Israel's deputy defense minister discusses strategic threats

From Hamas to Hezbollah, from Iran to the Palestinian Authority, Israel's deputy defense minister weighs in.

By MICHAEL FRIEDSON & CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
January 25, 2018 15:19
Israel's deputy defense minister discusses strategic threats

Israeli forces are seen near a border fence between the Israeli side of the Golan Heights and Syria, November 4, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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In a nation where defense and spirituality fuse into a unique but necessary reality, Morocco-born Eliyahu Ben Dahan exemplifies the successful melding of these disparate disciplines. An ordained rabbi who headed the bureau of Chief Rabbi of Israel Mordecai Eliyahu before becoming CEO of the nation’s Rabbinical Court, Ben Dahan had also risen to the rank of Major General in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Since 2013, Ben Dahan has served as a member of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party in the Knesset — Israel’s parliament, where he was tapped to take on the role of Deputy Minister of Religious Services and in the present government, as Deputy Defense Minister.

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A political conservative, he lives in a Jerusalem neighborhood that Israel conquered in the 1967 war with his wife and nine children.



As chaos rages throughout the Middle East, the threats to Israel are numerous. Ben Dahan dissects the challenges facing Israel’s army along each of its borders into the tactical and strategic. The threats are both acute and wide-ranging, fully surrounding the nation’s land mass. Terror tunnels menace the Jewish state in the north and south, while mortars, missiles and rockets lie pointed at every inch of the state.

This month, a familiar dance again played out when in response to a rocket fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, the Israel Air Force struck at targets belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s ruling entity. Israeli jets also destroyed a Hamas attack tunnel stretching from the city of Rafah in southern Gaza into Israeli territory and continuing into the Sinai Peninsula. The military said that the passageway was used to smuggle terrorists and ammunition from Egypt into the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

Overall, Israel’s army has demolished three cross-border tunnels emanating from the Strip since October. The IDF has invested heavily into developing new technologies and intelligence-gathering capabilities to uncover and neutralize the passageways and is in the process of building an underground barrier — a subterranean fence — spanning the entire border.

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While the army reiterated that it would act against any violations to Israel’s sovereignty, the IDF qualified that it does not wish to escalate the heightened tension that has persisted since US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. In the weeks following the Trump declaration, more than forty rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel, some landing in populated areas, prompting dozens of retaliatory air strikes.

The Iron Dome missile defense system has effectively limited the threat Hamas rockets pose to Israel, a change in the military playing field that over the past several years prompted the terror group to divert resources towards building its network of tunnels. But as the IDF increasingly appears to have found a solution to that danger, Hamas has upped its efforts to coordinate attacks from the West Bank and, according to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, even from Lebanon.

Indeed, there has been a recent rapprochement between Sunni-Muslim Hamas and Lebanon-based, Iranian-backed Shi'ite Hezbollah, whose leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, "declares Israel as an enemy [and] is interested in [its] annihilation," Ben Dahan stressed to The Media Line. "So these are the two primary tactical threats."

While Hezbollah was created by the Iranian regime in the early 1980s, primarily to counter Israel’s presence at the time in southern Lebanon, in the ensuing decades it has effectively taken control of the Lebanese government while developing into one of the Middle East’s most powerful military forces.

Israeli memories are long and collective scars remaining from the war just over a decade ago, in which Hezbollah paralyzed Israel’s entire north by firing thousands of rockets at civilian centers. Since then, the terror group's standing army has grown from 20,000 fighters to an estimated 45,000 in 2016, many of whom are now battle-tested. In terms of missiles, Hezbollah’s arsenal has skyrocketed from around 13,000 during the 2006 conflict to more than 120,000 today.

Israel has thus adopted clear "red lines" regarding Hezbollah, foremost to prevent its acquisition of advanced — or "game-changing" — weaponry. To this end, the Israeli military has conducted more than 100 strikes in Lebanon and Syria, most often targeting weapons convoys destined for the terror organization.

As per the broader strategic threat, it begins in Tehran and radiates outwards — from Iraq to Syria to Yemen and beyond — in accordance with the Islamic Republic's stated aim of spreading its revolutionary ideology. "Of course, Iran is the biggest long-term risk," Ben Dahan asserted, "[as] this is a country that could, in our opinion, acquire nuclear weapons in the coming years. When a government like Iran on one hand has atomic arms and on the other hand proclaims all the time that Israel, the Jewish state, needs to be destroyed, it is definitely a strategic threat against [our] existence."

In this respect, the Syrian theater, in particular, is emerging as a significant challenge for Israel, as Tehran attempts to fill the vacuum left by seven years of carnage. "Because of the chaos in Syria, Iranian and other international forces, like ISIS and other bodies, came into the country. Israel will definitely not allow for Iranian forces to approach the border," Ben Dahan stressed to The Media Line.



Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly pressed the United States and Russia, the major player in Syria since intervening in the conflict in 2015, to create a buffer zone of up to 30 miles in the Golan Heights in which Iran’s Shi'ite proxies would be barred from operating. Additionally, $40 million was recently allocated by the Defense Ministry to strengthen and fortify northern communities, which according to Ben Dahan will increase "protection for the residents [and allow for the construction] of all kinds of valuable infrastructure. We are building a defensive plan for them. Of course, there are other possibilities, not only passive ones, in order to prevent the missiles from being fired."

To prevent Iran from gaining a permanent military foothold on its doorstep, Israel reportedly recently struck four Iranian facilities, including a well-publicized attack on an installation located in Al-Kiswah, just south of the Syrian capital where Tehran is believed to have been building a weapons depot. Additionally, Israeli jets targeted sites in Hisya, near Homs, Jamariya, west of Damascus and Masyaf. The facilities are apparently involved in military research, the production of surface-to-air missiles and function as personnel bases.

Notably, the Islamic Republic has started placing installations within civilian industrial areas, leading analysts to postulate that Tehran is attempting to hide the existence of such centers in order to shelter them from attack. The development is drawing parallels to Iran’s strategy in Lebanon, where its Hezbollah proxy has built offensive capabilities within towns and villages in proximity to the border with Israel.

Another border that Ben Dahan is concerned about is the eastern flank, commonly known as the 1967 lines that separate Israel from the Palestinian Authority. Given his political affiliation, it is unsurprising that the deputy defense minister considers the prospect of a Palestinian state another threat to Israel. The Jewish Home party opposes Palestinian statehood outright and advocates for Israel's annexation of “Area C” of the West Bank, as designated by the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which Israel retains full military and civilian control and where all of the Jewish communities across the 1967 border are located.

"First of all," Ben Dahan told The Media Line, "the Jewish nation does not occupy these [post-1967] lands. They are ours. The whole world knows that you cannot occupy something when it didn't come from somebody. There wasn't any government there. So we never occupied anything.

"There is no difference between Nablus [in the West Bank], Beersheba and Tel Aviv," he continued. "Like [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] says, there is no distinction and from his perspective, he wants to exile all the Jews and throw them to the sea." Referring to the issue of legally annexing land acquired in the 1967 conflict, Ben Dahan asserted that, "we really think that there is a need to apply Israeli law to Judea and Samaria [the biblical names for the territories encompassing the West Bank]."

As per the local Arab-Palestinian population, the deputy defense minister implies granting them elements of self-autonomy that fall short of full Israeli citizenship. "You know that [there is an American territory in the Pacific Ocean] called Guam," he asked rhetorically. "Can Guam residents vote for the US president in elections? No, they cannot."

Israel appears to have both time and leverage on its side, as the PA faces the immediate risk of losing vital US financial support. Not only did President Trump recently withhold more than $100 million earmarked for the United Nations agency that attends to Palestinian refugees, but the House of Representatives passed the Taylor Force Act, named after an American citizen killed in a Palestinian terror attack in Israel. If approved by the Senate and subsequently signed by President Trump, the law would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it stops its so-called "pay-for-slay" policy. According to internal Palestinian data, the leadership paid some $350 million to tens of thousands of terrorists and their families in 2017. As made stark by Defense Minister Liberman during his recent presentation of the facts, the longer the prison sentence — and the more severe the crime — the greater the stipend disbursed by the PA.

To counter this phenomenon, Ben Dahan confirmed that the Defense Ministry is drafting its own bill that would deduct the amounts paid to terrorists from the taxes and tariffs Israel collects on behalf of the PA and then transfers to Ramallah as agreed upon in the Oslo Accords — an estimated $125-$150 million monthly. "When we have to give the PA money, we will subtract the amount [it paid to terrorists]. That’s it, it’s very simple," the deputy defense minister affirmed, "and I think that the world should be happy that there is one nation that says, 'we will not lend a hand to funding terror.'"

Compounding matters for PA is the apparent loss of unconditional political backing of regional countries. Ties between the Sunni Muslim world and the Jewish state are gradually strengthening, based primarily on the shared desire to curb Shi'ite Iran's expansionism and potential nuclearization. There is also a growing acknowledgment of Israel's potential contributions in the fields of defense, hi-tech, science and many others, as Middle East nations face a boomerang effect from years of tolerating — if not actively promoting — terrorism, while attempting to modernize their economies.

With the walls seemingly closing in on Abbas, he recently doubled-down on his boycott of the Trump administration implemented in the wake of its recognition of Israel as Jerusalem's capital. The PA boss went off on Washington in a rambling and widely-criticized speech that included what is being described as a curse of the American president. Abbas spit, “May God demolish your house,” before describing Israel as “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Jews.” All of this comes against the backdrop of Abbas' disqualification of Washington from its historical role as mediator of the peace process and his stated refusal to engage in any diplomatic initiative spearheaded by the White House.

Despite the impasse, Ben Dahan believes that co-existence is possible, albeit with one caveat. "[Palestinians in the West Bank] will live in paradise, on condition that they understand that this land belongs only to the Jews and that they will be prepared to accept the Israeli government. It is definitely much better than [how] their brothers [live] in Syria."

Accordingly, when probed about Israel's future Ben Dahan expresses optimism, noting that when the country was created in 1948 there were only 600,000 Jews surrounded by hostile nations. "Against seven Arab states, thank God we succeeded," he proclaimed in reference to the war launched by Israel's neighbors immediately following its declaration of independence. "No one believed that [decades later] in the Six Day War [of 1967] we would conquer all of the Sinai and Ramat HaGolan [the Golan Heights].

"Everybody said 'oy vey,' if you [annex] Ramat Hagolan, it will be a catastrophe. But nothing happened. I believe that the same will be the case with Judea and Samaria."

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