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(photo credit: AP [file])
Not much has changed in the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbail since last summer's war against Hizbullah. Dozens of homes still lie in ruins, and roads are engraved with tank track marks, a small reminder of the bloody battles that took place in its narrow alleyways.
To the west lies the village of Ayta a-Shayeb. From the border, just north of Moshav Shtula, one can make out the flattened homes and rubble-filled streets. Promises Hizbullah made following the war that it would rebuild the villages and reimburse those who suffered have clearly not been kept.
Instead, Hizbullah has been investing its money elsewhere. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week that the group has significantly increased its supply of long-range missiles and short-range rockets - from an estimated 10,000-15,000 before the Second Lebanon War to some 20,000 today.
Hizbullah may no longer be deployed along the border, but IDF officers stationed in the North claimed this week that its fighters are still deployed in the Shi'ite villages in southern Lebanon - like Bint Jbail and Ayta a-Shayeb - and are gearing up for the day their orders will come to renew attacks. Some "nature reserves" (where Hizbullah stores weapons and trains its gunmen) are still active, despite the presence of some 13,000 UNIFIL and 15,000 Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) troops.
Hizbullah is also building up its missile array just north of the Litani River, where UNIFIL's mandate ends, and even though the short-range rockets were moved farther north, they are still in target range of frontline northern Galilee communities.
Hizbullah is recruiting new fighters to fill the slots of the 600 killed during the war and conducting major training exercises with live anti-tank fire. It is also setting up its own wireless telephone network throughout southern Lebanon, an apparent attempt to block foreign surveillance.
This bleak picture is reinforced by the IDF Northern Command's current assessment that war with Hizbullah could break out any day, any hour, any minute. There are also possible external triggers - such as a premature American withdrawal from Iraq, or a strike on Iran's nuclear sites - that could also bring about a war, not just with Hizbullah, but also possibly with Syria.
Still, there is no dispute that this past year has been the quietest along the Lebanese border in the past three decades.
Some in the IDF believe that Hizbullah has already returned to terrorism, though not yet directly against Israel. The attack in June that killed six Spanish peacekeepers is believed to have been the work of Hizbullah - if not directly by its guerrillas, then at least by a proxy working under its orders. The suspected motivation is to undermine the UN force's feeling of confidence and security and to remind Israel that terror is far from disappearing.
Following the Madrid train bombings in 2004, Spain decided to withdraw its troops from Iraq. In this case, too, Spain is viewed as the "weak link," and the attacks against its UNIFIL contingent could be an attempt to force the government to bring the troops back home, a move that would undermine the peacekeeping force.
AS FOR the Galilee and the Western Negev: In Gaza, Hamas is building up an army and continues to smuggle unprecedented amounts of weapons and explosives in from the Sinai. In the North, Hizbullah has basically rebuilt itself and is continuing to receive large amounts of weapons, including advanced anti-tank missiles and rockets, from Syria.
At the moment, Israel's policy regarding both is "watch and wait."
On neither front is Israel interested in making the first move, but would rather wait for the other side to attack before responding. The scenarios for this possibility vary. A Kassam rocket could hit a Sderot kindergarten after the school year starts next week, or Hamas could succeed in scaling the Gaza security fence and infiltrating Kibbutz Netiv Ha'asara. All Hizbullah would have to do is try kidnapping a soldier again.
Upon taking up his post in February, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi set the summer as the deadline for getting the IDF ready for war with Hizbullah and Syria. As a result, he and OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot decided to leave the commanders of Division 91 (responsible for Lebanon) and Division 36 (responsible for Syria) in the positions they had been scheduled to vacate by the end of September. The reason for doing so was to avoid making any changes during such a sensitive time.
Overall, according to senior officers, the IDF has learned its lesson, and will utilize its advantage in massive firepower and large numbers of tanks and infantry units in any future battle against Hizbullah. At the height of the war last year, some 400 tanks were inside Lebanon. But, as a senior officer explained this week, they were not in large formations, but rather positioned as many small-sized units. As a result, the advantage was lost.
"If you send massive amounts of forces, you might lose some, but some will definitely reach their goal and fulfill the mission," was how one top general explained the change in tactics.
The mentality shift was also felt when Ashkenazi convened the General Staff last week to discuss the procurement plan for the coming year. According to some officers, the emphasis will be more on land-based platforms - such as Merkava tanks and Namer armored personnel carriers - and less on the air force.
ONE SENIOR officer who has internalized this change is Col. Ofek Bouchriss, commander of Brigade 300, which is responsible for maintaining the defenses along the Lebanese border. A religious officer, Bouchriss came up through the ranks of the Golani Brigade and was seriously wounded as commander of its Battalion 51 in an operation in Nablus in 2002's Operation Defensive Shield, service that saw him awarded a Citation of Excellence.
Bouchriss returned to the country shortly before the war, after spending a year at the US Army's War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When the war broke out and while still waiting for his appointment, he went to the Golani Brigade operations center in the border community of Malkiya. It was there - as he closely followed the operations - that Bouchriss understood where the IDF had gone wrong during the war and what needed to be changed so that it could win a next round.
Under his command, Brigade 300 currently has new rules of engagement along the border. If an armed Hizbullah guerrilla is spotted, the soldiers have the right to immediately open fire. "Hizbullah will not be allowed to return to the border," he has told his subordinates.
In addition, Bouchriss oversees the periodic forays beyond the fence into what might appear like Lebanese territory but is not beyond the Blue Line international border. In some cases, he sends soldiers across the fence in broad daylight for the sole purpose of showing Hizbullah and the LAF that Israel will continue to maintain its sovereignty over all of its territory.
In Malkiya, Bouchriss watched as the IDF went to war undertrained and not fully prepared. The past year of intensive non-stop training is meant to restore lost capabilities.
The other problem, Bouchriss discovered, had to do with the tactical orders given to units. Instead of being simple and clear, they were sometimes vague and misleading. As a typical Golani soldier, Bouchriss sees things in straightforward terms - if the hill needs to be taken, the assigned battalion needs to take it. "My job is to get people to do simple things," he has explained.
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