Editor's Notes: Underestimating our enemies

To ridicule and dismiss Hassan Nasrallah’s public bragging this week is hubris.

nasrallah 311 (photo credit: AP)
nasrallah 311
(photo credit: AP)
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is feeling the heat.
The UN tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is, by all accounts, about to point an unerring finger of blame in Hizbullah’s direction.
Lebanon is on tenderhooks. The potential for explosive unrest, in a country beset by internal divisions, is acute. The killing itself set off a near-revolution five years ago. Now Hariri’s own son, the current prime minister Saad, is so afraid of the incendiary impact of an indictment of Hizbullah that he is reportedly pleading behind the scenes for the tribunal to postpone its fateful announcement.
In Israel, it is emphatically believed that Nasrallah was indeed behind the fatal Beirut car-bombing.
“He knows exactly who was to blame,” said Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya’acov Amidror, the former head of IDF Research and Assessment, of Nasrallah on Tuesday. “He dispatched them.”
And thus, on this side of the border, Nasrallah’s Israel-bashing TV appearance on Monday night was generally interpreted as a rather desperate diversionary tactic. The sheikh’s protracted effort to assert that Israel carried out the killing of the tycoon-politician who was rebuilding Lebanon was instantly dismissed as “ridiculous” by officials in Jerusalem… who may have missed the point: Nasrallah was primarily bent on sowing doubt among the Lebanese – and he likely succeeded – and on prodding the Lebanese government into halting all cooperation with the tribunal.
RATHER MORE attention was devoted here to Nasrallah’s bragging on the subject of 1997’s Shayetet 13 disaster, when naval commandos on an operation in Lebanon triggered explosive devices that had been laid by Hizbullah, with the ultimate loss of no fewer than 12 of their 16-strong team.
The deaths of so many elite commandos in that one incident, at the hands of Hizbullah, has been characterized by some analysts, with no little justification, as the beginning of the end of Israel’s deployment in the south Lebanon security zone – the catalyst for the zone’s dismantlement, and the unilateral withdrawal to the international border, that followed three years later.
Nasrallah claimed Monday that this bloody interception represented a glorious intelligence and operational success for his organization, further proof of its heroism and its savvy. Plainly, his motivation in returning to the incident – which involved him reviving claims that had already been made several years ago by his deputy Naim Kassem – was to demonstrate Hizbullah’s purportedly peerless capacity to harm those Zionist enemies to the south, and thus to underline its value to Lebanon and the need to safeguard it from the harmful repercussions of the Hariri affair.
Nasrallah, as ever, was also taking aim at the Israeli psyche, hoping that the reopening of this 13-year-old wound would prompt a new bout of debilitating recrimination, perhaps involving the bereaved parents and certainly senior IDF officers, past and present. And, to some extent, he has been successful: The question of what exactly Hizbullah knew of the Shayetet operation ahead of time, and how exactly it knew it, did indeed return to the public agenda this week.
Hours before Nasrallah’s TV appearance, Gabi Ofir, the reserve general who chaired an IDF investigation into the catastrophe, was still insisting that the commandos had not fallen victim to an intelligence “leak,” and that the Hizbullah interception was “purely coincidental.”
But Nasrallah’s performance, which featured footage allegedly obtained from unmanned IDF drones that were scouting out the commandos’ route, further vindicated the already widespread belief that the operation had indeed been compromised. Hizbullah, it is now largely accepted, may have managed to view the unencrypted footage from the drone – simply by identifying the relevant broadcast frequency.
Prompted by Nasrallah to reexamine the terrible incident once again, generals, parents and analysts have been discussing why it was that the drones’ footage was not encoded. Amidror, who was military secretary to defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai at the time, has been arguing that the capacity for such encoding was quite new, and was being tested initially in drones being used by another elite IDF outfit, Sayeret Matkal – the General Staff’s commando unit. The author and journalist Amir Rappaport has countered that there was no good reason that this latest technology should not have been available to the Shayetet, and called the failure scandalous.
Arguments have also raged as to how obvious the specifics of the operation would have been to Hizbullah once it had got its hands on the footage – and thus how easy for Hizbullah to thwart the commandos.
And there has been much renewed discussion of what exactly happened in the terrible moments after the commandos first inadvertently detonated those explosive devices that Hizbullah had placed on their route.
Nasrallah boasted about an ambush, featuring fighters who were lying in wait for the hapless IDF troops. “Our men waited there for weeks,” he claimed. The IDF narrative, by contrast, is that Hizbullah personnel were not hiding in the field night after night for the commandos to come and that, rather, the Shayetet fatalities were the victims, first of the hidden Hizbullah bombs, and second, of the consequent detonation of the explosives they were themselves carrying.
NASRALLAH IS feeling the heat over Hariri.
Nasrallah is emphasizing Hizbullah’s bravery, determination and importance. Nasrallah is seeking to chivvy away at Israel’s perceived weaknesses. All of this is obvious here, south of the border. Our analysts are highly skilled in assessing Hizbullah’s motivations, and our officials are adept in dismissing the more risible of his claims.
What seems to have been under-discussed this week, however, is the original sin. And it’s the same original sin that left an Israeli naval vessel defenseless in the face of a Hizbullah strike in the Second Lebanon War – the INS Hanit, hit off the coast of Beirut in July 2006 by a shore-toship missile, with the loss of four lives.
It’s the same original sin that, a month earlier, at Kerem Shalom on our southern border, saw Gilad Schalit’s Armored Corps unit vulnerable to Hamas’s tunneling and attack.
It’s the same original sin that rendered the Shayetet 13 commandos, again, inadequately prepared to grapple with the core of violent thugs who jumped on them when they boarded the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara on May 31.
The same original sin, breeding a welter of immensely compromising and problematic repercussions.
And which sin is that? The cardinal sin of underestimating the enemy.
CHIEF OF staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi acknowledged to the Turkel Commission on Wednesday that the IDF didn’t know enough about the extremists on board the Mavi Marmara and the IHH organization that had assembled them.
The IHH “was not on our list of priorities,” he said – although it had been recognized by the security establishment, and even characterized by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as a pro-Hamas, proterror entity. The ill-equipped commandos were expecting to be met by “10 or 15 people,” said Ashkenazi, and the assumption was “that if we threw stun grenades, they would move away.”
Neither, self-evidently, was the army sufficiently braced for the kind of brazen Hamas incursion that saw the abduction of Schalit and the killings of Hanan Barak and Pavel Slutsker early on June 25, 2006, even though the Shin Bet said it had conveyed precise intelligence information highlighting the danger. “The incident in Kerem Shalom caught us unprepared,” said Ashkenazi’s predecessor, Dan Halutz, that day.
Similarly, the INS Hanit’s anti-missile defenses had not been activated off the Lebanese coast because it was deemed unlikely that Hizbullah possessed the Iranian- made C-802 missile that holed it, even though the IDF was in possession of enough intelligence information to suggest the contrary.
Just as, back in 1997, we didn’t believe that Hizbullah had the capacity to intercept unencrypted footage from our reconnaissance drones, even though the technical process involved in accessing such footage was straightforward.
WE DIDN’T realize. We didn’t believe. We didn’t know.
But we probably should have known.
And surely we should have prepared more effectively for the worst, in each of these awful incidents, rather than hoping for the best. Surely, we should have long since recognized the ruthless Iranian inspiration that is common to all these bitter incidents. Our very survival, after all, requires that we internalize the methodical malevolence with which Iran is working toward its declared goal of our destruction.
So if we scoffed at Nasrallah’s lengthy bragging this week, deriding him as military chief on the defensive, a vicious murderer confined to his bunker and lashing out in all directions as the walls close in, we had best think again. For such scoffing would only confirm a familiar hubris – a hubris that is intolerable, indefensible and untenable in the face of Nasrallah’s rapacious and relentless paymaster, Iran.