The escalated events over the weekend in the North exceeded several levels that has until now been the norm.
Firstly, it is a clear Iranian provocation. This is not a force that is supported and operated remotely by Iran, such as Hezbollah, but rather a clear and visible clash between Israeli and Iranian forces in which Iranian soldiers may have been killed. Second, the Israeli response is consistent with the doctrine recently presented by Minister Naftali Bennett, according to which Israel must act directly against Iran and not only against its proxies, including Hezbollah.
But the weekend of action does not stand in a vacuum, but rather joins a broader context of messages and moves, Israelis and Iranians alike, on the northern front.
Recently, Israel has been conducting an effort to deter Iran and the Hezbollah attempts to construct infrastructure for the manufacture of precision rockets in southern Lebanon. Indeed, missiles with heavy warheads and high accuracy are already in Hezbollah’s arsenal, in large numbers, and they also have significant range. But so far, the organization has been able to acquire them mainly through smuggling and arms shipments from Syria and Iran, and it seems there is a trend to cut out the middle man, or at least shorten the way.
As part of the effort, the IDF constantly presents high readiness for battle by exposing various exercises, including drills and publication of the acquisition of new weapons and capabilities. In addition, the IDF spokesperson, Brig.- Gen. Ronen Manelis, published an article in Arab media in which he warned the citizens of Lebanon that “Iran is playing with their security and future.” In the article, Manelis, a former intelligence officer, stated that Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are turning Lebanon into “one large missile factory.” This is no longer an issue of transferring arms, money, or counsel, he said. Iran has de facto opened a new branch, “the Lebanon branch – Iran is here.”
Israel identified the Iranian effort to establish missile manufacturing infrastructure in Lebanon some time ago, and sent threatening messages to Hezbollah. In addition to the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the time, during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to warn that Israel would not allow Iran to establish itself in Syria and would not accept the existence of precision missiles in Lebanon – and given the need will act to prevent it.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot also used his speech at a ceremony marking the 21st anniversary of the 1997 “Disaster of the Helicopters” to convey a message, saying that Hezbollah “violates UN Security Council resolutions, maintains a military presence in the region, possessing weapons systems and increasing its military capabilities. In the face of these threats, the IDF operates day and night.” Eisenkot also noted that he is confident of Israel’s military superiority, “the quality of commanders and soldiers and their ability to achieve victory in times of war and to inflict painful damage on the enemy.”
It is clear that Israel is making an effort to clarify for its enemies, as well as the international community, its redlines, in order to prevent and deter their crossing.
“We are following the processes of arms transfers in all sectors of the fighting,” former chief of staff Benny Gantz once said. “This is a very bad thing, which is very sensitive, and from time to time, when things are needed, things can happen.” If Israel’s message falls on deaf ears, one can cautiously assess that the need will arise and things may happen.
But a strike against the missile manufacturing facilities could be cause for severe Hezbollah response; the other side also has redlines. One of them is an attack on Lebanon and a violation of its sovereignty. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Israel, which radiates readiness and determination mainly for deterrence, will operate covertly.
Walking on the threshold of war by means of deterrence, and the possibility of miscalculation of one of the parties, or, alternatively, a too successful action which obligates the other side to respond harshly, requires Israel to be prepared for a confrontation. In a lecture given at the at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS) last December, former deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan said that in the next campaign Israel must take full advantage of the asymmetry between it and the hybrid terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and activate “the maximum of Israeli power at the same time on all enemy formations, everywhere, in the shortest time possible.”
The reality of confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon is well known to Golan. He did most of his service as a soldier and commander in the 35th Paratroopers Brigade. In 1987, he commanded the Paratroopers’ anti-tank company in “Operation Green Eyes” against Hezbollah headquarters in the village of Maydoun. At dawn, snipers from IAF special forces unit Shaldag opened fire on Hezbollah operatives, while at the same time the force led by Golan fired anti-tank missiles at Hezbollah positions and vehicles.
Later on he commanded the 890 Battalion and a regional brigade in Lebanon, and led the Nahal Brigade during “Operation Defensive Shield,” and before he served as deputy chief of staff he was the OC Northern Command. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006 he sent a letter to the chief of staff, Dan Halutz, in which he suggested launching a largescale ground operation. His proposal was declined.
Hezbollah has grown stronger and more experienced since 2006 and constitutes a grave threat to Israel’s home front. To remove the threat quickly, said general Golan in his lecture (just as he wrote in his letter to Halutz), “IDF ground forces must be used in a very decisive and very effective manner.” This rule, as well as the additional significance of a possible war in the north, should be taken into consideration by the government as it forms a policy against the emerging threat in Lebanon. Those who define redlines should be prepared to act when these lines are crossed.
The author is the founder and operator of the blog “In the Crosshairs” on military and security vision, strategy and practice.