A decade after the start of the Second Lebanon War, the IDF has undergone a radical transformation as it keeps close tabs on Hezbollah – its most formidable enemy over the northern border.
This Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorist army is gaining battlefield experience in Syria that IDF soldiers are not able to receive even in the most rigorous combat training programs.
Today, Hezbollah is the most heavily armed, trained and capable fighting force threatening Israel.
The IDF’s Brigade 300, tasked with defending the Western Galilee from the threat posed by Hezbollah to northern communities, faces off against Hezbollah on a daily basis. It must keep up with every improvement made on the other side, and respond accordingly with its own preparations.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post,
the brigade’s deputy commander, Lt.-Col. Kameel Tafish, provided a glimpse into that process, explaining how the IDF has adapted over the last 10 years. Many of those changes, he said, have occurred only recently.
“I think the Northern Command is in a different place completely, on all levels,” he said. “In the end, the threat could come from down to top, meaning that patrols must understand that if they are unprepared for an incident, they could drag Israel into a general war.”
A part of Division 91, and serving under IDF Northern Command, Brigade 300 is acutely aware of how quickly a tactical border incident can snowball into war, and it is designed to be able to deal with the initial stages of that kind of escalation on its own, while the rest of the military deploys back-up forces. This readiness did not exist in 2006, when Hezbollah was able to abduct and kill two IDF soldiers during a cross-border raid.
A native of the Druse village of Beit Jann in the North, Tafish fought in the war that followed the kidnapping.
He served in the (now disbanded) Druse Sword Battalion, acting as its operations officer in the first phase of the conflict.
Today, Tafish’s brigade stretches from the northwestern Israeli Mediterranean coastline to the Western Galilee. The territorial brigade’s main job is to defend communities that are in Hezbollah’s sights, such as Nahariya and Avivim.
According to Tafish, the brigade continuously receives updated and changing intelligence pictures on the terrorist group, and builds up operational plans accordingly. “We can change in accordance to the reality, which is fluid,” Tafish said.
The 2006 war created a major change in the way the brigade – and the Northern Command under which it serves – operates, he added.
More recently, security incidents on the border, which could have easily escalated into a wider conflict, also have caused the brigade to reexamine itself.
In January 2015, following a reported Israeli air strike on a convoy of Hezbollah and Iranian operatives who were constructing a terrorist base in the Syrian Golan, Hezbollah retaliated, firing a volley of Kornet guided missiles at the IDF, killing a soldier and commander in their D-Max vehicle.
The attack was launched from five kilometers away.
Had the missile attack caused more casualties, January 2015 could have gone down in history as the start of the Third Lebanon War.
That attack, dubbed “Winter Sun” in the IDF, caused Brigade 300 to change its operational plans, Tafish said, without going into details. “We are studying the situation on the other side. We are constantly thinking about changes, both in terms of intelligence and operations.”
The “Winter Sun” attack is now regarded as a “turning point” for the brigade, Tafish said. The use of Kornet guided missiles over a long range to target military traffic has “very much influenced how our brigade, division and the Northern Command think about Hezbollah’s capabilities,” he added.
The attack has led to a significant improvement in readiness, for both routine border security missions and emergency escalation situations, the deputy commander stated.
Tafish was frank about previous failures, saying that after the Second Lebanon War, the IDF realized it had significant intelligence gaps on Hezbollah and a corresponding lack of preparedness.
Today, however, the situation is very different, he said.
“We have upgraded our plans, both responses to surprise incidents [that snowball into conflict] or to events that begin because Hezbollah intended to escalate things,” he said. This entails reconfiguring how conscripted and reserve forces are deployed, trained and briefed.
Additionally, the brigade has been hard at work strengthening fortifications on the Lebanese border to defend communities. This effort includes the construction of walls and utilizing the cliffs along the border for protection as creating obstacles has become a major focus of the brigade.
“We want to strengthen places where we have had weaknesses,” Tafish said.
The brigade also has worked hard to improve its field intelligence capabilities.
While this does not mean it necessarily knows where every Hezbollah cell is at any given time, it can better detect approaches to the border in time and alert ground units or the air force if needed.
“Our intelligence gathering capabilities are much better and more efficient than in the past. They are sufficient for the challenges we expect to encounter,” he said.
Intensified training is a major area of focus for the brigade, according to the deputy commander.
Brigade 300 focuses on defense, as do other territorial brigades on borders, but also allows missions to maneuver deep into enemy territory, morphing into all-purpose war formations.
In case of a large-scale escalation, Brigade 300 could also end up moving across the Lebanese border to better be able to defend Israeli communities.
“For us, the border fence is just a fence. It is not holy. We can cross it if needed to prevent attacks under certain conditions,” he said.
“We are thinking, all the time, about improving readiness, in terms of routine and emergencies. We understand that this shift, from routine to emergency, is a very fine line. It can happen overnight,” he continued.
During briefings with soldiers, Tafish and other commanders have stressed the importance of individual action. IDF commanders are now telling soldiers that the way they respond to tactical incidents could make the difference between ending them on the spot or dragging the country into a wider conflict. Tafish acknowledged the heavy burden of responsibility this knowledge places on the soldiers.
Unlike the 2006 war, when both conscripted and reserve soldiers spent their time on counter-terrorism and riot-control missions in the West Bank, the IDF, in 2016, is pouring most of its resources into war readiness and training. That effort has seen reservists participating in Brigade 300 and being trained intensively.
Additionally, command and control capabilities in the headquarters of battalions, brigades and divisions have been improved. This means the brigade should be able to gain accurate intelligence in real time and respond with precise firepower to any developments.
Today, Hezbollah is “sinking into the Syrian mud,” Tafish said. “From time to time, it reminds us that it is on the border. We are not its first problem, though we remain its chief problem,” he added.
Hezbollah has lost 1,300 fighters and has suffered 5,500 wounded in Syria, paying a heavy price in blood of young Shi’ite gunmen. But it also has learned how to do things in Syria that could one day be used against Israel, and Brigade 300 must be aware of these improvements, Tafish said.
“Hezbollah has gotten stronger in its means and capabilities. It can send in a battalion to attack an area. It is gaining experience every day – experience our soldiers here are not gaining.
In the race of who is training more, they are leading us,” the deputy commander warned.
“We are taking this into account, and we are aware of it,” he said. “We are not sitting on the side, and waiting for the next incident to come to us.”