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  • Ari Sacher

Northern Israel: The Escalating Crisis of a New War with Hezbollah

Updated: Jun 18

Northern Israel & Hezbollah Update:

The War in Gaza is winding down. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) is now fighting in Rafah, the last remaining stronghold of Hamas. Notwithstanding the terrible tragedy that occurred over the weekend in which an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) and a tank were blown up by the Hamas, killing twelve IDF soldiers, most Israelis are now looking northward. Since October 8, the Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy Shiite terrorist organization fully entrenched in Southern Lebanon, has been engaged with Israel in a low-intensity conflict. In a sort of tit-for-tat way, Hezbollah would fire antitank weapons and short-range rockets at Israel, and the IDF would bomb Hezbollah infrastructure and, every so often, would take out a Hezbollah operative. 

As a result of Hezbollah aggression, the encouragement of the Israeli government, and the encouragement of the IDF, over 100,000 Israelis living less than five miles from the border have been evacuated from their homes. Since October 8, these people have been living in hotels or with relatives dispersed around the country. For all intents and purposes, the Northern Galilee has become a de facto security zone.

From 1982-2000, a similar security zone was set up by the IDF, but on the Lebanese side of the border. This time, it is Israel that has ceded territory, at least for the time being. I remember conversations I had with higher-ups in the IDF that I worked with previously when the north had just been evacuated. They were certain that within a “few months,” the evacuees would tire of living with their in-laws. Eight months later, no one has any idea when the evacuees will be able to return home – that is, if they even want to do so. A woman I work with, who lives just over 5 miles from the border, was awakened at 3:00 am to the sound of a nearby “boom,” signifying a successful Hezbollah attack on a nearby town. She could not go back to sleep because of the sound of IDF jets and artillery. Twenty percent of her neighbors have left their homes. Who can blame them?

Over the past few months, the calculus has changed. The Hezbollah have begun to up the ante, first and foremost by bringing in more technologically advanced weapons. If the first months of the war saw Hezbollah use the Russian Kornet-EM Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM), Hezbollah is now using nearly exclusively the Iranian Almas (Diamond) ATGM. The Kornet is easy to use, has good range (up to six miles), and packs a heavy punch – it has a warhead that weighs 15 pounds. The problem with the Kornet is that it is laser guided, meaning that the missile operator has to shine a laser on the target during the entire missile flyout. Above and beyond forcing the operator to remain vulnerable for close to a minute that it takes the missile to reach its target, laser guidance requires the missile to fly a “flat” trajectory in which the missile barely climbs above the operator. This means that if the operator cannot see the target, then he cannot hit the target. The IDF used this fact to protect its critical assets – radars, command centers, and even Iron Dome launchers – by hiding them behind tall walls. 

Almas changes everything. Almas is an Iranian copy of the Israeli SPIKE-LR missile, kindly left behind by the IDF in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. It took Iranian engineers ten years, but they have produced a missile that is nearly indistinguishable from its Israeli ancestor. (I work with SPIKE, and I have seen Almas wreckage. It is almost like looking at a mirror). Almas, like SPIKE, is an electro-optically guided missile. The missile has a television camera in its nose and a fiber optic cable that connects it to the operator. As the missile approaches the target, target features come into view. The operator can lock on the target. Then, as the target becomes more clear, he can refine his lock point, impacting with incredible accuracy. Almas has about the same range as the Kornet albeit with a much smaller warhead. Almas gains its potency in two critical areas. First, the operator can cut the fiber optic cable immediately after launch and run for cover, sometimes referred to as “shoot-and-scoot.” More importantly, because Almas is not constrained by a laser beam, it flies a “lofted” trajectory, climbing to a considerable altitude above the operator that offers views (line of sight) of the target area that cannot be seen from the ground. Almas can attack its target from above its protective wall, rendering the IDF’s protected assets, well, unprotected. A recent Hezbollah video shows an attack of an Iron Dome launcher that is located behind a concrete wall. The missile, clearly attacking from a steep vertical angle, has its sights on the Iron Dome almost immediately after launch. To watch it close in and impact the launcher was jarring and the picture of the launcher after it had been hit was nothing less than sickening.

The second game-changing piece of hardware that Hezbollah has brought on line is the killer drone. While the Hezbollah have a number of different types of killer drones – all of them Iranian – their weapon of choice is the Ababil-2. Less than 10 feet long, carrying a warhead that weighs more than 60 pounds, and with the ability to fly in swarms, the Ababil is proving to be extremely problematic for Israel’s vaunted air defense systems. My son, who is yet again serving in emergency reserve duty on the Lebanese border, tells me that he has taught his soldiers that if they hear the sound of a lawn-mower – the unmistakable sound of the Ababil engine – they should run for cover. This was not in his long list of “things to worry about” the last time he was serving up north only three months ago. 

While the Ababil lies squarely in Iron Dome’s bailiwick, too many of the drones are hitting their targets. IDF missile defenders have been quick to provide reasons for the unexpectedly poor performance: The targets are small, the time that they cross the border until the time they impact their targets is short, the hilly topography and the low altitude that the drone flies makes it extremely difficult for the radar to detect them, and the land border with Lebanon is more than 60 miles long, requiring a large number of radars. One video I saw just today pierced a hole in most of these explanations. The video, uploaded by Hezbollah, shows a drone attack on an IDF base in the north of the country. Two drones are seen attacking the base with pinpoint accuracy. What is astounding about the video is that it was filmed by a third drone that loitered unimpeded above the IDF base for at least three minutes. This drone was not at tree-top level, but a thousand feet above the target, where it should have stood out on the radar like a sore thumb. Houston, we have a problem.

Meanwhile, rocket attacks continue unabated, but with an additional “sting”: The rainy season in the Middle East ended more than a month ago. Not another drop of rain will fall until September. The lush green forests in the Galilee are turning to tinder. Each time a rocket – or even hot debris from a successful intercept – falls on the ground, a forest fire is started. More than 2,500 acres of lush foliage have already been burnt to a crisp. So far, thankfully, evacuated homes have escaped the brunt of the assault, but it really seems a matter of time until houses are consumed in flames.

So that, in a nutshell, is that. 100,000 displaced persons, land ceded to the enemy, nearly unlimited Iranian high-tech ordinance making its way to the battlefield, and large swaths of what once was Israel’s vacation playground are going up in smoke. It seems like there is no end in sight. French and American attempts to broker a deal in which Hezbollah retreats ten miles to the Litani River in exchange for Israeli border concessions have all failed. The IDF continually messages to the public that it is prepared for war and that it is waiting for government approval to cross the border to rid Southern Lebanon of the Hezbollah threat. But is the IDF threat real or is it just political posturing? Given the slow pace in which the IDF is ridding Gaza of Hamas and the waning world support for extending a war that has already, in their opinion, lasted far too long, it would seem that a war with the Hezbollah is just not in the cards, at least not for now.

Major General (Ret) Giora Eiland, former head of the Israeli National Security Council, believes that a war in Southern Lebanon would be suicidal. Hezbollah has had 25 years to prepare fortifications and booby-traps. They can hide in cities among the locals. A “manhunt” for their nearly 200,000 rockets would be an exercise in futility. Most of the rockets and launchers are hidden under buildings or buried deep underground. An assault into Southern Lebanon, asserts Eiland, would be a blood-bath. He proposes another way – to change the calculus.

Hezbollah is not merely a terrorist organization that is based in Lebanon. It is far more than that. It is no longer possible to differentiate between the terrorist group and the country that houses it. Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese Parliament. There is no Lebanese President, nor has there been one since 2022 because no sane person wants to preside over a country over which he does not rule. At the end of the day, while not all Lebanese are Hezbollah, Hezbollah is the ruler and administrator of Lebanon. And so General Eiland asserts that the next war in Lebanon should not be against the Hezbollah. Eiland asserts that the only way that Israel can win the next war is to wage war against the sovereign State of Lebanon. A war against a sovereign state adds many arrows to the IDF quiver: a bevy of pressure points that are not available in a war against a terrorist organization, particularly the national infrastructure. A cursory search of the internet shows that Lebanon has a total of only 140 cell-phone towers, 5 land-based and 2 sea-based power plants that produce more that 80% of its national power, 3 water pumping facilities that provide most of its drinking water, and one national gas rig in the Mediterranean gifted to the country by Israel that is still not extracting meaningful amounts of gas. Each and every one of these assets could be destroyed by Israel in the first hour of the war using air-launched precision guided munitions. 

No one is saying that Israel should preemptively strike these assets. The ensuing humanitarian crisis would dwarf anything seen heretofore in Gaza. The point that is being made is that Israel should overtly state that this kind of strike lies in the realm of the possible. Israel should begin to socialize, in the media and in private diplomatic circles, that Hezbollah is pushing Lebanon to the brink of national disaster. The equation that “Hezbollah equals Lebanon” must be impressed on the world body politic. Perhaps, in response to the next Hezbollah rocket salvo, Israel should destroy, say, one electrical power plant and ten cell-phone towers in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. This would hopefully impress on Hezbollah that the calculus has changed and that Hezbollah now has far more to lose than it has to gain. Perhaps with these new incentives, honest negotiations could result in leading to a lasting peace. Or maybe not. But we can always hope, can’t we?

Good Things,

Ari Sacher

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