Waiting for Israel's next northern storm

Northern Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and the danger that a miscalculation could result in war on the Golan.

An old IDF tank barrel from the Yom Kippur War looks out over the Syrian side of the Golan from a hilltop a few hundred meters from the border (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
An old IDF tank barrel from the Yom Kippur War looks out over the Syrian side of the Golan from a hilltop a few hundred meters from the border
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
IN 2012, a bus used by the Syrian rebels was driving close to the Israeli border on the Golan.
As Golan resident Thierry Laskart watched, artillery shells began to fall. First on one side, then the other. Then the Syrian regime gunner found his mark. It is one of many memories Laskart has over the years of watching the Syrian war unfold on his doorstep.
An uptick in fighting in late June, as Ramadan was coming to a close, refocused attention on the Golan. Israel struck Syrian army tanks after projectiles from Syria landed on the Israeli Golan. The IDF spokesperson says the subject is too hot at the moment to discuss. A complex and combustible mix of Sunni, Druze, Alawite, and Shi’ite villages along the border from Lebanon to the Golan and Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war increase the chances for war with Israel.
A rugged local tour guide and resident of El Rom, Laskart farms blueberries in the shadow of the conflict. Laskart served in the French army before moving to Israel, but it was the Syrian war that made him an expert in artillery and mortars. A half-decade of hearing booms in the distance and having projectiles land on the Israeli side of the border have had their influence.
The question residents of northern Israel are asking today is when the status quo on the border will change and the war spill over into Israel. A tour of the border today shows just how close things are to the spark that can set a new round of fighting in motion between Israel and neighboring forces.
Lt. Col. (res.) Sarit Zehavi runs Alma, an organization that conducts tours and research on Israel’s security challenges on the northern border. Standing in the sweltering heat in late June she pointed to Hezbollah flags and posters just meters from the Israeli community of Metula. She sees two scenarios that could lead to escalation. “First is that Iran gives an order to Hezbollah for its own interests.”
She compares the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran to that of employee and boss. Iran may decide to react to new sanctions or other pressure by encouraging Hezbollah to strike Israel. “Another scenario is miscalculation,” she says. In that scenario Hezbollah attacks Israel estimating only a small response. Soldiers and civilians are killed and Israel retaliates and the conflict escalates into a wider war.
Even though the Assad regime has been one of the most implacable foes of Israel of Israel in the region for decades, hosting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal after 2001, it also kept the border quiet for forty years after the 1973 war. In April 1975, the CIA told the US president that Hafez Assad recognized Israel’s military superiority.
Hezbollah says future Israel war could draw more fighters than in 2006 (credit: REUTERS)
“There is no possibility that Israel can be destroyed,” Assad told the Americans. But his weakened son, tied down in civil war, has come to increasingly rely on Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and other allies.
In March, Israel raided military targets near Palmyra and Syria responded with anti- aircraft missiles. Russia’s involvement in Syria necessitates “de-confliction” in southern Syria and the prospect that if Syrian regime forces return to the Golan, the Russians will come with them.
In cordial discussions with Russia, Israel has stressed the desire that no permanent Iranian or Hezbollah presence remain in Syria after the war and Israel has expressed concern that Iran intends to build permanent bases in Lebanon. This is part of wider Iranian influence peddling that includes a corridor of influence and arms stretching from Tehran via Iraq and Syria to Beirut and Hezbollah.
This is a very different strategic picture than Israel confronted in 2006 when Hezbollah launched an attack that resulted in 34 days of war. In 2006, Syria had just withdrawn from Lebanon after occupying the country for 30 years, half of them spent under the shadow of the Lebanese Civil War.
Hezbollah’s political and military power has increased in the last decade. Although it suffered thousands of casualties supporting Assad In the Syrian conflict, it gained valuable experience and has an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets.
The power dynamics are reversed today, Syria’s president relies on Hezbollah. To balance this, Israel has seen the Syrian rebels as sharing common interests along the border.
Since the fall of 2014 most of the Israel- Syria border has been controlled by different rebel groups. This includes the most extreme groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Islamic State, the latter of which has increased the pocket it controls in the southern Golan in the last year.
Historically, when there is a power vacuum and a multiplicity of armed groups on Israel’s borders it is cause for concern in Jerusalem.
This was the case in the 1950s when Egypt sent Palestinian Fedayeen to attack Israel. In the 1960s and 1970s Palestinians struck from Jordan and then from Lebanon.
The Golan was the quiet border and Laskart recalls that when he moved to the Golan it was promoted as the quietest place in Israel.
Although fighting can be heard from the Golan and the military intermittently closes parts of the border to tourists if there is a threat, there is an illusion of quiet today.
Tours by ATV operators from Merom Golan are so full they do four trips a day.
AT AN abandoned Syrian army base next to the ruined town of Quneitra, people catch a break from the dusty rides. From the roof of the massive concrete building, gutted and splashed with graffiti over the years, one can see a Syrian shepherd with his goats. There are no refugees pouring over, no flags, or Syrian rebels wandering around.
Along the Lebanese border the situation is markedly different. At Metula, new houses are being built in the shadow of a large Hezbollah poster on a hill. The sign says “we are coming” in Arabic and Hebrew, and has a photo of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini glowering down. Next to it is a large Palestinian flag that Hezbollah activists raised upside down. Hezbollah flags flutter in the wind. The message is clear to Israel, they took the time to write it in Hebrew and they want to provoke and show how close to the border they can get.
This Hezbollah posture is the visible symbol of a military structure deeply embedded in southern Lebanon. “They are a different army than in 2006; they have learned a lot from the war in Syria,” says Zehavi.
Israel is investing in fences, intelligence and technology to counter the border threat.
It has learned from fencing on the Gaza and Sinai borders. But patrolling a fence and rushing every time an animal touches it is only part of the solution. Hezbollah uses the terrain effectively – it constructs towers, it builds rooms in new houses in villages to store weapons, and it burrows in among the civilian population.
In recent months Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has engaged in a war of words with Jerusalem. Education Minister Naftali Bennett has warned that a new war would involve all of Lebanon.
Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel told the Herzliya conference in June that the Air Force could accomplish in 58-60 hours what it did in 34 days in 2006.
“Unimaginable in its scope” is how he describes Israel’s power. Nasrallah responded on June 23 with claims that war with Israel would involve thousands of Shi’ite fighters from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
That is the same model that Assad used to fight the mostly Sunni rebels, drawing on Shi’ite volunteers from across the region.
With Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units, a mostly Shi’te militia that numbers 80,000, on the border with Syria, the next step to get to Israel is just a short plane or truck ride.
In this scenario it is difficult to imagine what the next war with Hezbollah will look like. Each side learned lessons from 2006 and lessons from their initial conflict in the 1980s when Hezbollah first emerged. Eshel warned Lebanese civilians, “If you leave your homes as soon as the conflict erupts, you will not be harmed.” At the same time Israel envisions evacuating civilians along the border. Anti-missile systems, such as Iron Dome and Arrow, will be called upon to confront Hezbollah’s missile stockpile that numbers more than 100,000.
There is an illusion of quiet in the north today.
Six years of war in Syria have changed the strategic layout of the region. At the old Syrian military base near Quneitra part of the colorful graffiti in one room reads, “Assad will not fall.”
In another room, the word “not” has been scratched out and a Syrian rebel flag painted beneath it. As long as the rebels hold on, the Golan and Lebanon may remain quiet.
Any change in the status quo and a slight miscalculation by either side, will result in war with Israel.