Israel Update – Week of November 26, 2023
Northern Border Update: In an earlier update, we noted that since the massacre of October 7, more than 100,000 Israeli soldiers – including my two sons and one of my sons-in-law – have been sent to protect Israel’s northern border with Lebanon against a potential attack from Hezbollah, a radical Shiite terrorist organization and one of Iran’s most powerful proxies. For the past two months, the primary roads in the Upper Galilee connecting the border communities of Avivim, Yiftach, Shlomi and more than a dozen other towns have been closed to civilian traffic. Evacuated towns have been turned into army bases. A shopping mall near a large bird sanctuary has been turned into an IDF Operations Command Center. A woman with whom I work lives in Ga’aton. This town is far enough from the border that it has not been officially evacuated, but it is close enough from the border that most of the residents have left town on their own volition. She has an artillery battery in her back yard that regularly wakes her and her daughter in the middle of the night. This morning, she showed me a picture of the town children touring the battery and writing messages about the artillery shells.
The question everyone is asking is when can the evacuees return home?
The answer is unclear. No sane person wants to return home when the army cannot guarantee his security. The Mayor of the Upper Galilee echoed this in a recent radio interview. He recently built an elementary school for all of the towns in the Upper Galilee. This school is in clear view of the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil. “Do you really think any parent will send his children to this school given the security situation?” The massacre of October 7 clearly showed what barbaric acts terrorists are capable of committing. If before October 7, the Doomsday Scenario on the Northern Front was an assault of a small group of terrorists whose mission was to take over an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) command post and wave a Hezbollah flag, we now know that the Doomsday Scenario is orders of magnitude worse. In the field of Hazard Management as per MIL-STD-882, two factors must be taken into account: the probability of the hazard and the effect.
The effect of a Hezbollah onslaught into the north of Israel would be nothing less than catastrophic, and therefore, it must be prevented at all costs.
Obviously, building a barrier is not an option. Not only is the Israel-Lebanon border nearly twice as long as the Gaza border, we have seen the limitation of the effectiveness of barriers. We can add the Gaza barrier to the long litany of border barriers that have failed over the past century, including the Maginot Line in World War I and the Bar Lev Line in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
In our earlier update, we noted that returning Israelis to the northern border is dependent upon the implementation of United Nations Resolution (UNR) 1701. UNR-1701 went into effect on August 14, 2006, after having been confirmed by the Israeli and Lebanese governments. The unstated purpose of UNR-1701 was to recreate the buffer zone north of Israel that existed until Israel’s unilateral withdrawal six years earlier. Hezbollah was to move north of the Litani River, twenty kilometers north of the border. Seventeen years after UNR-1701 was passed, it has still not yet been implemented.
In a recent meeting with the Prime Minister, representatives of the evacuees stated unequivocally that the only way that they will return to their homes is if the IDF can guarantee their security, and the only way the IDF can guarantee their security is if UNR-1701 is implemented. There are two ways that UNR-1701 can be implemented: diplomatically or militarily. Over the past two weeks, USIEA has spoken with analysts both in Israel and in the U.S. and with Congressional staffers, and not one of them believed that the Hezbollah could be enticed via diplomatic means into leaving Southern Lebanon. This leaves only the military option on the table. According to media reports, the IDF had planned to launch a preemptive attack on Hezbollah on October 11, but the attack was postponed to no small extent due to American pressure. While Hezbollah is not a match for the IDF, they are significantly more capable than Hamas. They are armed with more than 150,000 rockets, some of them with precision guidance systems. A war with Hezbollah would extract a high cost from Israel and would ravage Lebanon. But can it be avoided?\
I consulted with a friend, a high-ranking officer in the Northern Command. I asked him if the IDF has a plan up its sleeve that will enable northern Israelis to return home. He answered that as long as Hezbollah lies right across the border, the only way to guarantee the safety of the northerners is by maintaining the large number of soldiers guarding the north of the country. My friend’s words did not surprise me. It was a foregone conclusion that Israelis would be spending much more time in reserve duty than at any time over the past thirty years.
Between November 16-24, Hamas and Israel maintained a truce that facilitated the return of some of the 240 hostages that were kidnapped on October 7 in exchange for the release of terrorists held in Israeli prisons and increased humanitarian supply. While the Hezbollah was not a partner in the negotiations, as the truce went into effect in Gaza, all was quiet on the Northern front. During the truce, something caught the eye of IDF reconnaissance. Since October 7, Hezbollah terrorists had gradually moved their positions away from the border into surrounding towns, where they could fire antitank missiles and mortars without giving away their position. During the truce, Hezbollah terrorists were seen patrolling right next to the border fence. This was eye-opening. It means that implementation of UNR-1701 is not binary – it is not all-or-none. The IDF can create a buffer zone north of the border, where the extent of the buffer zone is determined by the amount of Israeli force. Military force can be translated into distance. The more force applied, the larger the buffer.
This epiphany can help shape Israeli strategy in protecting the Lebanese border. What is required is continuous Israeli military force. Even assuming Israel does not want to return to Southern Lebanon, force can still be applied the way it is being applied today from the homeland: via artillery, armed drones, and precision guided munitions. That said, the equation through which force is applied must be modified. Currently, the IDF applies force in response to a Hezbollah military action. There is a well-defined quid pro quo. If Hezbollah fires at soldiers, then the IDF will respond in one way. If they fire at civilians, then the IDF response will be ratcheted up. If the IDF wants to create an environment that will enable the return of the northern Israelis to their homes, it must take the initiative. If there is one thing that the October 7 massacre has taught the IDF, it is, to quote General (Res) Yaakov Amidror, the former Israeli National Security Advisor, “Israel’s future leaders must restore to the toolkit of national security the understanding that wars of choice are legitimate. Israel should not wait to be attacked. Israel must seriously weigh preventive action to prevent the buildup of military capabilities that threaten it.” When necessary, Israel must preemptively strike Hezbollah. The problem is that since 1967, Israeli preemptive strikes have drawn American ire. In 1982, after Israel bombed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor, the Reagan Administration suspended the shipment of F-16s to Israel because the strike raised questions whether they had been used for legitimate self-defense purposes as required by law. Imagine the response had Israel preemptively bombed Gaza on October 6. It is critical that the U.S. reevaluate its attitude towards Israeli “wars of choice.” It must cease trying to force Israel to sit on her hands until fired upon.
At the same time, the UN must keep up diplomatic pressure to implement UNR-1701. Media reports this week that “Several Arab countries, including UAE, along with the U.S. and France, are reportedly in talks to strengthen the Lebanese government to deescalate the region.” According to these reports, “The [Hezbollah] would reportedly move its Radwan commando forces beyond the Litani River, as well as agreeing to not rebuild observation towers and other military positions destroyed by IDF near the border.” If these reports are true, then perhaps a diplomatic solution is not Dead on Arrival.
There is cause for careful optimism. The combination of force and diplomacy is making small but increasing dents in Hezbollah’s capability to threaten the Upper Galilee. While a strong Israeli military presence in the north will still be required for many years, perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future we will see farmers from Avivim picking apples off of their laden trees and schoolchildren from Shlomi carrying their backpacks on their way home from school.