The Iranian-backed terror army Hizballah may have its hands full dealing with Lebanon’s ongoing economic, health and political crises, but its secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah still found time to threaten revenge against Israel for last July’s death of an operative in an alleged Israeli air strike in Syria.
The threats are fueling tension along the Israeli-Lebanese border and contributing to what is an already explosive situation.
A senior Israeli military source warned earlier this month that Hizballah was highly likely to attempt a cross-border attack in the near future, pledging that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would respond forcefully.
Hizballah appears willing to risk an escalation even though it does not wish to initiate an actual war at this time. Rather, it wants to try to impose its “equations” on Israel, meaning an attempt to deter Israel from future strikes against its members in Syria by exacting a calculated price for such incidents.
Yet as the region knows well, and as the Second Lebanon War of 2006 has demonstrated, Hizballah’s notions of calculated attacks can quickly backfire and spiral into larger events.
In next-door Syria, the Israel Air Force has spent years running a campaign to destroy sites built by Iran – sometimes in conjunction with its proxy, Hizballah and its ally, the Assad regime – for the assembly of precision missiles, their storage, and placement into launchers to target Israel. Alternatively, the missiles are sometimes smuggled into Lebanon for Hizballah’s own arms depots.
Israel has drawn a red line banning the proliferation of precision missiles in Syria and Lebanon. The joint presence of Hizballah and Iranian Quds Force personnel, often found on the same Syrian military sites, means that Hizballah’s operatives are at risk of Israel’s preventative air strikes in Syria. In recent weeks, the Israeli campaign has reportedly moved into a higher gear. According to international media reports, there have been three recent Israeli strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria, including a strike that reportedly killed six pro-Iranian fighters.
Despite Nasrallah’s threats, which the Israeli military takes seriously, senior IDF commanders have indicated that they have no intention of scaling back the preventative campaign in Syria to disrupt Iran’s effort to carve out a foothold in the region – even if that entails the possibility of additional Hizballah casualties.
“We have no interest in escalating, we do have an interest in continuing to act to foil the Iranian consolidation program in Syria and the precision missile program in Syria and Lebanon,” the IDF Deputy Chief of General Staff, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, told the Ynet news website in September.
“If tomorrow we have to act in Syria against strategic weapons and a Hizballah member will be present there – that won’t prevent us from acting. Hence, I suggest that Nasrallah distance his people from Iranian infrastructure in Syria, and carefully consider his actions. We will not allow Hizballah to drag us into lengthy periods of tension. This is not a game that can continue for a long time.”
In a sign of ongoing tensions, IDF units stationed on the Lebanese border in the past week have repeatedly fired warning shots after suspicious individuals approached the border.
Still, the high tensions haven’t stopped the IDF’s Northern Command, which is responsible for securing the area, from continuing to study Hizballah, draw lessons from its modus operandi, and upgrade its own battle preparations accordingly.
The “learning competition” between the IDF and Hizballah is a daily affair. The Iranian proxy, whose surface-to-surface firepower dwarfs that of most NATO armies, also continuously studies the IDF, gathering intelligence and drawing up its own future attack plans.
Hizballah’s arsenal of projectiles and its well-trained operatives plan to target Israeli civilians while shielding themselves with Lebanese civilians. The IDF’s challenge will be to detect and strike Hizballah’s targets in order to defend Israeli civilians, while seeking to minimize harm to Lebanese noncombatants.
A glimpse into this behind-the-scenes learning competition can be found in recent comments by senior IDF commanders, which were made available on the Hebrew version of the IDF’s official website.
The IDF stated that it had spent last year studying Hizballah intensively. The Northern Command has installed an array of hi-tech cameras and radars along the Lebanese border barrier. Tunnel detection equipment is in place to discover any new attempts by Hizballah to dig under the Israeli border.
The IDF’s 91st Division, in charge of defending the border with Lebanon, would be the first to respond to any escalation, and it has been on high alert for months following Nasrallah’s threats.
The division’s Deputy Commander, Col. Yair Or, noted that it thoroughly examined an incident that occurred on Sept. 1, 2019, in which Hizballah narrowly missed an IDF jeep after firing two Kornet guided anti-tank missiles at it, drawing many lessons that subsequently shaped battle procedures and preparations.
Hizballah fired those missiles as part of an attempt in “revenge” for the death of two of its operatives in airstrikes in Syria in 2019 – marking the first Hizballah vengeance campaign that preceded the current effort. The 2019 attack by Hizballah also followed what it claims was an Israeli drone attack on its precision missile production program in the south Beirut Hizballah stronghold of Dahiya. The IDF fired 100 mortar shells at Hizballah positions in southern Lebanon in response to the missile attack.
Since then, the IDF’s Northern Command built up fresh combat techniques and created improvements that served it well in 2020, when Hizballah again went for revenge attacks.
Hizballah has already attempted two attacks since last summer, both of which failed due to IDF preparations.
Since Nasrallah insists on threatening further attacks, the escalation potential remains on the agenda.
In the meantime, Division 91 has built an array of new defensive systems on the border, created new paths for moving its forces and resources around, out of the sight of Hizballah, and setting up new surveillance locations. All of these measures are designed to give the IDF the advantage in the event of a new border escalation.
Israel’s Message: Don’t Try It
The Israeli-Lebanese border is 130 kilometers long (nearly 81 miles), and the IDF has dug an artificial cliff along parts of it to slow down future cross-border raids by Hizballah’s elite Radwan Unit, which has gained combat experience in Syria. That cliff is due to be extended in the coming year.
Division 91, which has been on heightened alert for an extended period since the summer, does not believe that the threat of Hizballah attacks has passed. Its deputy commander, Col. Or, said that the IDF is working to “constantly to reduce the chance of a successful Hizballah retaliation to as low as possible, while continuing to protect northern Israeli civilian communities, and deal with border intrusions.”
Preparations have included the deployment of Israeli special forces throughout the area, and the calling up of a number of reserve forces. New cooperation procedures with the Air Force, Navy, and the Intelligence Directorate are also in place, to enable faster firepower responses during escalations.
The guiding principle behind the IDF’s new battle procedures is that Israel must be the side that “finishes” an incident, while destroying enemy capabilities. That concept informs all of the ways in which the military intends to activate force against Hizballah.
“The directive from our point of view is to respond in order to send a clear message – it is not worthwhile for the enemy to try and harm the IDF and the State of Israel,” said Col. Or.
As Division 91 continues to bolster its capabilities, adding things like new surveillance drones and other measures that remain classified, the IDF’s intelligence units continue to study Hizballah closely, passing on its information to operational units, even down to the individual combat soldier who takes up a position on the border.
“It’s not a secret that with every passing year, Hizballah continues to consolidate – we see it building infrastructure and conducting patrols. Part of our effort is to disrupt and make things harder for Hizballah,” said Col. Or.
These recent events all underline the fact that the IDF is in a good position to identify attempted breaches on the border, and is determined to respond forcefully to future Hizballah attacks. It remains far from clear, however, that Nasrallah is prepared to heed the warning and de-escalate.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
Photo: The IDF built barriers along the Lebanon border to deter Hizballah attacks.