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'Should war break out, a lot of rockets will fall'

IDF chief says Israel’s enemies are deterred for now, but ‘it can all change’

In hour-long speech, Kohavi seems to indicate IDF was behind recent strikes in Syria and an operation in Iraq aimed at preventing Iran from transferring weapons through the region

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, sits with head of the IDF Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, left, during a visit to northern Israel on November 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, sits with head of the IDF Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, left, during a visit to northern Israel on November 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi laid out his assessment of Israel’s security in a sprawling hour-long speech on Tuesday evening, saying the country is increasingly secure, but is also facing greater and greater threats, mostly from Iran and its proxies.

“The State of Israel’s strategic situation is on a trend of improvement,” Kohavi said. “But it can all change. As much as we’ve had success, the enemy can also in the end have a success.”

Kohavi made his remarks during a livestreamed speech at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank’s annual conference, which was held this year entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The INSS is considered one of Israel’s premier think tanks with a staff that includes former IDF chiefs of staff and other former senior officials.

In his speech, Kohavi made an apparent appeal for an increase in the defense budget, hours after the Ynet news site reported that the military was planning to request an additional NIS 4 billion ($1.2 billion) from the government for the coming year.

“I am aware of the societal difficulties. We live with the people. We are a people’s army. But I have to tell you something — the Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian rockets and missiles, they don’t cough. They don’t get sick from the coronavirus. They don’t lose their breath. The missiles don’t get sick, but they can be fired the moment the other side decides that’s what it wants to do,” Kohavi said.

“From our intelligence, we don’t have any indication that our enemies have decreased their efforts to get stronger. The rearmament continues. Wars can happen even if they aren’t planned. We’ve experienced this in the past decades. Therefore the IDF must be strong, the IDF must be prepared, the IDF must be relevant, the IDF must be capable and operational all the time,” he said.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank’s annual conference on January 26, 2021. (Screen capture/INSS)

Last year, Kohavi released his multi-year plan for the military, which included organizational restructuring and fresh prioritization, but also demanded a significant budget increase in order to purchase new equipment and weaponry. That funding has largely not come through due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

In his Tuesday speech, Kohavi discussed the array of threats and challenges facing the military and the State of Israel, as well as the areas in which the IDF has made progress over the past year. He also argued against the United States rejoining the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or a similar agreement, and said the military was drawing up fresh operational plans to strike Iran’s nuclear program.

“In general, none of [our enemies] want to initiate anything against us. All of their actions — almost without exception — are retaliatory to our actions, not actions that they’ve initiated. And when they decide to carry out [an attack], they experience difficulties and decide to abandon their ways of acting,” Kohavi said.

“And the most important thing, we do not now see — at least for now, this can change — that any of our enemies or any of the countries surrounding us that we categorize as belligerent plan or want or is considering initiating a war or a large-scale operation against the State of Israel,” he said.

According to the IDF chief, Iran and its proxies have been hard hit by American sanctions and by the coronavirus, while Israel has weathered the pandemic much better in comparison, and has made stronger allies in the region through its normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, as well as maintained ties with the United States and Russia.

“The IDF provided security to the people of Israel in the year 2020. It was one of the most secure and safest years, with few casualties and, I would say, an inability by the enemy to carry out its plans. This doesn’t happen by itself,” Kohavi said. In 2020, three Israelis were killed in security-related attacks, the lowest number of such fatalities in the country’s history.

Syrian Air defenses respond to alleged Israeli missiles targeting south of the capital Damascus, on July 20, 2020. (AFP)

The war between wars

Much of the IDF’s activities over the past year have been focused on what’s known as the northern arena — Lebanon, Syria and westward — where the main threats are Iran, its proxy Hezbollah and assorted Iranian-backed militias.

Since 2013, the IDF has been fighting what it refers to as the “war between wars,” or the “campaign between campaigns,” known in Hebrew by its acronym Mabam. This effort is aimed at both deferring a future war and ensuring that should one break out, Israel will be in the best possible position to fight it.

This includes blocking Iran from establishing a major military presence in Syria and preventing it from transferring advanced weaponry to its allies and proxies throughout the region.

According to Kohavi, on this latter front, the past year was a success for the IDF.

“I will say, cautiously, that we have significantly reduced the enemy’s ability to transfer weapons by air, land and sea,” the army chief said.

Discussing the complexity of operating in so many locations, Kohavi appeared to indicate that Israel was responsible for two airstrikes in Syria last month, saying the first targeted a weapons manufacturing facility and the second a shipment of munitions. In general, the Israeli military maintains a policy of ambiguity regarding its operations in Syria, acknowledging that it conducts airstrikes there, but not commenting on specific ones.

Kohavi described a week during the month of December in which the IDF conducted operations in two foreign countries, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Though he refrained from naming Syria directly — instead referring to a “Country A” — the timeline listed by the chief of staff clearly indicated that the country in question was Syria. Kohavi also referred to a “Front B,” which appeared to be Iraq, saying it was a place that was “not necessarily in the first ring,” the military’s term for the countries and areas immediately adjacent to Israel, like Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.

“On the first day, we struck widely in… let’s call it Country A. There we struck both a production facility and weapons themselves. The next day, the Iron Dome intercepted two rockets that were en route to Ashkelon,” Kohavi said, apparently referring to an airstrike in Syria on the night between December 24 and 25 and a rocket attack from Gaza the following evening.

Satellite images purporting to show damage to a weapons facility outside Masyaf, Syria, in December 25, 2020 airstrikes attributed to Israel, released by ImageSat International. (ImageSat International)

“We then conducted a commando raid on ‘Front B,'” he said.

“Two days later, we again struck Country A, blocking the transfer of weaponry from A to B. This was weaponry that was supposed to be directed and used against the State of Israel,” he said. That appeared to be a reference to an airstrike against Iran-linked sites in Syria on December 30.

“And in the meantime, in the Central Command, night after night, seven to ten arrests were made. Some of those [arrested] could have carried out a terror attack on the Route 443 highway or in the Halamish settlement,” he said of operations in the West Bank.

The army chief noted that, in addition, the military had worked to block the constant stream of cyber attacks directed against Israel.

Later in his speech, Kohavi indicated why Israel may be conducting commando raids in Iraq: to block Iranian weapons transfers through the country.

“Because the government of Iraq can’t control what’s happening in its territory, this allows Iran to maintain militias there and transport weapons, or at least they are trying to transport weapons from Iran, through Iraq, and to Syria and Lebanon,” he said.

The next war

While boasting of the IDF’s successes over the past year, Kohavi also warned that though a war does not appear to be in the offing, should one break out, it will be painful.

“They want to attack civilians in the State of Israel, not soldiers or the army. They would also attack soldiers and the army,” Kohavi said, referring to Hezbollah, Hamas and other Iranian proxies.

Hezbollah fighters stand atop a car mounted with a mock rocket, as they parade during a rally to mark the seventh day of Ashoura, in the southern village of Seksakiyeh, Lebanon, In this October 9, 2016 photo. (Mohammed Zaatari/AP)

“A lot of rockets will fall. A lot. We are doing what we can to prevent that and it won’t be easy,” he said.

The Hezbollah terror group alone is believed to possess some 190,000 rockets and mortar shells, enough to rain down over a thousand projectiles every day of a future war. The Iran-backed terror group is also believed to possess several hundred precision-guided missiles, which present a far greater threat to Israel and its air defenses.

“The number of rockets has increased, the size of the warheads has increased, and the accuracy in some cases has improved, or they are trying to improve,” he said.

According to Kohavi, the only way for Israel to win a war against an enemy with such a large arsenal of rockets is offensively, with large barrages of its own directed against Hezbollah’s or Hamas’s assets.

“The IDF is making a great effort to increase its bank of targets, to make plans that can be carried out with their own directives,” he said.

However, the army chief indicated that these targets were liable to raise concerns in Israel and abroad as many are located in heavily populated, urban areas, where terror groups store and launch their weapons.

“We need to prepare the State of Israel, the IDF, and the international community for the fighting styles, the ways of thinking and even the international laws that must adapt to the way in which we must and are entitled to fight,” he said.

“We will only strike military targets. But a rocket next to a house is a military target,” Kohavi said.

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