IDF’s International Cooperation Unit commander steps down after 32 years

The Jerusalem Post had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Brig.-Gen. Erez Maisel.

BRIG.-GEN. Erez Maisel: The IDF is like a spring, controlled but ready when needed (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
BRIG.-GEN. Erez Maisel: The IDF is like a spring, controlled but ready when needed
Israel’s northern borders are the most beautiful, with winding roads through green mountains, but they are without a doubt the most explosive, with the Jewish state’s most vicious enemies waiting for the right moment to pounce.
Such a pounce occurred Tuesday morning when four rockets were fired from Syrian territory toward Israel’s Golan Heights, in an attack believed to have been ordered by Iran, leading to widespread retaliatory strikes by Israeli jets against Iranian and Syrian targets.
Israel’s military is on high alert along the northern border for future, deadlier attacks, using every means at its disposal – both militarily and diplomatically – to prevent an outbreak of war, which, according to estimates, would be devastating to all sides involved.
One of the most sensitive and important positions in the IDF on the northern border is the one that maneuvers between all of the international players – such as the United Nations and the European Union.
The Jerusalem Post had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Brig.-Gen. Erez Maisel, the commander of the IDF’s International Cooperation Unit, before his retirement from the military after 32 years of service.
“The abbreviation for this unit is ICU, a play on words,” Maisel joked to the Post. “It’s I see you, not Intensive Care Unit, though sometimes we feel like that... we do a lot of care that’s quite intensive as well.”
The Post met Maisel at the Rosh Hanikra grottoes, which are visited by thousands of tourists every year for the extraordinary views of Israel’s northern coast and a tunnel in the cliff-face which during the Second World War almost served the Cairo-Istanbul railway.
While tourists snap pictures of a sign showing Beirut to be a mere 120 kilometers away (further than Jerusalem at 185 kilometers away), IDF troops open the gate to their base for UN peacekeepers on their way back to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) base in Naqoura in southern Lebanon.
But as the two foes are still technically at war, all communication north of the UN-demarcated Blue Line, which separates Lebanese and Israeli territory, is done, until the end of the month, through Maisel.
With no recognized border between Israel and Lebanon, Rosh Hanikra is the only internationally recognized crossing in use since 1949. The crossing is used by UNIFIL as well as religious figures and for humanitarian aid. Tachtouch, the Lebanese monkey who breached the border fence into Israel this past summer, was also returned by the IDF through the Rosh Hanikra crossing.
We sat with Maisel and other officers in the main operations room in the IDF base in Rosh Hanikra shortly after he finished a tripartite meeting with UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) at the UN base in Ras al Naqoura.
The tripartite meetings have been held regularly since the end of the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and are seen by both UNIFIL and Maisel as essential for both conflict management and engagement with the other side.
“We’ve been meeting the Lebanese there since 1994, which was when we still had a presence in south Lebanon, and it was agreed to have a monitoring committee by the French and Americans and saw the participation of the Israelis, Syrians and Lebanese. Since 2006 we’ve had the tripartite mechanism which allows us to engage with the Lebanese facilitated by UNIFIL.”
Meetings are respectful, Maisel told the Post, but there are no shaking of hands with his Lebanese counterparts.
“I don’t consider the LAF as my enemy, and neither do they,” he said, adding that nevertheless there are “elements of the LAF who are definitely collaborating with Hezbollah. It’s not all LAF soldiers, but Lebanese Hezbollah has full dominance in south Lebanon.”
On September 1 Hezbollah’s dominance in southern Lebanon came into full view, when the terrorist army fired a Kornet anti-tank missile toward an IDF ambulance driving between the communities of Avivim and Yir’on.
The IDF estimated that that incident, which could have spiraled into full-blown war between the two enemies, was going to happen following an Israeli airstrike in Syria that killed Hezbollah operatives planning to launch a killer drone attack.
In preparation for the attack, Israel’s military had invited UNIFIL commander Maj.-Gen. Stefano Del Col to meet with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi the previous day. When the Kornet struck, Maisel said, his unit knew that Del Col had to be on the other side in order to effectively stop the incident from descending into war.
“For the first time ever UNIFIL held the LAF and Hezbollah responsible. When you look at UNIFIL, there’s that potential for engagement,” he said, adding that “in the next war we will want the ability to engage; and since there is no direct engagement, the indirect engagement with UNIFIL is what we need.”
AFTER THREE-and-a-half years as ICU Commander, Maisel said, the three main changes on the Lebanese front are all related to the growing threat posed by Hezbollah.
Israel’s Operation Northern Shield, launched in early December 2018 to discover and destroy tunnels dug by the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group into northern Israel, was one of the main changes, Maisel said.
“This proved that Hezbollah violated the Blue Line,” he said.
By mid-January,the IDF declared the end of the operation and said that it had “deprived Hezbollah of the unique offensive abilities it had been building for years as part of its planned attack on Israeli territory,” and strengthened security along the northern border.
The military believes that the attack tunnels were built as a classified component in Hezbollah’s “Conquer the Galilee” plan, which would have allowed the group’s elite Radwan fighters to infiltrate into Israel on land, fire short-range rockets and mortars, and allow other Radwan fighters to infiltrate into communities via the tunnels, cut them off from the main roads, and kill as many civilians and troops as possible.
Under the plan, thousands of rockets were to be launched toward the Jewish state by the Iranian-backed Shi’ite army within the first couple of hours of the conflict.
Another change, Maisel said, was the building of the concrete barrier and other defensive obstacles along the Blue Line, out of concern over the Conquer the Galilee plan. The project, which takes place entirely in Israeli territory, is fully coordinated with UNIFIL.
The border fence with Lebanon was originally built in the 1980s, and while sections of it have been upgraded several times, it was said to be in poor condition and, according to a senior officer in the Northern Command, would not stop an infiltration by Hezbollah.
Similar to Israel’s “smart fence” which runs along its border with Gaza and Egypt and some 30 kilometers along the border with Jordan, the concrete, steel and barbed wire fence will be nine meters high, stretching several kilometers with sensors, cameras, information collection centers and warning systems.
The cameras along the fence are connected to a war room to alert troops to any possible infiltration. It will also have lifting devices for the safe and secure maintenance of the cameras, to prevent any possible firing toward IDF troops.
According to Maisel, the third change was UNIFIL putting the blame on Lebanon and Hezbollah for the Kornet attack in September.
“It proves that we are dealing with Hezbollah, which is using civilian cover,” he said, pulling out a map showing that there were posts belonging to Green Without Borders right next to the attack site.
According to the IDF, Hezbollah has been establishing observation posts under the guise of an NGO, Green Without Borders, along the Blue Line since April 2017, presumably to gather intelligence in order to harm Israel.
In addition, along the Blue Line there’s been an uptick in young men, who he refers to as “YMCA” men wearing civilian clothes, smiling and taking pictures.
“They have to come from somewhere,” he said, adding that they likely fought in Syria. “There are very few coincidences in life. Is Green Without Borders part of Hezbollah? For sure.”
As we took an elevator to the top of a communication tower along the border fence, we got a glimpse of the small world we live in.
A look to the right showed the border crossing into Lebanon, some 2 kilometers away, and in the distance the city of Tyre, some 22 kilometers away, while a look to the left showed Israel’s coast, with Acre in the distance.
But Maisel wasn’t looking so far away. He pointed to a new LAF observation tower overlooking the IDF base where we were.
The tower, he said, was built two months ago, likely after Nabih Berri (speaker of the Parliament of Lebanon) asked the army to build it after being approached by Hezbollah.
“They [the LAF] didn’t need this observation tower; there is a completely usable one a few meters away, but further away from our fence. They don’t need this one,” Maisel said.
WE LEFT the IDF base from Rosh Hanikra and traveled to a lookout point overlooking the town of Metulla, with Syria in the distant haze of a late fall afternoon.
While it was quiet as we drove along the borders of Lebanon and Syria, the instability of the region couldn’t be forgotten.
But, Maisel said, “The IDF is like a spring, controlled but ready when needed.”
Last year the IDF discovered the first Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnel, dug from a home in the Lebanese border village of Kafr Kila and extending some 40 meters into kiwi and apple orchards belonging to Metulla.
The tunnel dug toward Metulla was of strategic importance to Hezbollah, which had hoped to cut it off from Route 90 and from any IDF reinforcements.
“You don’t need a lot to cut off Metulla,” Maisel said, pointing to Route 90, which was a quick run down a slope from Kafr Kila.
The IDF has stressed that the Beirut government is responsible for everything that occurs on Lebanese soil, and the digging of the tunnels shows that the LAF is incapable of controlling what occurs in southern Lebanon.
While defense officials have repeatedly denied the existence of cross-border Hezbollah tunnels despite residents of northern Israel reporting they heard mining activity, the IDF later admitted that it has been aware that the Iranian proxy began constructing attack tunnels stretching into Israel at several points along the border after the Second Lebanon War.
As we sat in the lookout point outside of Misgav Am, the Syrian border where the Quneitra crossing is located was not far away.
Israel captured the Golan Heights, some 1,200 sq. km., from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War, and unilaterally annexed the plateau in 1981. The administration of US President Donald Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan through a presidential proclamation in March.
UN troops, which had patrolled the buffer zone with Syria since 1974, left the area after peacekeepers were abducted by Syrian rebels in 2014. In October 2018 the IDF announced that the strategic crossing with Syria had been reopened, four years after it was closed after rebel groups and al-Qaeda terrorists took over the town of old Quneitra.
While the crossing was once used by the Golan Heights’ 22,000 Druze to export apples to Syria, according to the military the crossing was reopened exclusively for UNDOF troops.
“If we open up the crossing, we open it up to threats like Iran, Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias,” Maisel said.
With Iran and Hezbollah working to entrench themselves all over Syria, including on the Syrian Golan Heights, the threats are real.
Israel has been managing a campaign known in Hebrew as MABAM (or war between the wars) against Iranian entrenchment and weapons smuggling to Hezbollah since 2013, striking thousands of targets and killing dozens of Iranians and Shi’ite militia forces.
As the Russians have been influential in Syria, following their entry into the civil war in 2015, Israel has regular working meetings with them and a deconfliction mechanism – both in the air and on land – in order to avoid any conflict. Israel works with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in Syria – similar to UNIFIL in Lebanon – in order to reduce the chances of war.
But, Maisel said, not only is UNDOF more concerned about a symmetric buildup by the Syrian regime, the agency has problems proving asymmetric buildups and violations by Iran and Hezbollah.
“The Syrians aren’t interested in allowing freedom of movement for UNDOF,” Maisel said, adding that while “UNIFIL knows the threat that surrounds them by Hezbollah [in Lebanon], UNDOF knows they have an issue but they can’t even prove or validate it, they can’t get to where they need to go.”
MAISEL SAID that one of the most emotional moments during his tenure as ICU commander and in his IDF career took place along the Syrian border in July 2018. It was the unprecedented rescue of 98 White Helmet rescue workers and 324 of their family members over imminent fear for their lives, as the Assad regime closed in on the area. The group crossed into Israel from southern Syria before being bused to Jordan.
Israel’s military said the “exceptional humanitarian gesture” came following the requests of Canada, the United States and European countries and in accordance with the directives of the political echelon.
“The Canadians and Americans approached us on a Wednesday, and we evacuated them on a Saturday,” Maisel said, adding: “The window was closing, and if we had waited another day, they would not have been able to reach the crossing.”
The IDF, Maisel explained, had no contact with the group until “much later,” when they arrived at the crossing.
“The Americans asked us to contact members of the White Helmets in Jordan, who in turn spoke to their colleagues in Syria,” he said.
The operation lasted from 9 a.m. until 4 a.m. the following day, and while Israel’s role in rescuing the Syrian White Helmets was applauded across the world, an official statement released by the group failed to acknowledge Israel’s role in the rescue.
But as Canada’s former deputy head of mission Anthony Hinton told the Post at the time, “Israel’s actions speak loud and clear. Without their role in this operation, we would not have been able to save their lives.”
As the sun set over the Galilee, the salat al-maghrib call to prayer rang out in Kafr Kila. Maisel, who will hang up his beret mere days after the publication of this article, had one last thing to tell the Post before we left and began the long drive home.
His team of 350 soldiers, who keep Israel’s borders safe and calm during tense times, are the real heroes in this story.
“These soldiers are force multipliers. With very little, you can get a lot accomplished. I have yet to find a mission or task that we can’t accomplish.”