HANITA – From Avivim to Rosh Hanikra, a 54-year-old landscape architect is reshaping the topography — hewing cliffs, raising berms and clearing brush — along the Lebanese border in order to keep terrorists out and the Israeli communities in the area protected.

That landscape architect is Maj. Eliyahu Gabay, chief engineering officer of the Israel Defense Forces’ 300th Regional Brigade, which defends the western portion of the Israeli-Lebanese border. (The 769th Regional Brigade protects the eastern part.)

Sipping Turkish coffee on a freshly made berm, Gabay looks across the Israeli security fence, past the UN border marked with bright blue cans, and into Lebanon where Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite terrorist group, grows more powerful and better trained, threatening to send its operatives across the border in a future conflict and capture the small Israeli communities on the other side, slaughtering the inhabitants or taking them hostage.

The dangers from Lebanon long predate Hezbollah. For an example, one need only look to the 1974 Ma’alot massacre, in which 31 Israelis, including 22 schoolchildren, were killed by three Palestinian terrorists who crossed into Israel from Lebanon. And as Hezbollah develops better training and resources, from its time fighting alongside Russian and Syrian forces in the Syrian civil war, the danger of cross-border attacks has only grown.

The Lebanese-Israeli border near kibbutz Hanita on March 22, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Lebanese-Israeli border near kibbutz Hanita on March 22, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“Now it won’t be one guy going into a kindergarten, but 20-30 soldiers going into a kibbutz — and that’s a totally different story,” Gabay says.

‘Now it won’t be one guy going into a kindergarten, but 20-30 soldiers going into a kibbutz — and that’s a totally different story’

For now, he says, Israel’s main concern is an above ground infiltration. According to Gabay, the IDF does not believe Hezbollah has border-crossing tunnels, like those dug by Hamas in Gaza. The Iran-funded terrorist group does have underground infrastructure in Lebanon — tunnels and bunkers — but those are less of a concern for his border barrier.

Last year, a senior officer in the Northern Command described the defenses on the border as “insufficient.”

Thus the army entered a renewed push to shore up the barrier, under a Combat Engineering Corps program with the straightforward name, “Organization of the Region for War,” which comprised both the construction of physical obstacles and training.

“We need a serious barrier that will prevent someone from infiltrating and breaking into our communities and our territory,” the officer told The Times of Israel at the time, speaking on condition of anonymity.

IDF troops position sections of a wall near the Lebanon border at Kibbutz Misgav Am, April 20, 2016 (Channel 2 screenshot)

IDF troops position sections of a wall near the Lebanon border at Kibbutz Misgav Am, April 20, 2016 (Channel 2 screenshot)

To fortify the border, Gabay has a number of tools at his disposal. He can cut off the side of a hill to make a cliff, dig a trench and heap the dirt to make an earthwork berm, or — when all else fails — install concrete barriers. The army uses both soldiers and civilian contractors to complete the work, depending upon budget constrictions and safety concerns.

“To every piece of land, depending on an analysis of the ground and available budget, we set up a barrier that we deem fitting,” he says.

Comparing the situation to the architecture in cities, Gabay says, “Once [in Israel] they built three-story buildings, now instead of three-story buildings, we do 70-story buildings. It’s about taking advantage of available resources in correlation to the situation.”

Those defenses must also fit specific threats. One area might be more susceptible to infiltration and need a preventative barrier, while another could come under sniper fire and require an alternative solution.

As the army’s assessments of those threats change, the defenses must change with them. So on the less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) of border that the 300th Regional Brigade is responsible for, Israel has carried out “thousands of kilometers” of work, Gabay says.

“And next year it will look completely different,” he adds.

Time to respond

At 54, Gabay is older than most majors, owing to a 16-year break in his army career. He is fit and of just below average height, with closely cropped gray hair. He’s married with three children, two of them currently serving in the IDF.

Maj. Eliyahu Gabay stands on a berm near the Lebanese border at kibbutz Hanita on March 22, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Maj. Eliyahu Gabay stands on a berm near the Lebanese border at kibbutz Hanita on March 22, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

In total, Gabay has served in the IDF for two decades. “I am blessed to do what I’m best at and what I love to do,” he says.

A karate practitioner, the combat engineering officer is prone to zen-like descriptions of his work.

“The best battle is the one you don’t have to fight,” Gabay says, citing a well-known saying by Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist who penned “The Art of War.”

He’s fought against Hezbollah in Lebanon twice already — in 1982 and again in 2006 — and doubts that Israel will be able to fight that kind of battle against Hezbollah for much longer.

“I hope I don’t [have to fight Hezbollah]. But if not, my kids definitely will. It’s our war,” he says.

But Gabay insists he does not bear personal animosity towards the Shiite terrorist group.

“I have no enemies,” he says. “The earth is my enemy, and I know how to speak with her well enough, and we get along just fine.”

Last year, Gabay “spoke” with the hills outside the Hanita kibbutz. He shore off part of a hill between the community and the Lebanese border, turning it into a 10-foot (3-meter) cliff that anyone hoping to infiltrate the kibbutz would have to scale first.

The Lebanese-Israeli border near kibbutz Hanita on March 22, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Lebanese-Israeli border near kibbutz Hanita on March 22, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“It’ll take him some time to get over the barrier, which gives me more time to respond,” Gabay says.

By turning the brush-covered hill into shear rock-face, he has also increased the visibility near the border.

“We can see what’s going on there. Now I don’t need some device,” Gabay says, referring to the army’s technologically advanced — and more secret — detection systems that dot the border.

Hezbollah has been watching Gabay’s “conversations” with the ground intently. According to Gabay, the terrorist group is constantly monitoring his efforts to shore up the defenses.

A watchtower apparently built by the Lebanese army running along the border with Israel (screen capture: Ynet)

A watchtower apparently built by the Lebanese army running along the border with Israel (screen capture: Ynet)

“It’s normal, it’s routine, it’s regular” for its operatives to come to the border and watch our progress, he says, “especially now that Hezbollah is an inseparable part of the Lebanese military.”

While Gabay knows first-hand the threat posed by Hezbollah — he also lives in the northern city of Nahariya, well in range of the group’s missiles — he says the border is quiet for now, noting that he allowed this journalist to visit the area and without any special protective gear.

“We create these myths. We have to stop doing that. If you don’t glorify Hezbollah, it won’t be so big. If you don’t glorify Hamas, it won’t be so big. If the media controlled itself and didn’t make them all so big, we’d be in a much better place,” he says.

Earlier this month, the Hezbollah-affiliated media outlet Al-Manar broadcast a special report showing the progress the IDF has made in preparing the border for a future war with the terrorist group.

In the report, which features footage of various Israeli berms and concrete defenses, Hezbollah says it will infiltrate the Jewish state despite the “fence of illusion” being constructed on the border.

Gabay is not particularly fazed by the knowledge that he and his engineering teams are being watched. It’s part of the game of “cat and mouse” that Israel and Hezbollah are playing, he says.

“Just as I adjust myself to their plans, they’re adjusting themselves to mine. Those are the rules of the game,” he says.

However, Gabay adds, “Hezbollah, or whoever wants to try to cross, will stumble upon a few surprises.”