Last week, locals gathered in the northern town of Shlomi for a special event paying tribute to the 300th Brigade, the military unit that for the past 42 years has kept the western part of the border with Lebanon secure.
One by one, retired commanders took to the microphone and regaled the young soldiers with tales, running down the history of the area and the events no one will ever forget – the Avivim school bus massacre, the Ma’alot school massacre, the Coastal Highway attack, the murder of members of the Haran family in Nahariya, and other scars that have been etched into the landscape of the scenic Western Galilee.
The sense was that Israeli inhabitants of the North were being forced to pay a price for their decision to settle there, but it wasn’t always like this.
Since the War of Independence all the way until the 1970s, Lebanon was the least threatening neighbor, the tranquil country to our north.
The joke during that time was that, if war broke out, the IDF would conquer Syria while the IDF Philharmonic would conquer Lebanon.
Since 1970, however, the year in which Palestinian terrorist organizations were evicted from Jordan and relocated to Lebanon, the Land of the Cedars has turned from harmless neighbor to terrorism haven. Today, it is home to the most significant military threat facing Israel.
There are those who say Hezbollah is analogous to a small kitten that would often scratch you a bit – no more – but slowly, gradually grow to become a predator tiger.
The organization, today, boasts 41,000 fighters in both conscripts and the reserves. Many of them have gained combat experience in Syria. Hezbollah also has more firepower at its disposal than 95 percent of regular militaries in the world.
Many of us err when we refer to it as “a terrorist organization.” From a moral standpoint, it is. But, from a professional point of view, this is an inaccurate characterization.
Indeed, Hezbollah has the capability to rain thousands of rockets and missiles on Israel in one day. It can also dispatch enough ground forces to capture towns adjacent to the border fence, making it an army in every sense of the word.
These words are not intended to sow fear. The odds of Hezbollah actualizing this capability and embarking on war against Israel are low. The organization is stretched thin from a strategic standpoint – so thin that it simply cannot afford to even play with fire, let alone initiate hostilities against us.
This past decade was the quietest ever in the Galilee, certainly in the last 40 years. It is becoming more apparent that the Syrian civil war will not end soon, which means that Hezbollah can ill afford the luxury of starting trouble in the North.
In hindsight, the Second Lebanon War looks different.
Time has not dulled the seriousness of the failures that were exposed at the time, including the rudderless political and military leadership. Nonetheless, the war did bring unprecedented quiet to the North. Never has deterrence against Hezbollah been more effective.
A decade later, Hezbollah is, indeed, much stronger than it ever was, but it also has very little appetite – at least for the time being – for another war with Israel, especially one that will bring destruction upon Lebanon.
Hezbollah continues to arm itself and grow stronger, and many wonder if attack tunnels are being built underneath us in the North just as they are from Gaza. The answer, apparently, is no, but this is not so comforting. The meandering border that separates Israel and Lebanon makes a tunnel superfluous and unnecessary.
It would not be unreasonable to assume that Hezbollah has the capability to move a battalion of fighters into Israel through the thick shrubbery along the frontier – without anyone noticing. That is what the IDF is referring to when it talks about “2,500 above-ground tunnels” made possible by the tortuous, winding, flora-covered boundary that offers cover for Hezbollah.
While retired commanders told of how the military dealt with border infiltrations during the years in which there was no border fence, today the IDF is not making do with a fence and deterrent measures.
Instead, it is making physical and geological changes to the landscape, undertaking a massive engineering project aimed at carving new cliffs near border towns that will make it harder for Hezbollah to spring a surprise.
The IDF also has calibrated its war plans, ripping up its previous blueprint of trying to suppress rocket fire by fruitlessly chasing after rocket-launchers. Instead, the IDF has prepared plans that are aimed at bringing a war in the North to a quick, decisive end.
In the spirit of Ofer Shelah’s spoton book, Ha’ometz L’natzeach (The Courage to Win), the IDF is no longer satisfied with merely relying on the binary model – one which holds the option of either conquering all of the territory or waging a long, protracted war of attrition along the border.
In the spectrum that separates these two options, the army says it has found methods and actions that are supposed to bring a quick end to the fighting – this time with a result much more in our favor.
Gabi Ashkenazi, the former IDF chief of staff, often told his charges that in the next war it is forbidden to ask who won. This is the same spirit behind the plans drawn up by his successor, Gadi Eisenkot.
The word “victory” doesn’t appear there, but they do prescribe the need to register “a ringing achievement,” one that reverberates long after the fact, so much so that it would not begin the countdown to the next round of fighting.
The IDF high command is preparing a number of surprises for Hezbollah.
The next war will be a tough, painful one, and the hope is it won’t come to pass. But if it does, it is supposed to end differently than the most recent ones.