Overview The fast-changing Middle East region has led to a dramatic transformation in Israel’s security environment.
Conventional threats posed by hierarchical state armies, such as the armed forces of the Syrian regime, have all but vanished in the chaos sweeping the region, while unconventional rocket, missile and guerrilla terrorism threats to Israel have increased significantly.
Zones suffering from failed state or partially failed state syndromes, such as 60 percent of Syria and parts of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, provide fertile ground for the growth of al-Qaida-affiliated organizations bent on carrying out terrorist attacks and spreading their radical ideology.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Iran-led Shi’ite-Alawite axis, composed of the extremist Iranian regime and its extraterritorial special operations unit the Quds Force, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and Hezbollah. As radical Sunni forces confront the pro-Iranian axis, the resulting clash unleashes waves of violence and destabilization throughout the whole region.
In failed states like Syria and Libya, advanced weapons are raided from military storehouses and sold on the black market to terrorist organizations.
Yet, all of these threats are minor – and containable – when compared to the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear military program.
It is important to keep in mind that for every threat listed below, the IDF has developed a planned-out response, which it is refining continuously. The solutions provided by the IDF are too extensive to enumerate in this article, but are forward-thinking and designed to meet the challenges Israel expects to face in the 21st century.
Iran The Islamic Republic continues to represent the No. 1 threat to Israel’s security. Tehran has enriched enough low-grade uranium for seven to nine atomic bombs, if enriched to military-grade levels (a relatively straightforward process). It is continuing to enrich uranium to the intermediate 20% level at its facilities in Natanz and the subterranean site at Fordow, near Qom, while also pursuing a parallel track to nuclear weapons through plutonium at the heavy water reactor in Arak.
Iran is building an extensive long-range missile capability widely believed to have been designed to deliver nuclear warheads.
Iran’s regime is outspokenly dedicated to the goal of destroying the State of Israel. Iranian political, religious and military leaders have expressed their desire to annihilate Israel repeatedly.
Furthermore, the Iranian regime is filled with quarreling factions that could in the future lead to a destabilization of the government, the military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In any future destabilization of an Iranian regime armed with atomic bombs, a hard-line faction could seize control of nuclear missile bases and order an attack.
Iran’s territory is 70 times larger than Israel, a disparity that will form a temptation for Iranian leaders to realize their fantasy of destroying Israel. Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, considered an Iranian “reformist,” formulated this thinking when he said in 2001: “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the… application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”
With 70% of the Israeli population concentrated in cities on the Mediterranean Coastal Plain, Iranian leaders might face the temptation of initiating a nuclear attack based on Rafsanjani’s calculation. Israel has a population of 7.8 million; Iran has a population of 74.8 million.
Once Iran breaks through to the nuclear arms stage, it would automatically spark a Middle Eastern arms race, as Iran’s frightened Sunni rivals would rush to get their own atomic bombs. Sunni states suffering from chronic instability, such as Egypt, as well as other Sunni powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, would likely end up armed with nuclear weapons as well. This would create an intolerable security environment for all actors in the region.
The danger of nuclear terrorism will become tangible if Iran goes nuclear. With Iran sponsoring terrorist attacks throughout the entire region, from Iraq to Lebanon to Georgia, and with Iranian agents involved in attempted terrorist attacks in multiple continents, it would be impossible to rule out the possibility of nuclear terrorism if Tehran acquires the bomb.
Syria Until 2011, the Syrian military posed the most serious conventional military threat to Israeli territorial security.
Today, it is struggling to remain intact in the face of erosion caused by two-and-a-half years of fighting with the rebels. Syria’s inward focus and reduced capabilities have removed it from the list of major threats to Israel.
No Syrian tanks are threatening to invade the Golan Heights or the Galilee, and the Assad regime is keen on reserving its remaining missile capabilities for use in the civil war.
Nevertheless, within Syria, a number of new threats to Israeli security are rapidly developing. Syria has become a transit zone for advanced Iranian arms destined for Hezbollah. The more Assad relies on Iran and Hezbollah for his survival, the closer he grows to them, and he is now in no position to refuse any of their requests for the movement or transfer of sophisticated weaponry.
Israel has drawn clear red lines over the movement of advanced missiles, missile defense batteries and chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Syrian battlegrounds are now filled with Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Quds Force military advisers. Although Iran and Hezbollah have moved military assets to Syria to take on the rebels, their presence also represents a potential new front from which they can also operate against Israel.
Meanwhile, in northern and eastern districts of Syria, where the Assad regime has lost all control, al-Qaida is quickly building up its principal Mideast base.
According to one study carried out by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the Nusra Front, claimed by al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri as an official branch in Syria, is entrenching itself at a rate several times faster than the time it took al-Qaida in Afghanistan to become a serious international terrorist presence.
Groups like the Nusra Front are raiding Syrian army weapons depots and could one day get hold of chemical weapons as well – which would represent a major threat to Israel, and regional and global security.
Lebanon The flames of the sectarian civil war in Syria have begun to spread to Lebanon, Hezbollah’s home base. Despite being heavily involved in the Syrian conflict and losing hundreds of fighters, Hezbollah remains the most powerful military-terrorist entity in Lebanon.
It has amassed some 80,000 to 90,000 rockets and missiles, all of which are pointed at Israeli cities, and the Iranian- backed organization can strike at nearly every location in Israel.
This represents an unprecedented threat to the Israeli home front. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of welltrained fighters within its ranks.
The IDF has been training intensively and is drawing up plans to extinguish rocket fire from Lebanon in any future conflict with Hezbollah, while the IDF’s Home Front Command has been working to ensure the civilian population and infrastructure will be able to cope with large-scale rocket and missile attacks.
According to Israel’s assessment, Hezbollah, despite being heavily armed, is also deterred by Israel’s devastating firepower, and is focusing its efforts for the time being on guarding its status in Lebanon and helping its ally in Damascus survive the civil war.
Gaza The Hamas regime in Gaza is still licking its wounds from last year’s short but intense Operation Pillar of Defense. The conflict began when the IDF surprised Hamas by assassinating its military chief Ahmed Jabari, and launched an air campaign that targeted Hamas’s rocket infrastructure.
The Israeli move came in response to an ever-escalating Hamas campaign to attack Israeli forces patrolling the Gaza border, and to target southern Israeli cities with large rocket barrages when Israel responded to the border attacks.
Today, Hamas has amassed over 5,000 short-range rockets that can strike cities such as Ashkelon and Ashdod, and is in possession of intermediate-range projectiles that can hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Hamas’s rocket arsenal places 70% of the Israeli population within its range. It has some 16,000 fighters, while the smaller Iranian-sponsored Islamic Jihad in Gaza has about 5,000 armed members and 2,000 rockets.
Since the fall of its fellow Islamist government in Cairo, Hamas – which is a Muslim Brotherhood branch – has found itself completely isolated, with no regional allies in sight.
It is now attempting to rejoin Iran’s orbit, which it left last year due its support of the Sunni rebels in Syria, a move that angered Tehran.
Billions of dollars in Qatari aid have arrived in Gaza for construction purposes, and Hamas seems keen to preserve the cease-fire with Israel to avoid inflicting further damage to its capabilities. A new conflict could also put the regime under intense public pressure from the Gazan civilian population, which may be in no mood for another round of fighting.
West Bank The West Bank sector saw a relative upsurge of violence in late September, when two IDF soldiers were killed in separate terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, the IDF believes that the chances of a third intifada breaking out here remain slim, due to a host of factors. These include Israel’s tight intelligence grip, the presence of the IDF in various strategic points on the ground, nightly counter-terrorism raids to break up cells and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority’s security services.
The PA has a vested interest in preventing Hamas and Islamic Jihad from stoking up more violence and undermining Fatah’s rule.
Nevertheless, violent disturbances, Molotov cocktail attacks, rock throwing, and gun and bomb attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets remain a constant threat in the West Bank.
The sector is also the scene of ongoing attempts by Hamas and other terror organizations to launch atrocities on civilian targets in Israel proper. One recent example is the plot by Hamas in the West Bank to bomb the Mamilla open-air mall in the heart of Jerusalem on the Jewish New Year, which was thwarted by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the country’s domestic intelligence body.
Sinai In recent months, Egyptian security forces have stepped up counter-terrorism operations on the growing al-Qaida presence in the Sinai Peninsula.
Jihadis from this region have targeted the Red Sea resort of Eilat with rocket attacks on multiple occasions, and forced the shutdown of Eilat’s airport as well.
With access to Libyan missiles and firearms, the Sinai jihadis, made up of radicalized Beduin and foreign volunteers from Arab countries, have also launched cross-border attacks on the Israeli-Egyptian border, most likely in the hope of provoking an incident that would undermine the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
The radical groups include Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Eilat.
Some of the jihadis maintain links to the Gaza Strip, from where arms are smuggled into Sinai, which is why the Egyptian army has been destroying smuggling tunnels linking the two territories.