IDF’s Druse battalion prepares for its next clash with Hezbollah

Senior commanders in the IDF’s 300th Infantry Brigade tell 'The Jerusalem Post' that the quiet reigning over the Lebanese frontier is highly deceptive: "Hezbollah is carrying out massive preparations."

SOLDIERS FROM the Sword Battalion IDF army 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
SOLDIERS FROM the Sword Battalion IDF army 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
On both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border, the IDF and Hezbollah are quietly and intensively preparing for the next clash between them, a conflict both expect will surpass previous wars, in the scope of firepower each side will seek to employ.
The IDF’s 300th Infantry Brigade is based in what is known in the army as the Western Sector of the Lebanese border.
Senior commanders in the brigade told The Jerusalem Post this week that the quiet reigning over the frontier is highly deceptive.
In the midst of the green mountains and pastoral Shi’ite villages of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is installing the most serious conventional threat to Israeli security, planting tens of thousands of rockets in civilian homes, digging underground bunkers for command and control centers, and plotting cross-border attacks.
“Hezbollah is carrying out massive preparations,” a senior source from the 300th Brigade said in recent days. “They’re focused in civilian Shi’ite villages. They know we won’t just attack the villages for no reason. Hezbollah members come to the border too, but without their uniforms.
They arrive in the form of shepherds, farmers, and hunters.”
“Hezbollah has the operational capabilities to attack now. When it will do so remains to be seen,”the source added. “This might end up being something we haven’t experienced. The threat exists from the air, sea and ground, as well as underground tunnels.
We’re always thinking about what the next step might be.”
In the middle of this build-up is Lt.-Col. Raafat Halabi, Commander of the Division’s Sword Battalion, which is composed of Druse infantry soldiers. The battalion is highly esteemed among IDF commanders for its professionalism and fighting capabilities, and is seen as a major northern infantry asset.
Sitting at battalion headquarters near the Lebanese border in the Upper Galilee, Halabi sketched out the beginnings of the Druse-Jewish relationship. “It started before the establishment of the state. The Druse felt they were an oppressed minority.
The Jews arrived here with the same feeling,” he said.
When Arab forces first began armed attacks on pre-state Jewish communities, the Druse were neutral, but soon enough, the leadership of the Druse community made a decision to tie its fate to that of the Jewish national liberation movement.
By 1948, when the War of Independence broke out, the Druse joined battles against invading Arab League armies, forming a Minorities Company in the nascent IDF. During the conflict, Druse leaders in Israel got in touch with a contingent of Syrian and Lebanese Druse, who had joined the Arab League’s offensive after being told that Israel was ethnically cleansing Druse villages.
“Our leadership told them this is a lie. No one is being kicked out here. Their commander understood what had happened, and told his soldiers, ‘Those of you who wish to stay can do so. The rest should return home with me.’ The grandson of one of the soldiers who stayed became the first Druse navigator in the Israel Air Force,” Halabi said.
The Minorities Company evolved into a battalion in the 1950s, when the government extended the mandatory national draft to Israeli Druse.
In the 1970s, Druse soldiers began joining all army units, a process that today sees them integrated in and commanding vital military forces. Last month’s appointment of a Druse commander to head the Golani Brigade, Col. Rasan Alian, is one example.
Halabi concedes, his battalion is facing stiff competition from other units keen to enlist young Israeli Druse, who are not only bilingual in Arabic and Hebrew, but also, like their Jewish-Israeli peers, are often fluent in the world of computers and technology.
MILITARY INTELLIGENCE’S Unit 8200 and the air force are just two of the contenders.
“But motivation to join this battalion remains high,” Halabi argued.
The history of Halabi’s family is intertwined with the Sword Battalion. His father served in it, and four out of seven of his brothers did too.
“Today, like any infantry battalion, we’re carrying out continuous security missions and training for war. We moved to the Lebanese border from the South following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. This area is our specialty,” he added.
During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Sword Battalion fought nonstop throughout the course of the conflict, earning a citation from the chief of staff. On the wall of the battalion’s headquarters is a photograph of Druse soldiers waving an Israeli flag as they passed through the border gate back into Israel, the last to leave Lebanon.
“We met all of our missions with honor. Very few were injured,” Halabi said.
One plain advantage possessed by the Druse battalion is its Arabic language and familiarity with Arab culture. Halabi researched the issue on behalf of his Division Headquarters.
“When I enter a village in Lebanon, it’s very similar to my village. If there’s a sign with a photo of [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, I can read it. I can see a gas stove and know it’s not an explosive device. I can tell that a floor door is most likely a well. I dug one in my home recently,” he explained.
In the course of house-to-house fighting in 2006, Halabi found Hezbollah books that transmitted the Iranian ideology at the heart of the Shi’ite terror organization, and read them. He also found a book that listed Hezbollah’s members killed in action.
“This is part of the indoctrination of the population, also achieved through summer camps and other civilian programs. I read these books during breaks in the fighting, and learned about the Khomeinist [Iranian Islamist] ideology which is being spread throughout the population,” Halabi added.
The cultural advantage also enables members of the battalion to easily discern Hezbollah men approaching the border to carry out reconnaissance, while pretending to be hunters.
Despite the many criticisms of the IDF’s performance during the 2006 conflict, Halabi firmly believes it enabled the northern border to remain quiet, due to deterrence. “But we understand this is time-limited,” he added.
Halabi’s army career contains within it the story of the IDF over past decades. In Gaza, before Israel’s departure, he was a company commander, and his base near Netzarim was fired on by Palestinian gunmen every night.
He once rode in a jeep driven by a young, quiet army driver, when an explosive went off nearby, which was detonated by Palestinian gunmen.
Despite being alone, Halabi acted quickly.
“I didn’t know if the terrorists were near the sea or in the orchards, in the opposite direction. I did what we were trained to do; I drove forward, turned at a 40-degree angle, got out and stormed the orchards, firing as I went. I took up a position on a hill and continued firing. The young jeep driver got out and crouched next to me, firing as well,” Halabi said.
“We’re an excellent battalion in the IDF, with certified accomplishments,” he continued.
“We’re familiar with engaging Hezbollah, and maintain a collective, firsthand memory of our experiences. This helps us to be smarter, deeper in our understanding, and more creative.”
The battalion carries out daily patrols of the border. “We’re on permanent alert.
The other side is learning, too, and drew lessons from the last conflict. They’re thinking about how to act, what to do.
The Iranians are investing a lot of money in this,” said Halabi.
“They’re monitoring our activities. The initiative is in their hands. We have no intention of attacking them. We’re defensive, and seek quiet. They sometimes act otherwise. There’s an array of threats in the sector, and they decide when things happen.”
As part of preparations, the Sword Battalion recently held a two-day battle drill, in which soldiers marched for 10 hours and linked up with other Ground Forces units to simulate a sudden entrance into Lebanon.
“We’re getting ready for all scenarios, including sea-based infiltration, aerial attack, and attacks through tunnels. Fighting here is not like combat in the sands of Gaza,” Halabi added.
High-ranking commanders in the IDF’s Northern Command told the Post this week that Hezbollah’s clashes with Sunni rebels in Syria are enabling the organization to gain valuable operational experience.
“They could exploit this against Israel in the future. The IDF is taking this into account. Their fighting abilities are far higher today,” one source said.
When suspicious individuals approach the border, the IDF alerts the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, which can whisk away unwanted individuals. However, UNIFIL refrains from entering Shi’ite villages, the gravitational center of Hezbollah’s activities, after the terror organization signaled to it in the past, through gun and bomb attacks, that this would be a transgression of “the rules of the game.”
Hezbollah’s field intelligence units are highly developed, the source said. “On this side, we’re mapping out where Hezbollah is. We’re working closely with intelligence,” he added.
The IDF, UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army hold regular meetings, which contribute to cooperation and border stability, the senior source said.
The Battalion is one of five enlisted battalions under the division’s command.
They are joined annually by some three to five reserve battalions, which include Combat Intelligence, armored units, sappers and K-9 units. “They’d all be activated in a war,” the source stated.
“This relaxing scenery can change in seconds if there’s a missile, bomb attack or an infiltration,” he continued.
One nagging concern is the significant budget cut suffered by the IDF, which has limited training. Week-long drills have shrunk to span just two days. “We’re finding ways to close the gaps. We hope the situation will change in 2015 [when a new defense budget will be passed],” the source said.
For his part, Halabi broadcast a quiet confidence in the IDF’s readiness to tackle Hezbollah. “Israel is stronger,” he said.
“We’re protecting our homes here, which are in the North. We love the state very much.”