opinion. Now, it is practically official Israeli policy. If a war breaks out, the civilian infrastructure in Lebanon is expected to be targeted for attack (the first to have preached this was retired Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, immediately after the Second Lebanon War).

This year Netanyahu, it was reported this week, changed the order of priorities he set for the defense establishment. The revised list makes the struggle against the Iranian nuclear project the top priority, the campaign against the precision-weapons project second, and the one against Iran’s establishment of a military foothold in Syria third. (The second and third priorities have switched places.) The prime minister also apparently expanded the arena of the fight. Recently attacks on the Iranian armament efforts in Iraq and Lebanon have been attributed to Israel.

Hezbollah supporters watch a speech by Hassan Nasrallah, transmitted on a large screen in the Lebanese capital Beirut’s southern suburbs, September 2, 2019.AFP

This is a dangerous reality, which perhaps deviates from the cautious management in the north which Netanyahu excelled at in recent years. Iraq is especially sensitive, because of the risk to American interests. A continuation of the attacks there is liable to undermine the stability of the Baghdad government and increase pressure to withdraw the 5,200 American soldiers from the country.

Meanwhile, France is investing efforts to bring the United States and Iran to hold direct talks on a new nuclear accord. In the past few days, both Washington and Tehran have presented particularly stringent approaches on the matter. The Americans have yet again toughened their stance toward the Iranian regime, imposing new sanctions, while Iran, on its part, said it would go further in breaching its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, and announced it would begin to develop centrifuges on Friday. 

Netanyahu said this week in a rare interview with The New York Times that he understands there might be direct talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, “But this time we will have far greater ability to exert influence," as opposed to during the Obama administration. On Thursday morning, before his departure for London to meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Netanyahu's remarks were even blunter: “This isn’t the time for negotiations with Iran, but rather for increasing the pressure on it."

Trump’s behavior in recent weeks is causing considerable concern in Jerusalem, although Israeli officials won't explicitly admit it. Direct negotiations between Trump and Rouhani are a wild gamble, which may end like the president’s cordial meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In both cases the belligerent Trump was revealed to be a pussycat the moment the tyrants heaped flattery on him. And the Iranians are no less sophisticated than their Russian and Korean friends.

When flexibility and religion meet in the IDF

Some 2,412 young women, graduates of the state-religious school system, enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces in 2018, a 20 percent spike compared to 2014 and several times more than a decade ago. The data shows an important and positive social development, emanating from the grassroots, and the young women who chose to enlist in the army despite the many obstacles set by rabbis, educators and some politicians from the religious-Zionist parties.

The military is treading on eggshells, trying not to enrage the rabbis, but in practice it is encouraging religious young women who are interested in joining its ranks to do so. At a time when women's enlistment rates are in decline (to a large extent because of secular women who pretend to be religious in order to be easily exempted from military service), the army is interested in absorbing high-quality and highly-motivated young women, while demonstrating some flexibility to accommodate their needs.

An Israeli soldier patrols the Gaza border in southern Israel, October 5, 2018.Eliyahu Hershkovitz

How far is the army taking this consideration? Too far, it sometimes seems. In the latest annual July-August induction, the army launched a course for female operations sergeant to be stationed in brigades and the regional divisions. In first, religious female soldiers, graduates of a religious high school for girls (or midrasha in Hebrew) in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank, were incorporated into the course.  

These young women consider the most important and prestigious assigning to be the Gaza Division, where the operations rooms are very active. The final deployment depends on the commanders' assessment and the grades the soldiers achieve throughout the course. But secular female soldiers who requested to be assigned to the Gaza Division discovered that the number of places available there is relatively small since the army promised the religious recruits and the midrasha that a considerable number of them would be assigned as a group to the southern division.

The IDF's Manpower Directorate says that when the army wants to encourage certain populations to enlist for specific roles, it systematically assigns them as a group. Special efforts have been invested to incorporate religious women into the army as a group in order to make it easier for them to observe religious practices in a new environment. The IDF's Spokesperson Unit told Haaretz that “it isn’t the female recruits’ religious belief that constitutes a consideration for their assignment, but rather the track of their recruitment. The joint assignment of women coming from the same midrasha does not prevent secular women from being sent to the Gaza Division or in any reginal division.”

The army’s response is not persuasive. Group deployment is a desirable and reasonable move under such circumstances. However, who decided it has to be done only in units in which a posting is considered more prestigious and not in less desirable headquarters? The good intentions are leading to an unnecessary surrender to external pressure groups at the expense of other groups. And even though the top brass in the IDF are not aware of this, the phenomenon is also well-known in other professional training courses for female soldiers.