Israel Update – Week of January 8, 2024
I am writing these words from my home in the Western Galilee, but not according to my iPhone. Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps all have me located at Beirut International Airport at the intersection of the two main runways. It has been this way in Northern Israel pretty much since October 7. Needless to say, this makes navigating extremely difficult, especially at my advanced age. To get to my office, a 5-mile drive, Waze is telling me that the trip will take approximately six and a half hours because there are traffic jams in Damascus. From my experience, there are always traffic jams in Damascus.
The reason that my iPhone thinks I am in Beirut is because since the start of the war, the IDF has been jamming (actually, the correct term is “spoofing”) GPS signals. The jamming gets worse the closer one gets to critical assets, such as the Rambam Medical Center. About 3 miles from the hospital, the GPS signal is completely lost. The reason for the GPS jamming is because since October 7, Israel and the Hezbollah have been engaging in “hostilities.”
The Hezbollah is a Shiite Iranian proxy based in Lebanon. They are listed as a terrorist organization by a host of countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and the Arab League. In the 2022 Lebanese elections, Hezbollah won almost 20% of the vote. But for all intents and purposes, they are wholly responsible for Lebanon’s foreign policy, especially as it pertains to belligerence against Israel. Iran has armed Hezbollah to the teeth. Compared with the Hamas, which, to paraphrase President Obama, has the military capabilities of a terrorist JV team, Hezbollah is, in the jargon of military analysts, a “near peer” power. This means that they are using weapons that are not technologically far behind the IDF.
For instance, the last time that Israel and Hezbollah went to war in 2006, Hezbollah fired 4,500 rockets at Israel. These rockets did not have any guidance system, meaning that they flew in the general direction in which they were fired, but without any precision. A rocket that was fired at a target 20 miles away would fall within a mile of its intended target about half the time. Today, the Hezbollah has, according to media reports, more than 150,000 rockets. Some of these are equipped with GPS-based guidance systems. These rockets navigate using their own version of Waze and can impact a target within about 100 feet or less of where they are aimed. These guidance systems, smuggled in from Iran, turn a “dumb rocket” into a “Precision Guided Munition (PGM)” that can threaten critical Israeli infrastructure, such as electrical powerplants, sea-based natural gas rigs, cellphone towers, water desalination plants and the control tower at Ben Gurion Airport. Another example of Hezbollah near-peer prowess, also imported from Iran, is the armed drone, or UAV. These drones can both take reconnaissance photos and attack targets. One Iranian drone even has the capability of launching missiles before returning to base. Like PGMs, Hezbollah drones require a GPS signal to operate. If the GPS in the entire Israeli north is jammed in a way that everybody thinks they’re at Beirut International Airport, it makes operating GPS-dependent weapons more challenging. If these weapons are used, I would not want to be at Beirut International Airport because that is where they are all headed.
For the first two and a half months since October 7, Hezbollah was content to engage the IDF in low-intensity warfare, lobbing small caliber rockets over the fence and every so-often firing a laser guided Kornet anti-tank weapon, provided by Syria and/or Iran. To mitigate the risk of civilian casualties, Israel evacuated all towns within 5 [km] (about 3 miles) from the northern border. Since October 7, about 100,000 northerners, including the entire city of Qiryat Shemona, have been living in hotels around the country. Schools are shuttered and businesses are, to a great extent, closed, as well. Hezbollah leverages the evacuation to fire rockets and anti-tank missiles at empty buildings. Like Israel, the Hezbollah evacuated all civilians from the vicinity of the border, such that any person in that area is considered by the IDF to be a combatant and any infrastructure was considered military infrastructure. Hezbollah and the IDF maintained an unwritten protocol in which, as long as Hezbollah did not fire weapons at civilians, Israel would respond in kind, firing artillery shells and drone-launched missiles at military targets in the border area.
About two weeks ago the rules changed. Israel began attacking targets far north of the border. On January 2, Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy chief of the Hamas political wing, was killed when up to six guided missiles reportedly slammed into his office in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. No one else in the building was hurt. Even though Israel initially neither confirmed nor denied responsibility, it was clear from subsequent comments made by certain Israeli government officials that Israel was behind the bombing. Hezbollah’s response was quick. On January 6, Hezbollah attacked an IDF Air Traffic Control Center (ATCC) in the Upper Galilee with anti-tank missiles, causing damage to the facility. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Anti-tank missiles are very difficult to track via radar, and they cannot be intercepted by Iron Dome. The ATCC is located about 7 [km] from the border, well within range of Hezbollah Kornet-EM missiles, essentially making it a sitting duck. But because of the importance of the facility, and possibly because it also functions as a civilian ATCC directing airliners between Cyprus and Tel Aviv, it was thought to be “off-limits.” Hezbollah apparently thought otherwise.
On January 8, General Wissam al-Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah's elite Radwan forces, was killed in an explosion while driving in his car. Again, while Israel maintains silence, it is clear that Tawil was killed by the IDF, especially after Minister Israel Katz admitted responsibility. The Hezbollah response was immediate. The next day, Hezbollah armed drones hit a compound that supposedly houses the IDF Northern Command in the northern city of Safed. Again, there were no casualties. One of the drones impacted in an open area and the other exploded in a parking lot, very close to my friend’s Volvo (which, fortunately, was not damaged). While the location of the compound is well known, and while the bulk of the facilities are located below the surface, the targeting of the complex was a statement made loud and clear. Hezbollah cited the killings of al-Tawil and al-Arouri, in its statement about the strike on the Safed base. It is clear that the quid-pro-quo of October, November and December has been replaced by a progressive, and dangerous, upping the ante.
The understanding, at least in the media, is that Israel has been responding mutely in Lebanon due to pressure from the U.S. not to open another front. Apparently, the concern is that a forceful Israeli military strike on the Hezbollah will quickly spiral into a regional conflict that will include, at minimum, Iran and the rest of her proxies. The U.S. and France have been working diligently to further a diplomatic solution. Last week, U.S. envoy, Amos Hochstein, was in Lebanon in an attempt “to restore calm” to the border. Last year, Hochstein successfully brokered an agreement (Hezbollah is careful not to use the word “treaty” lest it appear as if it recognizes the existence of the State of Israel, which it refers to only as the “Zionist Entity”) between Israel and Lebanon, nailing down the location of the sea border the two countries. He seems like the right person to broker a similar agreement on land. The question is what an agreement would look like.
The territorial dispute between the two parties is minor. The areas under dispute include the town of Ghajar (pronounced “Roger”), a town of 2,700 people known predominantly for its cuisine, that straddles the border, the Sheba’a Farms, a strip of land 7 miles long and a bit more than 2 miles wide, and the Kfar Shouba Hills, another small strip of land with less than 3,000 inhabitants. All three of these locations are in the upper Golan Heights near Mount Dov, and tensions are running high. Early on the morning of January 14, four Hezbollah terrorists were killed in a gunfight trying to infiltrate the border in the Sheba’a Farms. On the other hand, the IDF cannot abide by a Hezbollah presence immediately across the border, which would put civilians in range of anti-tank weapons and mortar fire. No Israeli is going to move back into border areas evacuated on October 7 until the IDF can guarantee their safety. Local mayors and town council members have made this point repeatedly.
At the end of the day, the presence of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon violates international agreements.
UN Resolution 1701, ratified in 2006 as terms of a ceasefire, “calls for Israel and Lebanon to support a permanent ceasefire and a long-term solution based on the following principles and elements:…the establishment between the Blue Line (Israel-Lebanon land border) and the Litani River (about 10 [km] north of the Blue Line) of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon.” According to UNR-1701, Hezbollah presence below the Litani River is illegal, and even when deployed above the Litani, the organization must be disarmed.
To a detached observer, the points of dispute between Israel and Hezbollah seem tiny given the high stakes of war between the two entities. Is there no way that they can come to some kind of agreement amenable to both sides? For example, recent reports describe armed German forces immediately above the border that would enforce UNR-1701. Alternatively, perhaps the Israelis could waive control of Ghajar to the Lebanese. After all, the town is Lebanese and until last year, Israelis could not even enter the town. The problem is that the heart of the dispute between Hezbollah and Israel does not concern the land border or the sea border. The dispute is existential, at least as far as the Hezbollah is concerned.
According to Hezbollah doctrine, “We see in Israel the vanguard of the United States in our Islamic world. It is the hated enemy that must be fought until the hated ones get what they deserve. This enemy is the greatest danger to our future generations and to the destiny of our lands, particularly as it glorifies the ideas of settlement and expansion, initiated in Palestine, and yearning outward to the extension of the Great Israel, from the Euphrates to the Nile. Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated. We vigorously condemn all plans for negotiation with Israel, and regard all negotiators as enemies, for the reason that such negotiation is nothing but the recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist occupation of Palestine.” To put a fine point on it, Hezbollah will not stop fighting until the last Israeli has gasped his last breath.
Israel sees the conflict with Hezbollah as existential. I have spoken with the troops on the border and their morale is sky high.
It is cold and rainy and rockets are falling but the future of their country is on the line.
As long as the situation vis-à-vis Hezbollah is manageable and the safety of Israeli civilians can be guaranteed, the northern border will remain quiet. Otherwise, as President Obama once said regarding the potential of a nuclear Iran, “All options are on the table.”