For some time now, Israel has been at the edge of war. Or, to put it another way, Israel has been and continues to be engaged in an ongoing, low level, multi-faceted shadow war that has potential to erupt into something major.
The post that follows is filled with weighty information, but with it all, I feel I am skimming the surface, as there is so much we are not privy to!
I do hope and trust that this material will provide an overview of what Israel is dealing with. And in the end, I also hope to provide a perspective.
We engage with a number of adversaries, but when we look beyond all of the complex secondary factors, we see the face of our fiercest and most determined enemy, Iran:
Iran operates against Israel overtly via the Quds Force, the international arm of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – IRGC (pictured). This is the case most notably in Syria; there, military bases are utilized for storing imported weaponry intended for transfer to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Additionally, IRGC seeks to maintain a military presence in Syria. It also operates in Iraq, as well as in Yemen.
Indirectly, Iran also functions via its proxies; this is a significant element of its MO. While Hamas and Islamic Jihad are Iranian proxies, they are not a major element in Iran’s strategy. Iran relies far more significantly on the Shia Islamist Hezbollah. Headquartered in Lebanon, this terror group led by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah operates in Syria, and other far-flung regions.
Hezbollah is part and parcel of the Lebanese government today, and any notion that Lebanon can operate independent of Hezbollah is nonsense, as I see it – although there is pretense of this possibility.
Since the end of the Lebanon War of 2006, UNIFIL ‒ UN Interim Forces in Lebanon ‒ has been in place by virtue of Security Council Resolution 1701, one of the biggest farces that ever passed for a meaningful diplomatic action. The forces of UNIFIL, while they may report on certain Hezbollah positions and actions, are afraid of Hezbollah elements and with good reason.
The UN has just renewed the UNIFIL mandate, which has been somewhat strengthened and expanded. It would be foolish, however, to expect this international force to control Hezbollah.
Hezbollah possesses the largest non-state standing army in the world, one that has been trained by IRGC. Reportedly, its army is larger than the Lebanese army.
Of far greater concern to Israel than this, however, is an Iranian-Hezbollah project to acquire precision guided missiles. According to IDF Military Intelligence, efforts by Iran to bring precision missiles into Lebanon via Syria had failed because of Israeli airstrikes. Iran and Hezbollah then decided to convert rockets already in Hezbollah’s possession inside of Lebanon into precision-guided missiles. To date they have not achieved their goal.
Drawing on declassified intelligence, Prime Minister Netanyahu revealed details about this project at the UN last year. At that time he identified three sites inside of Beirut that were being used for this project.
Last Thursday, the IDF took the unusual step of revealing the names of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives involved in the program. The individual heading it on the Iranian side operates under the direct command of Qassem Soleimani (pictured), the general who heads the IRGC’s Quds Force.
The exposure of these individuals was intended to demonstrate the power and effectiveness of Israeli intelligence, providing an intimidating “we are watching you” message. Said Netanyahu:
“We will not stand to the side and allow our enemies to acquire deadly weapons to use against us. This week, I already told our enemies to be careful with their actions. Now I am telling them: Dir balak,” an Arabic phrase meaning, “Watch out.” (Emphasis added)
Yesterday, a top Israeli military official revealed that thwarting Hezbollah’s program to develop precision missiles is Israel’s second objective right after preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Preventing Iranian entrenchment in places such as Iraq is the third priority.
“Due to developments and situational assessments, it was decided three months ago that the precision missile project would be given high priority because of the immediate danger it poses. The military echelons were informed of this decision. We cannot afford to be surrounded by thousands of precision missiles that could land and harm the State of Israel.”
“To prevent this consolidation by Iran, we are carrying out many operations that nobody knows anything about.” Operations are carried out by the IDF and the Mossad.
Iran’s ultimate goal – about which it makes no bones – is the destruction of Israel.
In 2016, Iran unveiled long-range missiles that had written on them in Farsi and Hebrew: “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth”.
To further that end, Iran seeks a military presence in Syria at Israel’s border in the Golan, and works to strengthen Hezbollah so that it might do battle with Israel from the adjacent Lebanon (as evidenced above). It also seeks a direct corridor for operations through to the Mediterranean – via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
If you read my material regularly, you know that I am not in all regards comfortable with the political path taken by Binyamin Netanyahu (and I will have more to say on this when I write about the politics).
HOWEVER, I have confidence in our prime minister’s readiness to confront Iran, and with it, Hezbollah. He knows that this is an existential matter. I believe that critical weakening, or, even better, elimination of the Iranian threat is for him the raison d’être of his premiership.
For years, relying on that superb intelligence, Israel, as I have already suggested above, has worked to prevent Iranian missiles brought into Syria from being transported over the border to Hezbollah.
Until recently, Israel acted quietly, never acknowledging responsibility for the attacks. The news would break in Arab media. While everyone understood what was happening, the Israeli government remained mum in order to avoid unnecessarily provoking Syria into retaliating.
But in January 2019, as he was about to retire as IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, gave an interview to the NYTimes in which he broke with the Israeli practice of remaining mum on Israel’s attacks in Syria. The information he provided was stunning:
“We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit,” he said.
At first, Eisenkot explained, Israel restricted operations in Syria to striking weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. But then there was a pronounced change in Iran’s strategy: “Their vision was to have significant influence in Syria by building a force of up to 100,000 Shiite fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq…”
By January 2017, the Security Cabinet had given Eisenkot unanimous permission to step up strikes in Syria… In 2018 alone, he said Israel dropped 2,000 bombs on Iranian targets.
According to Eisenkot, in the last two years Israel shifted its focus to Iran, its primary enemy, to prevent the IDF from getting bogged down in fighting secondary enemies like Hamas in Gaza.
On August 19, there was an airstrike, executed from inside Iraq, on a weapons depot outside the Balad Airbase in Iraq that was being used by the Revolutionary Guards to stockpile weapons to be moved into Syria. A cargo of guided missiles was destroyed in the attack.
Israel did not claim responsibility for the attack, but other sources, including American sources, indicated that the Israelis were responsible. This was the first Israeli attack inside Iraq in almost 40 years. When asked about this, Prime Minister Netanyahu simply replied:
“A state that says, ‘We are going to destroy you and we will build bases to fire missiles and to send terrorist cells against you’ — as far as I’m concerned, has no immunity. We will act — and currently are acting — against them, wherever it is necessary.”
Then on August 24, Israel announced that an airstrike had been executed in Syria on operatives from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and other Shiite operatives, who had been planning on sending “kamikaze” attack drones into Israel armed with explosives. This was a new, lethal approach by the Quds Force that had been in the planning for months, and had been monitored by Israeli intelligence. Two members of Hezbollah and one Iranian were killed in the attack; homes near Damascus where drones were stored were also hit.
Said IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus, “This was a significant plan with significant capabilities…It was not something done on a low level, but rather top down from the Quds Force.”
This means that Qassem Soleimani was directly involved. The failure to execute this was a major blow.
In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, August 25, focus shifted to Lebanon: One weaponized Israeli drone exploded in the air in the Dahiyeh suburb of Beirut, causing damage to a Hezbollah media center. A second unarmed Israeli reconnaissance hit the ground – whether because people were pelting it with rocks or because of a malfunction is not clear. No information was forthcoming from Israel.
Nasrallah, speaking from his Beirut bunker, delivered a warning. He referred to both the drones in Beirut and the killing of the Hezbollah operatives in Syria:
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “would be mistaken if he thinks that this issue can go unnoticed… From tonight I tell the Israeli army on the border, wait for our response, which may take place at any time on the border and beyond the border. Be prepared and wait for us.”
Israel went on high alert in the north, taking appropriate precautions.
In the end, the clash between the IDF and Hezbollah, which took place on Sunday afternoon, was short and low level – a skirmish.
Several anti-tank guided missiles were fired from Lebanon at an army base just inside the border, near the community of Avivim. A military jeep in the area was hit; it was empty at the time but HezbollHHezbollah claimed to have killed persons inside.
The IDF responded by utilizing artillery cannons and attack helicopters to fire approximately 100 shells and bombs at Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, near the town of Maroun al-Ras. The cell that had launched the missiles was taken out.
By 6:30 PM, on Sunday, a tense quiet had been resumed. Various ideas are floating as to how and why it all ended so quickly.
Apparently the IDF executed an unparalleled subterfuge operation that may have been a factor:
In the course of the exchange of fire, an IDF helicopter evacuated soldiers from the northern border to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa – despite the soldiers being uninjured. The goal was to create a diversionary tactic to allow Hezbollah to crow about its achievement, giving Hezbollah the room to end quickly.
After the attack had ended, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared: “At this moment I can announce important news – we have no casualties. No one was wounded – not even a scratch.”
Another report indicates that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, speaking on behalf of Hezbollah, requested of three countries, the US, Egypt and France, that they relay a message to Israel that they wanted to hold fire.
When the IDF decided to hold fire it was not in direct response to this request, but rather because the decision had been made that enough had been accomplished. None the less, Hezbollah’s readiness to call a halt is significant. All of Nasrallah’s bravado and chest-thumping aside, he knows what a disaster Lebanon would encounter if full war were to ensue. He has been warned that if it comes to this, he would be held accountable.
Obviously, this is not the end of the story, but a brief interlude on a tortuous road.
According to the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat the missile barrage fired at the IDF base was in retaliation only for the Israeli strike in Syria that killed 2 Hezbollah militants, while the response for the drone incident is still to come.
While Nasrallah has declared, “we no longer have red lines. This is the start of a new phase.” He pronounced Hezbollah prepared to attack deep inside Israel.
Most significant, of course, is Israel’s preparedness. We will not let up, and will do what must be done to protect Israel from the threat of Iranian aggression.
In his first meeting with Maj.-Gen. Stefano Del Col, head of UNIFIL, Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi told him, “We will not accept Hezbollah’s precision missile project on Lebanese soil.”
Apparently, had any Israelis been hit in the skirmish, the IDF had been prepared to take out Hezbollah’s missile program.
Yet, as we know full well, Iran will proceed with its guided missile project in Lebanon.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.