IAF A-4, F-16 jets at Hatzerim_370.
(photo credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen)
OC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Noam Tibon on Thursday told The Jerusalem Post
Diplomatic Conference that in light of Syrian attempts to smuggle weapons to
Hezbollah, the IDF “must do what we can do to prevent it.”
Asked on the
sidelines if the situation he described could justify foreign news reports of
IDF attacks on convoys that were making such weapons transfers, he said he could
not speak on that issue, although he told The Jerusalem Post that the number of
rockets in Hezbollah’s possession could press Israel into new levels of
There are other circumstances where such vague statements
could be interpreted in multiple ways to refer potentially to economic sanctions
or general diplomatic efforts.
But Israel has no effective levers to
influence or stop those weapons transfers other than military action by the air
force, and the IDF has a history of preemptive strikes in foreign territories
when it was believed necessary.
In that light, even without any official
confirmation (or denial) that the IDF is undertaking any preemptive strikes, it
is worth asking what would be the legal basis for doing so. This is particularly
true since Tibon was describing the transfer not of weapons of mass destruction
or even offensive weapons, but surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) designed to repel
encroachment by foreign aircraft. The strikes do not fit into a conventional
international-law analysis or even in the same category as some of Israel’s
prior preemptive strikes.
Conventionally, the largest camps on use of
military force say that it is warranted – only after an armed attack (camp one)
or preempting an imminent attack.
The scenario Tibon described, which he
said the IDF “must prevent,” did not describe either an armed attack or an
imminent attacked, but rather a SAMs transfer which at some distant point in the
future could be used.
The IDF has preemptively struck in the past against
targets that could only be used in the distant future, but in connection with
weapons of mass destruction, it is quite different than hitting weapons used
primarily for defensive purposes.
How could Israel justify such an
attack? Clearly, the military strategic view is that allowing Hezbollah to
receive advanced SAMs could blunt Israel’s air superiority advantage in
But can such strategy fit into any international law
paradigm? Under the current framework, such a view would probably find few
defenders outside of Israel when it comes to international law.
other hand, in the several alleged IDF attacks reported by foreign sources,
there were no reports of significant casualties nor any significant cries from
human rights groups.
As long as there are few civilian casualties and
Israel’s alleged attacks remain covert and unconfirmed, Israel is likely to
succeed in avoiding heavy criticism.
But if Israel had to defend the
alleged attacks in the future, its attempt would likely refer to other
developments which Tibon had noted in his talk.
Tibon pointed to
intelligence reports that Hezbollah “has acquired 100,000 additional rockets”
since the 2006 Lebanon War, “more rockets per inch than any other place on
He said that Hezbollah weapons are systematically hidden in people’s
homes, and that fighters who join Hezbollah are even given houses with the
understanding that one floor in a multi-story building would be used to hide
The idea is that Hezbollah could unleash a massive strike across
Israel such as had never been seen before, without needing a single troop to set
foot inside Israeli territory and without Israel necessarily finding a way – if
it had any warning at all – to stop most of the rockets in the “imminent”
period, before they were used. And with the advanced SAMs deterring an aerial
assault, the IDF might be limited in mustering a quick and effective
Even if Israel went one step earlier in the process and
tried to strike the SAMs and rockets before they were used, by striking them
where they were hidden, Hezbollah’s taking the idea of human shields to a whole
new level by systematically hiding the weapons in houses in civilian areas would
lead to unavoidable and significant civilian casualties.
In that light,
if Israel wants any chance at blocking or striking the SAMs (maintaining its
ability to counterstrike against rockets) and rockets, and at limiting civilian
casualties, it would have to be done at the earlier point, when they are first
being transferred to Hezbollah.
It is unlikely that this case would
satisfy all of Israel’s critics, but if it plans to try to continue stopping
Syrian- Hezbollah weapons transfers, it may eventually need to make the case