Analysis: Assessing the covert war between the IDF and Hezbollah

Hezbollah rebuilt southern Beirut and Lebanon and restocked its weapons depots, while the IDF began training and arming itself for the next potential phase of hostilities.

AN ISRAELI soldier stands near a mobile artillery unit as it fires a shell into southern Lebanon on July 13, 2006, a day after IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted by Hezbollah (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI soldier stands near a mobile artillery unit as it fires a shell into southern Lebanon on July 13, 2006, a day after IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted by Hezbollah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A decade after the Second Lebanon War, Israel and Hezbollah have kept their guns silent, and the northern border has experienced an unprecedented period of mostly incident-free years.
Hezbollah rebuilt southern Beirut and Lebanon and restocked its weapons depots, while the IDF began training and arming itself for the next potential phase of hostilities.
Yet under the surface, it seems, a covert struggle could be raging right now between them, with neither side interested in escalating the ‘low-flame’ affair into an open conflict.
In April this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke with past protocol and made an extraordinary statement while touring the Golan Heights with senior IDF officers: Israel has launched dozens of strikes in Syria, Netanyahu said, thus acknowledging openly – for the first time – that Israel has performed a number of covert Israeli operations aimed at stopping the cross-border trafficking of weapons to Iranian- backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“We act when we need to act, including here across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weaponry,” Netanyahu said, shedding official light on an ongoing covert confrontation dubbed as “the war between wars” by defense officials.
The prime minister has not publicly broached the subject since, but that does not rule out that operations have ceased.
Behind the scenes, according to international media reports, the effort is led by Military Intelligence, which deploys vast resources to track the Iranian weapons manufacturing industries and international trafficking networks that often steer such arms to Hezbollah’s weapons depots, scattered across civilian areas in southern and northern Lebanon, and southern Beirut.
Sometimes the weapons are produced in Syrian regime-owned production plants, which use North Korean and Iranian missile blueprints to construct the arms.
Dozens of GPS-guided missiles, such as the Fateh-110 missiles already possessed by Hezbollah, are believed to be lying in Hezbollah’s storage and launch facilities, and Israel, it is safe to assume, does not want Hezbollah to mass stockpile such arms. Advanced surface-to-air missiles and radar-guided anti-ship missiles are also weapons Jerusalem has no interest in seeing reach its arch enemy in Lebanon.
The “war between wars” could, in theory, prevent Hezbollah from receiving high-quality weapons.
Such missiles could enable Hezbollah to aim for specific targets, like an airbase or port.
It is assumed that when information comes in – whether by satellite, drone, signals intelligence, or other means – that a game-changing weapon is making its way to a Hezbollah depot in Lebanon, the Israeli defense establishment must make a decision.
Allowing the weapons to reach their destination would negatively affect Israel’s starting position at the start of any future conflict with Hezbollah.
Using an air strike to stop the shipment, however, could escalate into an unplanned war, if it triggers a reckless retaliation by Hezbollah and response from Israel.
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon often spelled out the scenarios that would, in theory at least, be sufficient to trigger a covert Israeli strike. For example, in November 2015 Ya’alon pledged that Israel would respond with “zero tolerance” to weapons-trafficking or the distribution of chemical weapons to terrorists.
Ya’alon spoke just three days after international media reports claimed Israeli aircraft carried out air strikes in Syrian airspace, reportedly attacking Hezbollah targets in the Qalamoun mountain region near the Lebanese border in an attempt to intercept a weapons convoy to Lebanon.
It was the first reported attack attributed to Israel since Russia became involved in the air war in Syria.
“Those who cross the redlines will be hit,” Ya’alon cautioned.
This under-the-radar affair may also involve the mysterious killings of senior Hezbollah commanders who become involved in setting up terrorist bases in Syria that threaten Israel. In May, a senior Hezbollah operative, Mustafa Badredinne, was killed in Syria. No one knows who carried out the assassination.
Hezbollah said Syrian rebels, whom Badreeddine had been fighting, carried out the attack. Had it blamed Israel, the Shi’ite terrorist army would likely have followed through with a strike on an Israeli target.
The incident – regardless of who is behind it – touches on a wider point, which is that if a covert Israeli strike program does exist, it likely carries both risks and benefits to national security.
Successful reported Israeli strikes on weapons-trafficking convoys, or assassinations of terrorists, if they are occurring on a regular basis, underline how far Israeli intelligence has come in the past decade in understanding how Hezbollah works.
Yet while Hezbollah – botched down in bloody sectarian warfare in Syria, and aware of Israel’s massive firepower potential – seeks to avoid open war with Israel, the same can could also be said about Israel, which for its part appears to be partly deterred by Hezbollah.
In such a case, deterrence looks like a two-way street. Covert strikes, large-scale intelligence gathering, and cyber attacks (by Hezbollah, with Iranian backing, against Israel), seem to be tactics in this secretive struggle.
Just as Israeli leaders have warned about the widespread destruction a third Lebanon war would bring, Hezbollah has been issuing warnings of its own, and these are being heard clearly in Israel. Hezbollah appears to have been signaling that its patience is wearing thin, and that it is prepared to take risks to establish an “equilibrium of deterrence” between it and Israel.
Through public statements, Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon have, in recent months, made clear that any further strikes on weapons convoys moving between Syria and Lebanon, or against Hezbollah members in Syria or Lebanon, would result in retaliation in the Mount Dov region.
Hezbollah has made good on such threats in the past. In January 2015, a reported Israeli air strike targeted a convoy of Hezbollah and Iranian operatives who were constructing a terror base in the Syrian Golan region, near the Israeli border.
One of those killed was Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Hezbollah’s notorious operation chief, Imad Mughniyeh, who was himself assassinated in 2008 by a Damascus car bomb.
Hezbollah responded to the 2015 incident forcefully, firing a volley of Kornet guided missiles at the IDF in Mount Dov, killing a soldier and commander in their D-Max vehicle.
The attack was launched from five kilometers away in Lebanon.
Then a year later, in January, Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar was killed in an air strike on his Damascus location. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened to respond against Israel, and days later, Hezbollah set off a large bomb on the western section of Mount Dov on the Israel-Lebanon border, targeting two armored military vehicles that were clearing a road in the area.
The IDF responded with cross-border artillery fire at targets in Lebanon.
And with that, the incident came to a close.
If Hezbollah’s threats of zero tolerance to alleged Israeli future strikes is credible, then those in Israel making the final call on whether to launch or abort operations will likely have to think even more carefully before giving the green light.