Strength in restraint

How prepared are we for a northern version of Operation Protective Edge?

IDF soldiers near border with Lebanon. (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldiers near border with Lebanon.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week’s cross-border attack by Hezbollah was its expected response to an alleged Israeli attack earlier this month in the Syrian Golan that killed one of its senior operatives and an Iranian general. The nearly symmetrical assault on IDF troops by the Iranian proxy terrorist organization was a clearly calibrated retaliation designed to uphold Hezbollah’s “honor” but without escalating into a wider confrontation that might once again demonstrate Iran’s commitment to global terrorism.
But while Hezbollah is committed on the ground in Syria, fighting to uphold the regime of Bashar Assad – and reportedly not willing to risk drawing Israel into a confrontation that might endanger the stability of the shaky Lebanese government – it also strives to maintain the credibility of its threat to Israel’s civilian population; namely its stockpile of some 100,000 missiles aimed southward.
It is significant to note that Wednesday’s attack was not perpetrated as a cover operation for the abduction of soldiers, as has happened before; nor was it another assault on a bus of schoolchildren or the rocketing of a border town. Any of these hostile acts might have sparked yet another Lebanon incursion or even war.
There is a delicate balance of terror in the North that can be upset by any unexpected turn in the violence raging throughout Syria and being spread through the region by the rampaging Islamic State. The Shi’ite terrorist Hezbollah may in fact be determined to force Israel into a ground offensive in Lebanon by sporadically firing rockets at civilian targets instead of military ones.
How prepared are we for a northern version of Operation Protective Edge? Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has already gone on record with threats to capture swaths of the Upper Galilee in the next confrontation with Israel. Taking such saber rattling seriously, as it must, IDF strategists have theorized that such an escalation would involve the commitment of some 30,000 troops in a conflagration that would last about four months and would cost the lives of a considerable number of Lebanese civilians, not to mention Israelis.
The more that residents of Israel’s North hear reassuring messages from local and foreign government officials that “nobody wants an escalation,” the more they fear the opposite will occur. An indication of this concern came earlier this week, when residents spurred security officials to undertake drilling probes along the Lebanese border for Hezbollah attack tunnels like the ones introduced by Hamas in Gaza. None was found – so far.
On the other hand, even though Hezbollah introduced tunneling to the conflict in Lebanon long before Hamas adapted this tactic in Gaza, it never relied on tunnels to infiltrate Israel and attack civilians, such as the 1980 terrorist assault on Kibbutz Misgav Am.
IDF Col. Dan Goldfus cited a report saying Hezbollah has an estimated 100,000 rockets – 10 times as many as Hamas had before Protective Edge last summer. Of these, some 5,000 are long-range missiles that can carry large warheads of up to a ton or more. Moreover, he noted, they have precision guidance systems provided by Iran that cover all of Israel.
Hezbollah’s launching capability is estimated at some 1,000 rockets a day. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, which performed so admirably during Operation Protective Edge, would not be able to cope with such a massive threat. Therefore, Goldfus said, the IDF would have to “maneuver fast” and act forcefully to prevail.
The ongoing struggle over the defense budget still impinges the IDF’s preparedness for the next conflict. In addition to reductions in training for both conscripts and reservist units, the army lacks some basic tools, particularly the recently introduced Namer armored personnel carriers, which provide troops with better protection than the far more numerous US-supplied M113 of Vietnam War vintage that featured in a disaster during Protective Edge.
The IDF has developed a breakthrough defense against antitank missiles, the Trophy active protection system (APS), but so far does not have enough to go around.
Fewer than a dozen Iron Dome batteries cannot cover the threat posed by thousands of Hezbollah missiles, and the advanced David’s Sling missile defense system will become operational in only over a year. While one cannot put a price tag on human life, a single interception is projected to cost $1 million.
The price of not being prepared for a confrontation with Hezbollah would, however, be even more costly.