13 years later, is the IDF ready for another war against Hezbollah?

Israel lost 121 soldiers during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. A section of the border fence where the Hezbollah ambush occurred has 121 flowers painted on it: a flower for every soldier lost.

August 17, 2019 12:35
ROUTE 8993 along Lebanese-Israel border where Hezbollah ambushed an IDF patrol in 2006.

ROUTE 8993 along Lebanese-Israel border where Hezbollah ambushed an IDF patrol in 2006. . (photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)

The long and winding road along the border between Israel and Lebanon is quiet. Hezbollah flags are fluttering in the distance on one side of the fence, Israeli flags on the other. But 13 years ago at the spot I found myself, Hezbollah ambushed an IDF patrol at 8:40 a.m., sparking the Second Lebanon War.

It’s a road full of bloody memories.

While Hezbollah claimed to have lost 250 fighters during the war, other figures put the terrorist group's death toll at more than 600. 

Thousands of civilians were killed in Lebanon and 43 were killed in Israel; thousands of foreign nationals were evacuated from Lebanon by various countries via Cyprus, Turkey or Syria.

Israel lost 121 soldiers during the 34-day Second Lebanon War in 2006, and a section of the border fence where the Hezbollah ambush occurred has 121 flowers painted on it, a flower for every soldier lost, explained Lt.-Col. (res.) Sarit Zehavi, a resident of the northern community of Kfar Havradim, as we drove along Route 8993.

“It was July 12, 2006, I was at the IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv, and I remember the first reports that we received of mortars being fired toward communities along the border,” said Zehavi, who served in the IDF’s Intelligence Directorate at the time, and who currently runs the Alma Research and Education Center in the North’s Tefen industrial park.

“Two hours later we received the report that two soldiers had been kidnapped, and I went up one floor to my commander and asked him two questions: first, ‘What are we waiting for? Why aren’t we calling up the reserves?’ – since it was clear to me already that there was going to be a war – and the second was, ‘How can we have war now? I’m nine months pregnant!’ To which he said: ‘Don’t worry, the baby will wait.’

“And the baby waited," Zehavi continued. "On August 12, 2006, it was midnight when my water broke and we headed to the hospital. I turned on the radio and heard about UN Security Council Resolution 1701 – and that the ceasefire would begin on August 14 at dawn. And on August 14 at dawn, my son was born.

"Many soldiers were killed on the last day of the war, and I was watching the TV screen and I said that I didn’t want to name him after anyone who died – so we named him Mor,” she said.

Zehavi explained that for many years, she would not drive along this road without a military escort of at least two armored Humvees. But the road is now open to civilians, and we were alone with no army escort as we drove, passing by a poster of the IDF troops who were killed in the Hezbollah ambush that set off the deadly war.

Following implementation of the ceasefire, both sides claimed victory, and both sides continue to claim that they’ve deterred the other from initiating a war. And it has been 13 years of relative quiet along this explosive border, with only isolated incidents.

TILAK POKHAREL, deputy spokesperson of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeping mission, told The Jerusalem Post that major escalations have been prevented due to the “continued commitment” by all sides to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the conflict.

“The last 13 years have been the quietest period the south of Lebanon has witnessed in a long time. It’s important for the parties to take advantage of this period of stability, to move from cessation of hostilities to a permanent ceasefire,” Pokharel said. “The continued calm on both sides of the Blue Line, lasting for 13 years, means [that they] have been able to reap the dividends of peace.”

Resolution 1701 tasked UNIFIL with patrolling southern Lebanon. According to Pokharel, the peacekeepers, who are from 44 countries, carry out more than 450 operational activities every day, including foot, vehicle and air patrols; the setting up of checkpoints; training the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF); and community engagement activities.

Pokharel stated that, “UNIFIL’s works center around securing a permanent ceasefire between the parties and a long-term solution to the conflict,” but the continued war of words between Israel and Hezbollah has increased tensions and crushed the thought of a long-term solution between the two sides.

Jerusalem has repeatedly slammed UNIFIL for failing to fulfill its duties by turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s activities in southern Lebanon. Israel accuses the terrorist group of continuously violating the resolution and storing much of its weaponry in villages along the border.

Senior Israeli military officers as well as politicians say that Israel’s military has the ability to end any future conflict with Hezbollah as quickly as possible, and will completely destroy the group’s capabilities and infrastructure, even if that means civilian casualties.

THE IDF hasn’t conducted a full and proper ground maneuver in enemy territory since troops entered Gaza in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead. During operations Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014, the IDF and political leadership chose to rely mainly on the air force, directing the ground troops and armored corps stay out of the Strip or in the border area, to neutralize Hamas tunnels.

The military knows that in a war in the North, it will not be able to rely solely on the air force, and has publicly boasted about the preparedness of the ground troops, showing off to journalists major drills simulating war with Hezbollah. The army states that the next war will be more lethal, and it has shown off new technology and techniques which it says will destroy the group and send Lebanon “back to the Stone Age” if need be.

With the help of Iran, Hezbollah has rebuilt its arsenal since 2006 and has hundreds of thousands of short-range rockets and several thousand more missiles that can reach deeper into Israel.

It is believed that in the next war, the terrorist group will try to fire some 1,500-2,000 rockets per day until the last day of the conflict. With more than 40,000 fighters organized in battalions and brigades, Hezbollah forces have gained battlefield experience from fighting in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad.

But many of the group’s capabilities and infrastructure are intertwined with the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon, a country that receives millions of dollars in military aid and equipment from the United States and other Western countries.

“Contrary to what the Americans think, the Lebanese Air Force is not an alternative to Hezbollah,” Zehavi said. “They coexist side by side in Lebanon, and in the next war, the LAF will of course, in my opinion, have to fight shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah because they have to show the Lebanese population that they are protecting them. Otherwise, what good are they?”

She believes that the IDF is “as ready as it can be,” having undergone a big change in the amount of drills and operations (including the exposure and destruction of Hezbollah cross-border tunnels), but the civilian population will be greatly affected.

“It’s hard for them to accept dead bodies. Can we beat Hezbollah? Yes. But at what price? Who knows? The Hezbollah we met in 2006 is different from the Hezbollah of 2019.”

FORMER OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin told the Post that “the price on both sides will depend on the number of days the war lasts.”

“You hear about all sorts of words from the army: ‘lethality’ and ‘maneuvers,’" he said. "But that’s all garbage – because, at the end of the day, the IDF and Hezbollah have specific numbers, be it of ground forces, missiles, everything. The IDF has one mission: to defeat Hezbollah as fast as possible, even if that means a high cost on both sides,” he said.

“If I had to command during wartime like this, I would aim for a war of days, not weeks or months – but only when we have brute force and good defensive options along the border,” he added.

According to Levin, the problem facing the military isn’t the readiness of the troops but a mental block of the military and country, which have great difficulty accepting casualties, be they civilian or military.

“The issue isn’t the preparedness or capabilities of the military: It’s a mental strategic problem. We have to have a good defensive option along the border and hit the enemy with all the strength – with brute force – from the beginning.

“If we have a war that lasts days instead of weeks or months, there will be fewer civilian casualties. The main factor is to be fast – and that means brute force from day one. If they do that, then the war will last shorter and the IDF will win,” he said.

Before Levin left the military over 20 years ago, he served as commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit; a battalion and brigade commander in the Armored Corps; and commander of an armored division.

He was also appointed to investigate the Northern Command’s performance during the Second Lebanon War.

Levin told the Post that since 2006 there has been a major change with the enemy on the other side of the border.

“There is a very big difference with the enemy. In the past Hezbollah was a terrorist group, and then they morphed into guerrilla terrorism, which saw them carry out a mix of guerrilla attacks and terrorist attacks. But now they are an army, even though they still target civilians,” he said.

According to Levin, another change since the war is the understanding that Hezbollah has understood that it cannot defeat the IDF militarily. Therefore, “defeating Israel and the IDF means defeating the civilian population and politicians.”

“Their war, from the beginning, will see them targeting the civilian population, because they know they can’t defeat the IDF,” he said.

Levin believes that the military must have strong defenses along the border in order to prevent any ground infiltrations into civilian communities by Hezbollah, an incident that could turn into a major psychological defeat for the Jewish state.

PHILLIP SMYTH, the Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Post that both the IDF and Hezbollah have had the time to develop countermeasures to the opposing side’s strengths.

“Like chess, there’s always an opening and a counter – this time from both sides,” he said.

“One [new area for Hezbollah attacks] is in the cyber realm. Just as Hezbollah has performed before, it’s in the asymmetric fashion. Israel is loaded with a lot of great tech-based responses, so Hezbollah and Iran are stepping up ways to get information and go after what they need using social media, hacking and other means. They’re also practicing for future attacks by targeting the Saudis and other regional states.”

According to Smyth, “Hezbollah is also looking for more access within Israel itself. I would guess they are attempting to create future local cells to create problems ‘behind the lines’ in a future conflict.”

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has also recently stated that he would ask Iran for antiaircraft capabilities, and “all they need is one lucky hit,” Smyth said. “But beyond that, I think the bigger threat comes from future tunnels, other operations that may target rural villages, and the use of UAVs by Hezbollah for combined-arms type operations.”

WHILE THE primary threat posed by Hezbollah remains its missile arsenal, the IDF believes that the next war will see the group trying to bring the fight to the home front by infiltrating Israeli communities to inflict significant civilian and military casualties.

In December the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield to discover and destroy all cross-border tunnels dug by Hezbollah into northern Israel. It said that it has found and destroyed six such tunnels.

Pokharel told the Post that UNIFIL has confirmed the existence of five of the six tunnels, and that three of them crossed the Blue Line “in violation of the UN Security Council resolution 1701.” One of the tunnels was neutralized before UNIFIL could independently confirm its existence.

“UNIFIL has informed the Lebanese authorities about the violation and has requested urgent follow-up actions in accordance with the responsibilities of the government of Lebanon pursuant to Resolution 1701,” Pokharel said, adding that UN “Secretary-General António Guterres has reiterated his call to the LAF to expeditiously undertake and conclude all necessary investigations on the Lebanese side to ensure that the tunnels no longer pose a security threat, and to prevent any similar occurrences in the future.

“Any violation of Resolution 1701 and the Blue Line as well as any unilateral action close to the Blue Line increase the risk of tensions, miscalculation and the possible escalation into hostilities,” he stressed.

ALTHOUGH THE military insists that all cross-border tunnels have been destroyed, it has warned of other Hezbollah tunnels that have not crossed the border but can still be used by the terrorist group.

But Shula Giladi, from the community of Shtula, which sits on the border, isn’t scared of Hezbollah infiltration.

“I was born on the border, and I’ve lived through many wars. I was never afraid – of anything,” Shula said – known by many as Shula from Shtula – as she served a plate of home-cooked food.

“I was 20 when the Yom Kippur War broke out, and no one thought we could win that war. Now, the IDF is the strongest in the world. When you have enemies surrounding you on all sides, you have no choice but to be strong,” she said.

Shula stayed in Shtula during the last war, when children were evacuated from the community of 100 families. She opened her home to troops, fed them and gave them a warm bed to sleep in before they went back to the battlefield. Some never returned.

“I remember one Ethiopian soldier: He came to my home and I remember as he put on his camouflage before he went back across the border. He never came back... I still have his laundry.”

Shula, who has lived in Shtula for the past 50 years, cooks for large groups of tourists who come to visit the North, and her garden has Jewish National Fund flags fluttering in the breeze. When we visited, she was cooking for a group of 55 Israelis who were coming the next day.

She told the Post that she and other border community residents heard sounds of digging and knew of cross-border tunnels “before the IDF knew,” and that even with the risk posed by Hezbollah infiltration, she will never leave her home of 50 years.

“Hezbollah will never walk into Shtula. It will never happen. I trust the army with my eyes closed. But if Hezbollah kills me, it’s okay –the IDF would have done everything it could have before such a thing would happen.”

The Israeli military says it’s prepared if it needs to go to war against the Lebanese Shi’ite group – but is it really? Against a group that over the past eight years of battle in Syria has grown into what the IDF calls a “terror army”?

Despite repeated requests by the Post to speak with senior officers about the situation along the northern border, the IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit was unable or unwilling to provide anyone to explain the current state of the army.

What are they hiding?

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