'Hezbollah forces who enter Israel won't come back alive'

As 30-foot-tall border wall goes up, IDF says Hezbollah, Lebanese army colluding

Senior officer predicts war in the north unlikely in near future, but sees serious threat in terror group’s border infiltration units

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An Israeli construction vehicle drives by a concrete wall being built along the 'Blue Line' separating Israel and Lebanon, as members of the Lebanese Armed Forces watch from a guard tower, near the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra on September 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
An Israeli construction vehicle drives by a concrete wall being built along the 'Blue Line' separating Israel and Lebanon, as members of the Lebanese Armed Forces watch from a guard tower, near the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra on September 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

ROSH HANIKRA — The Israeli military this week publicly unveiled its 11-kilometer-long, nine-meter-tall concrete border wall along the Lebanese border — a barrier that is hotly contested by Lebanon, but that Israel maintains is lawful and fully in accordance with the international armistice line.

In a briefing to reporters near the border, a senior army officer also issued a stern warning to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist army, saying that “any of its forces who infiltrate into Israeli territory will not come back alive.”

The senior officer said the Israel Defense Forces has seen increased cooperation between the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces in the past year.

“We see them working together, traveling in the same jeeps,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Sometimes we see Hezbollah soldiers in LAF vests.”

While most Lebanese soldiers wear camouflage uniforms, some members of the LAF’s intelligence units wear what looks like civilian attire topped with a vest identifying them as servicemen. One such person — either an LAF intelligence officer or a Hezbollah member disguised as one — was clearly visible on Wednesday afternoon, standing in a watchtower overlooking the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra and a construction site where the new border wall is being built.

Members of the Lebanese Armed Forces watch the construction of an Israeli border wall from a guard tower, near the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra on September 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The concrete barrier is designed to serve two main functions: protect Israeli civilians and soldiers from sniper attacks, and prevent infiltration into Israel by Hezbollah operatives.

According to the senior officer, approximately seven years ago, Hezbollah began creating a special forces unit — known as the Radwan Unit — specifically tasked with crossing into Israel and causing as much mayhem and destruction as possible both for the sake of the destruction itself and for the “symbolism” of having troops carry out attacks inside Israel.

“Their main goal is to kill as many people as they can in [Israeli] villages and army bases,” the officer said.

The senior officer said he does not believe war with Hezbollah is likely in the near future. The Iran-backed group has spent the past five years or so fighting in Syria on behalf of its dictator, Bashar Assad, in the civil war there. While those battles have given the group greater experience and training, they have also resulted in approximately 1,800 fighters killed and thousands more injured.

“What Hezbollah learned to do in Syria, it plans to do here,” he said, looking out over the Lebanese border.

In this December 5, 1989 photo, masked gunmen of the pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim Hezbollah terror group, clad in military uniforms, are seen in the village of Sohmor, Lebanon. (AP Photo)

For instance, Hezbollah seems to have adopted the tactic of bombarding a town or military post with massive amounts of ordnance before sending in troops to capture it, he said.

The fighting in Syria is drawing to a close, as Assad snuffs out the last rebel holdouts, and Hezbollah will likely start rotating its fighters back to Lebanon. But the officer said the military expects that the group will likely take some time to build up its reserves before considering a renewed conflict with Israel.

The senior officer also dismissed the possibility that any war in Lebanon would necessarily spread to Syria as well, making it a two-front northern war.

According to the officer, Assad will require years of calm to rebuild his country after seven years of civil war.

“The last things Assad needs is a war,” he said.

The border wall

At this stage, the joint IDF-Defense Ministry Borders and Security Fence Directorate has been cleared and received funding to build 13 kilometers (8 miles) of concrete walling along the approximately 130-kilometer (80-mile) border in order to protect the 22 adjacent Israeli villages.

Work began at the beginning of this year and so far 11 kilometers (6.9 miles) in total have been completed.

Brig. Gen. Eran Ofir shows maps and photographs of the concrete wall that Israel is constructing along the Israeli-Lebanese border, at an overlook near the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra on September 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The 11 kilometers are split into two main sections, one extending 5.7 kilometers (3.5 miles) from the Mediterranean shore to the town of Shlomi and another 5.5-kilometer (3.4-mile) wall that goes from the border-adjacent community of Metula to Misgav Am.

Eventually the plan is to construct a barrier along the entire border — a project that would cost NIS 1.7 billion ($470 million).

The only holdup is financial.

“We don’t have the budget,” said Brig. Gen. Eran Ofir, director of Borders and Security Fence, who also led the construction of Israel’s steel border fence with Egypt and is currently overseeing the building of the above- and belowground barrier around the Gaza Strip.

If Ofir were to receive the budget, he said his unit would be able to complete construction in approximately two years.

The Lebanese border wall is mostly constructed of concrete slabs, but in a small number of places with steep inclines is made up of steel fencing.

Along the wall, there are a number of advanced surveillance cameras monitored by Israeli soldiers, as well as other sensors that are meant to detect infiltration attempts.

Ofir would not comment on whether the border wall contained technological capabilities to locate any efforts to tunnel into Israel underground, like the types of sensors that are being placed along the Gaza border.

Hezbollah has long been rumored to be looking to infiltrate into Israel subterraneously.

“But we are doing all we can to make sure they don’t get [that capability],” he said.

The Lebanese government has contested the construction of the new border wall from the onset, arguing that it violates Lebanese sovereignty in some locations.

Lebanon has filed those complaints with the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL, which acts as a liaison between Israel and Lebanon.

Maj. Tomer Gilad speaks to reporters from an overlook near the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra on September 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

IDF Maj. Tomer Gilad, who works with UNIFIL, said the complaints by Lebanon are baseless, as the border wall is located south of the so-called “Blue Line,” a UN-recognized border line between Israel and Lebanon.

“The way we see it, and the way the world needs to see it, is that there is one line: the Blue Line,” Gilad said.

Some areas around the Israeli-Lebanese border are contested, with each country claiming the territory as its own — for instance, the strip of land known by Israel as Mount Dov and by Lebanon as Sheba’a Farms.

The negotiations about these disputed areas are ongoing, but in the meantime the two countries largely abide by the UN’s Blue Line.

According to Gilad, the border wall is a necessary security measure in light of threats made by Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, and parts of it can also be removed if a settlement is reached about these disputed territories.

Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces

This increased cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah, which is backed by Israel’s arch-nemesis Iran, has raised the question of whether Lebanese military sites would be targeted by the IDF in a future war.

The head of the IDF Northern Command indicated that this would be the case, saying as much during an onstage interview at a conference on Sunday. However, the senior officer said on Wednesday that such a decision would be largely dependent upon how the LAF acted during the conflict.

In the 2006 Second Lebanon War, for instance, the LAF mostly kept out of the fighting and was not attacked by Israel, and the senior officer said that the same could be true in the future. But “if they take part in a war against us, then it’s not a question,” he said.

The issue of LAF’s alleged cooperation with the Hezbollah terrorist group is an issue not only for Israel’s potential actions during a war, but is also currently a consideration for the United States and France, both of which provide material assistance to the military.

The senior IDF officer said the military does not oppose the LAF receiving this international support and would, in fact, prefer to see a more robust Lebanese army, so long as it uses its might to keep Hezbollah in check.

“A strong LAF that ensures [resolution] 1701 and that the calm here stays strong — that’s in our interest,” he said.

In this July 14, 2006 photo, Lebanese youths gather on a hilltop overlooking the city of Beirut in Lebanon at sunset to watch smoke continuing to billow from a fuel dump at Beirut International Airport, which was hit by an Israeli airstrike. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah and all non-state armed groups were meant to be removed from the area south of the Litani River.

UNIFIL, which has operated along the border since 1978, was instructed to enforce Resolution 1701. However, the mandate that dictates what UNIFIL can and cannot do prevents it from acting as forcefully as Israel would prefer.

“We believe that UNIFIL could do more,” Gilad said.

The Israeli military frequently files complaints with the peacekeeping force when it spots cooperation between Hezbollah and the LAF, but this appears to be done as a pro forma measure, not with an expectation that it will actually change the situation.

However, the liaison officer said that Israel still considers UNIFIL valuable, as it improves the level of dialogue between Israel and Lebanon, which do not have formal ties.

In addition, the senior IDF officer said that in the past year or two, UNIFIL has taken a more aggressive stance toward Hezbollah and its its operations south of the Litani River that he said violate Resolution 1701.

The officer said these policies by UNIFIL are part of the reason behind the increased cooperation between the terrorist group and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

“Hezbollah has no choice but to work with LAF,” he said.

An installation of the Lebanese agricultural NGO ‘Green without Borders’ that the IDF says serves as an observation outpost for Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese border, publicized on June 22, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Though in the past, Hezbollah was more brazen in flouting Resolution 1701 and operating openly south of the Litani River, in recent years the Israeli military has seen the Iran-backed group develop more sophisticated means of skirting it.

One of the main ones that the IDF has identified is the use of “Green Without Borders,” an ostensible environmental group with posts throughout the forests of southern Lebanon that Israel believes is a front for Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah is here [on the border] every day,” the senior IDF officer said.

The United Nations has rejected Israel’s claims about the group, saying it has not seen “Green Without Borders” members violating Resolution 1701.

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