On July 13, 2006 – a day after IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted by Hezbollah – I was standing with an IDF brigadier general at the entrance to Avivim, a tiny moshav that straddles the Israeli-Lebanese border.
The IDF was beginning to amass troops along the border, although it was still unclear where this new conflict was headed. Armored personnel carriers were being unloaded nearby, and Merkava tank tracks were already ripping up the highway asphalt, leaving behind scars that would take years to repair.
But even at this stage, war seemed avoidable. In the IDF, senior officers were talking about an “operation.” No one on July 13th envisioned a 34-day war.
We stood there discussing military preparations, and particularly the future of the Armored Corps which was shrouded in uncertainty. The forecast for the Armored Corps was grim – a few months before the war, the IDF General Staff had met for a seminar to discuss a series of proposed structural changes to the military.
At the time, the IDF was focused on preventing Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Tanks were perceived as irrelevant, and the General Staff was considering closing several armored brigades and reducing the number of tanks it would continue to manufacture.
An hour after the abduction of Regev and Goldwasser, another nail was driven into the Merkava coffin when a large explosive device detonated underneath a tank deployed along the Lebanese border, instantly killing its crew.
But now, with a conflict brewing, we discussed the challenges the Merkava tanks would face if they were sent en masse into Lebanon. At one point during the conversation, we suddenly heard a soft whistle. Within seconds, something slammed into the hill on the other side of the ravine that separates the old northern- border road we were standing on, with the hill just a bit to the South. Then came another whistle, and another thud from a nearby hilltop.
Rocket attacks were not new for Israel – in the years preceding the war, they had been lobbed regularly over the border from the Gaza Strip. But here we were, an Israeli general and a reporter, watching with astonishment as Hezbollah rockets slammed into a nearby hilltop.
The rest of the story is well known: the border conflict quickly escalated as Hezbollah increased its rocket attacks, and the IDF retaliated by bombing Hezbollah targets throughout Lebanon alongside some national infrastructure. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to send the country into its first war in almost a quarter century, to try to change the reality that had prevailed along the border since the IDF pulled out of Lebanon in 2000.
Next month Israel will mark a decade since the Second Lebanon War, a conflict that still today stirs controversy within military and political circles – as well as among the civilian population.
Was the war a success or a failure? Has the IDF learned its lessons? And is the political echelon better prepared today to make the necessary decisions in future situations? On the one hand, many believed in the immediate aftermath of the war that Hezbollah had emerged with the upper hand. Despite severe blows to its infrastructure – mostly by the Israeli Air Force – Hezbollah managed to fire an average of 120 rockets a day over a 34-day period.
That is why, when the cease-fire finally went into effect on August 14, few Israelis would have believed that the war which had just ended would create 10 years of unprecedented quiet.
On the other hand, there was the IDF, which even today continues to implement some of the changes it discovered it needed to make after the war. This primarily pertained to what is known as interoperability – getting the military’s different branches to work closer and more in sync with one another.
A decade though provides perspective: despite less than a handful of small border flare-ups, the Lebanese front today is quiet. For the most part, Hezbollah is not deployed along the border, definitely not in the open way it was before the 2006 war, when guerrilla fighters in army fatigues brandishing M-16s manned posts right up along the fence.
It also seems deterred. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, still moves in the shadows, and is believed to live underground out of fear that Israel might try to kill him. Dozens of air strikes against Hezbollah arms caches, weapons convoys as well as the occasional targeted killing – believed to be carried out by Israel – have also, for the most part, passed without retaliation.
This does not mean that Israel is in the clear. Quite the contrary. Today, Hezbollah is Israel’s primary threat, replacing the Syrian military which continues to disintegrate as a result of the country’s ongoing civil war. Israeli concerns stem from two dramatic upgrades Hezbollah has undergone in the decade since the last war.
First, the participation of thousands of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian war has provided the organization with much-needed battlefield experience.
While the Israeli public strongly criticized the IDF immediately following the 2006 war, there was no question then that in every battle, the IDF emerged with the upper hand. This was true even in places like Bint Jbail, where eight Golani soldiers were killed in a single firefight.
Nevertheless, the experience Hezbollah has gained in Syria makes it a stronger adversary today, and will serve it well in any future conflict with the IDF.
The second improvement has been to Hezbollah’s rocket and missile capability.
In Military Intelligence, officers call the transformation “Fire-by-6,” a reference to the six changes Hezbollah’s arsenal has undergone in the past decade.
The first change is in the size of the arsenal. If in 2006 Hezbollah had about 15,000 rockets, today it is believed to have close to 120,000, with longer ranges, larger warheads, greater accuracy, and the ability to launch from deeper inside enemy territory and in some cases even from underground silos.
One example of a new weapon that Hezbollah is believed to possess is the M-600, which is made in Syria. It has a range of 300 km., carries 500 kilograms of explosives in its warhead, and is equipped with a navigation system, giving the organization an unprecedented level of accuracy.
This means that the “Third Lebanon War,” if it ever erupts, will need to be fought completely differently than the last one in 2006. Even with new missile defense systems like Iron Dome and the soon-to-arrive David’s Sling, Israel will not be able to sustain 34 days of non-stop missile onslaughts from Lebanon. The 50 days of Protective Edge in 2014 during which Hamas fired inaccurate Kassam and Katyusha rockets from Gaza, showed that Israelis are resilient – but with a limit.
An onslaught of accurate missiles capable of wreaking even greater destruction will not be able to continue that long.
This means that Israel will need to act aggressively and swiftly to deal Hezbollah a blow from which it will be difficult to recover. The military will not be able to go after single rocket launchers like it did in 2006, and there are already voices in the Security Cabinet pushing for an extreme, aggressive and quick operation that immediately attacks Lebanon’s national infrastructure and known Hezbollah targets, even in densely populated civilian areas.
If this plan materializes, it will likely have some direct operational implications.
In the 2006 and 2014 wars in Lebanon and Gaza, the government refrained from immediately sending ground troops across the border. It first conducted extensive air campaigns, and only after it could not quell the rocket fire did it send in the troops. In a future war with Hezbollah, there will likely not be enough time, and the government will probably need to act fast both on the ground and in the air.
All of this connects to another milestone Israel will be marking next month – the 40th anniversary of the daring Israeli commando raid to free 105 hostages from Entebbe, Uganda. On July 4, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to Entebbe and hold a ceremony there to mark the historic operation, and to honor the memory of his brother Yoni, the sole commando killed while leading the operation.
There is no underplaying the significance of the Entebbe raid. It took place a mere three years after the debacle of the Yom Kippur War, during which Israel suffered heavy losses as well as a fatal blow to the nation’s morale. The operation – which showed that Israel had the ability to operate anywhere on the globe and at any time – lifted the nation’s spirits, and helped boost its dwindling image of deterrence.
Looking back at the Entebbe raid, what stood out was not just the military operation but the courage the government showed by sending plane loads of troops 4,000 km. away, deep into an enemy country and without a clear way to evacuate them if something went wrong.
“The operation itself was nothing special from a military perspective,” one former senior IDF officer, who participated in the operation, told me this week. “It was us against the unimpressive Ugandan military. We knew we could take them.
What made it unique was the government’s guts in sending us to do it.”
As newly declassified cabinet protocols reveal, the decision was not taken lightly.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin needed convincing, and until the last moment, defense minister Shimon Peres was still suggesting changes to the plan. The former officer recalled how the final approval for the operation came only after he and his soldiers were already halfway to Entebbe. Only once they were airborne, did Rabin convene his cabinet. But in the end the green light was given and the soldiers were sent on an operation far from home and with unclear chances of success.
Israel’s history as a modern state is entwined with innumerable acts of courage, many of them on the various battlefields the IDF has encountered since 1948.
The upcoming anniversaries of the Second Lebanon War and the Entebbe raid are a rare opportunity for the government to declare that it is not just here to coast into the future. If it has the will, it can find the courage to confront the challenges looming on Israel’s horizon.
From Entebbe to Lebanon, many still remain.