Israel’s border with Lebanon, stretching from the top of a ridge just west of Mount Hermon to the seaside kibbutz of Rosh Hanikra, traverses hilly, rocky, bushy country that makes it the most naturally difficult frontier for the IDF to control.
It was along this border region, in the western sector, near Naqoura, that four IDF soldiers were injured from a blast on Wednesday. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called the activity that wounded the four Golani infantrymen “a regular IDF operation” and said that the squad had activated a mine. “Of course, we are investigating the incident, whether it was an old mine, a new mine — and of course we will study the matter,” he said.
Ya’alon added, somewhat revealingly, that the operational activity “was and will be handled responsibly and judiciously for the sake of the security of the citizens of Israel.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the same word, “responsibly,” in describing the incident, which would seem to indicate, along with no statements to the contrary, that the IDF action took place north of the border fences.
The reasons for such actions vary. A recent tour of the border region brought them into sharper focus.
Standing outside an IDF outpost, on a hilltop several miles east of Wednesday’s explosion, just above the white border path and several yards north of a rust-colored fence that is supposed to prematurely trigger incoming missiles, a company commander in the area began pointing out the inherent dangers in a region that has been tense for years but had been quiet ever since the August 2010 killing of Lt. Col. (res) Dov Harari, a battalion commander shot by Lebanese Armed Forces snipers along the border.
“As a soldier, I understand that my first goal is to protect civilians, which means stopping infiltrations… and only after that [to prevent] abductions [of soldiers],” the officer said. This means constant eyes and occasional foot and jeep patrols along the fence, the scene of two major kidnapping operations, in 2000 and 2006.
As he pointed out the features that facilitated those abductions — the thick vegetation, the rock outcroppings and the deep valley of Wadi al-Ranab, which challenges even the best surveillance technology — and spoke about the way Hezbollah operatives use shepherds and children to carefully mark the unseen paths to the border, a red Isuzu jeep loaded with at least three burly and bearded men rolled into view. The windows down, they stopped menacingly opposite the officer and began to take pictures and what appeared to be video footage of the soldiers and the civilian guests.
“Hezbollah,” the officer said, noting that the civilian-clad guerrillas “operate in all of these bushy areas.”
Their appearance, in this instance, was likely part intelligence work — documenting who comes to the border region — and part psychological warfare. But both forces, on either side of the bright blue UNIFIL barrels marking the border line, operate in offensive and defensive postures.
Acting defensively, the IDF clears shrubbery from the area between the fence and the actual border line. It may also be re-mining the patches that were recently cleared in order to allow the UNIFIL soldiers into the area.
Hezbollah, when on a defensive footing, is known to leave strategically placed mines along routes that the IDF will travel if it is forced to operate in Lebanon. On July 12, 2006, the first day of the Second Lebanon War, a tank crew rolled up a ramp outside the village of Ayta a-Shaab, attempting to halt the escape of the Hezbollah men who had abducted the reserves soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, and detonated an enormous, one-ton mine that instantly killed the entire four-man crew.
The IDF also performs offensive actions using surveillance tools along the border. The officer said merely that his work entails patrols, ambushes and “cross-border-fence [not cross-border] activity.”
Hezbollah, when thinking offensively, has surely not forsaken the tactic of soldier abductions and it continually strives to smuggle drugs and arms into Israel. In July 2012, a Hezbollah cell managed to pass 21 kilograms of C4 explosives with advanced triggers into Israel, where the materials, disguised as part of a drug shipment, were to be distributed to terror operatives. The 13 individuals, part of two terror cells, were arrested by the Shin Bet security agency in August 2012.
Most of the time, though, the activities on either side of the border are conducted in silence. “The biggest challenge is that my soldiers do not see an enemy,” the officer said.
He described the current situation as “a deceptive quiet” and said he had drilled into his soldiers the need to “go from 0-100 in a second,” assuring this reporter that, as opposed to the period before the Second Lebanon War, his men all understood that a conflict in this region could turn into war in an instant. “Our company’s motto is War Tomorrow,” he said. “That’s how we train them, so they are ready to make the mental switch, if necessary.”
For now, it would seem, it is not — with Hezbollah still deeply engaged in Syria — but the border region, which has produced little in the way of news in recent months, is far from peaceful.