Has Israel's northern border become under threat?

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Hezbollah and Palestinian groups increasingly feel they can test Israel.

 PEOPLE LOOK at the damage caused by a missile fired from Lebanon, in the town of Shlomi in the North earlier this month. (photo credit: AYAL MARGOLIN/FLASH90)
PEOPLE LOOK at the damage caused by a missile fired from Lebanon, in the town of Shlomi in the North earlier this month.
(photo credit: AYAL MARGOLIN/FLASH90)

Over Passover I was staying in northern Israel near Haifa. After a large meal the night of the holiday, the next day seemed destined to be a relaxing, quiet day.

However, that was not what Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh, who had flown into Beirut just before the Jewish holiday, had in mind. Instead, what is alleged to have been a team of Palestinians with rockets navigated their way to southern Lebanon near Tyre and fired 34 rockets at Israel.

Southern Lebanon is an area festooned with Hezbollah checkpoints and bunkers, and the Iranian-backed terrorist group likely knew exactly what Hamas was up to.

Iran backs both Hamas and Hezbollah. It has the ability to galvanize these groups into attacks whenever it wants them to play a role against Israel. At the same time, these groups are expanding their terrorist infrastructure. Hamas now apparently has resources in Lebanon to threaten Israel, a recent phenomenon. Hezbollah has extended its tentacles into Syria so that it can also threaten Israel from near the Golan border. In Syria another Palestinian group called Liwaa Al-Quds also claimed to have fired rockets at Israel. Israel responded to the rocket fire from both Lebanon and Syria. It is not clear that either of the groups involved are deterred. They don’t appear to have suffered any real major losses in men or material.

The developments on the northern border represent a clear and present danger to Israel. I was in the area when the rockets were fired and was able to drive up to where they impacted two hours after the incident happened.

 Damage done by a rocket attack at a local bank in Shlomi, April 6, 2023. (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN) Damage done by a rocket attack at a local bank in Shlomi, April 6, 2023. (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

One rocket fell in the community of Shlomi. This pretty area sits just below a long ridge that forms the border between Israel and Lebanon. Prior to 1948, there was a large Arab village here named Bassa which had a significant Christian community. The Arabs fled this village during the 1948 war, and what remains today is one of the churches and some other old buildings, grown over with vines and trees today. Down the hill from them is an industrial area and the entrance to the residential area of Shlomi.

According to a man who saw the rocket impact, a large fuel truck had just passed the area before the rocket fell. It was Passover and most people were at home. Shrapnel from the rocket ripped apart windows in a nearby bank and law office and damaged some buildings. If it had not been Passover, it is likely this could have been a more deadly incident. Locals were angry that terrorists were able to threaten them during the holiday. One man pointed at the ridgeline and shouted curses at Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Over a period of several hours, I spent time in Shlomi and in the nearby moshav of Betzet, which also was hit by a rocket. That rocket had struck some kind of an agricultural shed, and it burst into flames. When I arrived, it was still being hosed down. Across the street was a kindergarten. Once again, this rocket felt too close for comfort.

While Israel’s Iron Dome system intercepted most of the rockets fired from Lebanon, around 25 out of 34, the rockets that did fall show that some rockets will always get through. Hezbollah and Hamas have banked on this strategy. Their goal is to present Israel with a threat that is so large that eventually some of the threats get through. Hamas attempted during the May 2021 conflict to overwhelm Iron Dome with massive barrages of rocket fire. In the past Israel has trained for a multifront war where Israel could face more than 1,500 rockets per day.

How did Israel's northern border become like this?

HOW DID the northern front become like this? Israel has faced rocket threats in northern Israel going back many decades. In fact, the rocket threat from Palestinian groups was one factor that led to the 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee, in which Israel invaded Lebanon and remained until the year 2000.

In the old days the Palestinian groups had expanded their rocket-launching capabilities with Katyusha-style rockets; but their capabilities in those days are dwarfed by what Hezbollah has access to today.

What that means is that while they could target the border area with rockets, today Hezbollah’s rockets can target all of Israel. Today Israel has Iron Dome, and in the 1980s it had no defenses against the rockets, except sending civilians to bomb shelters.  During the 2006 war with Hezbollah, almost 4,000 rockets were fired at Israel in 34 days of fighting.

The 2006 war was supposed to achieve some kind of calm. UN Resolution 1701 was supposed to stop Hezbollah from stockpiling arms and fortifying southern Lebanon. However, it has had the opposite affect. Hezbollah has vastly increased its stockpiles and its power.

The IDF says “Hezbollah has over 120,000 missiles in its arsenal, including long-range rockets that can reach the length of the State of Israel. Also in their stockpile are drones, advanced anti-ship missiles and aerial defense systems. While Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party, it maintains separate weaponry. These advanced weapons don’t belong to Lebanon, but to Hezbollah, which violates UN Resolution 1701.”

This doesn’t include the more recent threat posed by Hamas and groups linked to it in Lebanon, a threat that emerged in 2021 and 2023 with the latest rocket fire.

Even though Hezbollah has increased its power, it has been distracted by internal Lebanese politics and the Syrian civil war for the last decade. For instance, in 2008 clashes Hezbollah was able to muscle aside opposition in Lebanon and attempts to curtail its communications network. In 2012 it entered Syria to back the Syrian regime in the civil war. For two years, 2014-2016, Hezbollah successfully prevented a new president being elected for Lebanon, essentially meaning it had a stranglehold on politics. Eventually, it was able to get Michel Aoun into the presidential office so it had a key ally at the top of Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah has warned Israel against any attacks in Lebanon and has also put out warnings about any Israeli attempts to contain its role in Syria. Israel has been carrying out strikes in Syria under the “war between the wars” campaign, targeting Iranian entrenchment. However, when it comes to Hezbollah, things are more complex. In 2015,  Hezbollah accused Israel of killing Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a key Hezbollah official who had also been killed. Samir Kuntar, who had spent time in Israeli prison for a brutal  terrorist attack, was also killed in 2015.

With Hezbollah operating in Syria since 2012, the group has increased its warnings that it could target all of Israel, and it has begun moving units into villages near the Golan, essentially extending the frontline threat. In March 2014 and October 2014 Hezbollah targeted Israeli troops in the Mount Dov or Shaba Farms area. The March incident was alleged to have been Hezbollah’s response to what it claimed was an attack on a weapons convoy heading for Hezbollah in Lebanese territory. In January 2015 an explosive device wounded soldiers near the Golan border, and another attack killed  two soldiers in the Shaba Farms area. It should be noted that Palestinian groups, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, continued to threaten Israel from this area as well. In March 2017 Syria fired antiaircraft missiles at Israeli planes during an Israeli attempt to stop weapons transfers to Hezbollah via Syria.

In late 2018 Israel launched Operation Northern Shield to dismantle Hezbollah tunnels along the northern border. In late August 2019 Israel said it struck a “killer drone” cell that was apparently linked to Hezbollah. Tensions rose, and Hezbollah then accused Israel of flying a drone into Beirut, and Hezbollah attacked an Israeli jeep along the border. Nasrallah claimed that any “redlines” that existed preventing conflict had now been erased due to the tensions, and that a “new phase” had begun. In 2020 Israel prevented a  Hezbollah infiltration from Lebanon.

By this time the Syrian regime had returned to the Golan border; and Russian military police who were supposed to help ease this transition to regime control had left. Hezbollah was able to exploit the vacuum in southern Syria.

The overall story is now one in which Hezbollah and Palestinian groups increasingly feel they can test Israel in a prelude to a possible wider conflict. •