Security and Defense: Northern exposure

3 years after the Second Lebanon War, Hizbullah is no longer on the Lebanese border. But it's not far.

IDF on Lebanese border 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
IDF on Lebanese border 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Three years ago, Eitan Oren could not work in his nectarine orchard just north of Kibbutz Malkiya along the Lebanese border. On Wednesday, like every other day over the past three years, Oren was out driving a tractor through the fields as UNIFIL troops watched just a few meters away from the other side of the electronic border fence. "The Second Lebanon War changed the reality along the northern border," he says. "Until the war, Hizbullah used to stand directly on the other side of the border. Today they are no longer there." While Oren is correct that Hizbullah does not operate overtly along the border as it did before the war, the IDF believes that the group has restored most of its military capabilities and has based them inside villages, where they cannot be seen. Hizbullah makes no secret of its presence in the villages. Just north of Malkiya sits Maroun A-Ras, perched atop a hill providing the villagers with a commanding view of the Israeli communities, like Malkiya, below. From an observation post near Malkiya, the naked eye can make out the Hizbullah flag flying on top of the hill. The same is true north of Metulla, where another Hizbullah flag flies proudly not far from a UNIFIL position. Oren says that he often sees fancy German cars - Mercedes, BMWs and Audis - drive up to the border. The men who get out of them, he says, are not your average Lebanese farmer. "As a farmer I can tell whether someone is a farmer," he says. "The people I see are dressed well, are large and muscular and carry a pair of binoculars in their pocket." Three years after the month-long war began with the kidnapping of reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the northern border is quiet but tense. As one security officer in a nearby kibbutz said this week: "The IDF tells us that we need to be prepared for the possibility that war will break out any day." There is the possibility that Hizbullah will decide to attack without being provoked as it did on July 12, 2006. A second option is that an IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, for example, would spark a Hizbullah response. This possibility appears slim, considering that during Operation Cast Lead earlier this year, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah decided to ignore Iranian pressure to join the fray. The possibility that a soldier will be kidnapped appears slim to Oren, who recently participated in an IDF-directed drill aimed at preparing residents of border communities for a possible terror infiltration. The IDF appears to have learned the lessons from the 2006 kidnapping. Aware that kidnapping a soldier is an attack of a "strategic nature," Brig.-Gen. Imad Fares, commander of the Galilee Division, put thwarting such an attack at the top of his list of priorities when he assumed command more than two years ago. The changes are most apparent along the border - in the deployment of cameras, the repositioning of troops and the way border patrols are conducted. Changes have also been made in the way the top command would handle itself in the event of a kidnapping with regard to response time and the activation of the air force. Goldwasser and Regev were part of a patrol that consisted of two Hummers. Near Moshav Zarit, each was hit with anti-tank missiles and heavy machine gun fire. Now, each patrol consists of more than two vehicles, with extra reinforced steel armor to protect against anti-tank missile attacks. The use of larger patrols will force Hizbullah to use a larger force if it decides to try to kidnap a soldier. A larger Hizbullah force makes more noise and can more easily be detected than a smaller force. Lt.-Col. (res.) Shlomi Felix, from Kibbutz Yaron, says he doesn't see Hizbullah along the border but believes it is still there. On a tour of the kibbutz, he points to what looks like a soccer field in Maroun A-Ras. Even though it is the middle of the day, large spotlights facing Israel are turned on. Next to the lights is a Hizbullah flag. "We don't know what is there, but we assume the reason they have the lights on during the day is to blind the security cameras on the Israeli side," he says. Felix then points to various buildings inside the village and claims that many of them have been built since the war. "Dozens of homes were also built in the southern Lebanese villages before the war," he says. "What we found during the war was that the top floors of the homes were where the families lived, but the ground levels and the basements were where Hizbullah had set up its listening stations and weapons storehouses." ANOTHER event that could spark a new war with Hizbullah is a strike against Iran's nuclear installations. While Israel is not yet close to launching such an operation, this past week was filled with different signals about a potential strike from both Israel and the US. The signaling started last Friday in a report in The Jerusalem Post regarding the passage of one of the navy's's advanced Dolphin-class submarines through the Suez Canal, interpreted as a signal to Teheran regarding the IDF's covert military capabilities. Then the London Sunday Times claimed Mossad chief Meir Dagan had reached secret understandings with Saudi Arabia according to which the IAF would be able to fly over the kingdom on its way to hit Iran's nuclear facilities. That same night, US Vice President Joe Biden repeated three times in an ABC interview that "Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else." The following day, on a visit to Moscow, President Barack Obama was asked by CNN if Biden's comment's represented the US giving Israel a "green light" to attack. "Absolutely not," he replied. "I think Vice President Biden stated a categorical fact which is we can't dictate to other countries what their security interests are. What is also true is that it is the policy of the United States to try to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capabilities in a peaceful way through diplomatic channels." The next day, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, warned that a military strike to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons capability could have grave and unpredictable consequences. "I have been for some time concerned about any strike on Iran," he said. "I worry about it being very destabilizing... the unintended consequences of a strike like that." There is no doubt that things are heating up on the Iranian front. While Biden likely did not intend to give the green light for a strike, he may have intended to use Israel as a stick to threaten Iran so it would sit down at the negotiating table for talks that the G8 decided Wednesday night would last until September. Israel's official answer is that the country does not need to be told that it is a sovereign nation and that it can act according to its best interests. Menachem Begin made this clear in 1981 with the strike against the Osirak reactor outside of Baghdad, and Ehud Olmert did the same in 2007 with the strike against the Syrian nuclear reactor along the Euphrates River. On the other hand, in the second part of his ABC interview, Biden stated clearly that current US strategy is to use diplomacy to stop Iran. Jerusalem will have no choice but to wait for the dialogue to end before it can decide to take action.