SHOMERA — For nearly 60 days, the Israel Defense Forces has been on high alert along the Lebanese border, bracing for the retaliatory strike that the Hezbollah terror group and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had vowed to carry out.
On July 20, a Hezbollah fighter was killed in an airstrike on Damascus International Airport that was widely attributed to Israel. The Iran-backed terror group threatened revenge for his death and, according to the IDF, has attempted to exact it at least twice: once on July 27 when a cell of Hezbollah members crossed the internationally recognized Blue Line border on the contentious Mount Dov and entered Israeli territory before being turned back by with warning strikes, and again on August 25 when shots were fired at Israeli troops near the community of Manara, just missing them.
Nasrallah has made it clear that those failed attempts will not suffice. On August 30, he declared that his group would kill an IDF soldier in order to balance the “equation of deterrence” — a longstanding tit-for-tat policy that is meant to force Israel to think twice before killing its members.
It has been reasonably effective. This can be seen in multiple cases of the IDF deliberately avoiding killing Hezbollah operatives, most recently during the terror group’s failed July 27 attack. To the IDF, entering into such rounds of heightened tensions with Hezbollah only distracts from the military’s higher goal of combating Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and transfer weapons throughout the region.
“When Israel kills one of our fighters, we will kill one of your soldiers,” Nasrallah said in a televised address.
It is the job of the IDF Northern Command, of the Galilee Division, of the 769th Regional Brigade and of the 300th Regional Brigade, to make sure that this does not happen — or to make Hezbollah deeply regret it if it follows through on its threats.
To that end, the military has deployed additional troops to the area, allocated intelligence and aerial resources to the Northern Command, and drawn up a host of possible retaliations to a Hezbollah attack.
“We are in a much higher level of preparedness than normal,” Lt. Col. Yitzhak Huri, deputy commander of the 300th Brigade, told The Times of Israel this week.
For us, so long as this needs to go on, it will go on
The 300th Brigade is responsible for defending the western portion of the Lebanese border, from the coastal town of Rosh Hanikra to Malkiya.
“We have lots of special forces in the region. Our defensive posture has changed and is changing. We have many new and high-tech capabilities that we are using,” he said.
That includes significant artillery firepower and large numbers of aircraft — both for reconnaissance and rapid retaliation — as well as combat intelligence units. As the 300th Brigade includes the northern coast, the Israeli Navy also plays a key role in the effort, unlike in the 769th Regional Brigade, which is farther east.
‘We are a military and we must be prepared for fighting’
In the past, the IDF has accepted Hezbollah reprisals without retaliating further, thus ending the tit-for-tat cycle.
That is no longer the case. When shots were fired at soldiers near Manara, the IDF retaliated with airstrikes on two Hezbollah positions near the border — observation posts operated by the Green Without Borders organization, a front for the terror group. They were the first such strikes since the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
“We are not focusing on one course of action that the enemy dictates for us; we are preparing for any scenario, to the most extreme that it can be. We are a military and we must be prepared for fighting,” Huri said, speaking in his office at the 300th Brigade’s headquarters near the community of Shomera.
The military has drawn up a number of retaliation options in the case of attack — from limited strikes in the vein of the response to the August 25 incident to far wider assaults on a range of Hezbollah targets. Ultimately the decision as to which of those options to choose lies with the political echelon, which dictates to the military how to proceed.
“I will not allow an incident involving Hezbollah to pass without a significant response by the IDF,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Tuesday.
The Lebanese press — specifically outlets affiliated with Hezbollah — has hailed the terror group’s ability to force the IDF into a defensive posture.
In Israel, prominent defense analysts have questioned if the IDF has lost its deterrence against Hezbollah.
Huri maintained that it had not, noting that while the IDF has been on high alert for nearly 60 days, residents of the region and visitors have gone about their business freely during that period. That Hezbollah, which once routinely fired barrages indiscriminately at Israeli cities, would now only threaten military targets was proof of that deterrence.
“The operational situation does not affect civilians at all; we are succeeding in preserving normalcy,” Huri said.
Indeed, the only visible sign of heightened tensions was roadblocks along highways within clear line of sight — and thus line of attack — of Lebanon, which this reporter drove through unimpeded as the checkpoints are only meant for military vehicles.
Maintaining such a high level of focus over nearly two months presents its own challenges. Keeping soldiers on their toes, ready to respond to a surprise attack, for even a few days is difficult; maintaining that state of preparedness for a few weeks poses significant challenges.
“The thing that most interests us is our readiness — this is something we’re dealing with all the time,” Huri said.
Hezbollah’s two attempts at retaliation along the border have been sniper attacks. In the July 27 incident, a high-powered, .50-caliber sniper rifle was recovered from the scene, and on August 25, the shots were fired from a standard assault rifle.
Yet the military is not resting on the assumption that the next attack will necessarily mean more gunfire. Hezbollah has an ample history of using anti-tank guided missiles to settle its scores, as well as improvised explosive devices.
Huri, who has served in a number of positions in the Northern Command over the past three years and fought Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War, said the IDF was prepared to maintain its high alertness level for as long as necessary, despite the drain on the military’s resources.
“For us, so long as this needs to go on, it will go on,” he said.