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IDF: Hezbollah likely to initiate limited battles with Israel in 2021, not war

Military releases annual intelligence assessment for coming year, sees Iran shifting focus to Yemen and Iraq as possible launchpads for attacks on the Jewish state

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

Supporters of Hezbollah terror group leader Hassan Nasrallah chant slogans ahead of his televised speech in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, January 5, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)
Supporters of Hezbollah terror group leader Hassan Nasrallah chant slogans ahead of his televised speech in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, January 5, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

The Israel Defense Forces does not anticipate the outbreak of a large-scale war in the coming year, but does expect that Hezbollah and other terror groups will likely initiate more limited rounds of violence, according to its annual intelligence assessment.

In recent months, the Israeli military has come to believe Hezbollah is increasingly emboldened and is operating under the assumption that it can launch attacks on IDF targets without this leading to full-scale war, as it previously assessed.

This represents a significant change in the military’s assessments regarding its dynamic with Hezbollah. The IDF has long believed that if a conflict were to break out with the Lebanese terror group, it would likely develop into a potentially major exchange, something both sides want to avoid. But Military Intelligence no longer believes Hezbollah is operating on that same understanding.

This change in the terror group’s assumptions were on display last week when Hezbollah fired anti-aircraft missiles at an Israeli drone flying above southern Lebanon. Those surface-to-air missiles missed their target, and the IDF refrained from retaliating. Had the attack succeeded, however, the military was prepared to retaliate significantly, potentially leading to a multi-day conflict, something Hezbollah must have known before opening fire.

Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad, a member of the Hezbollah terror group, whom the organization says was killed in an Israeli airstrike on July 20, 2020. (Hezbollah media)

The Israeli military believes that this change originated this past summer, when a Hezbollah operative was killed in Syria in an airstrike widely attributed to the IDF.

The terror group vowed revenge, but has time and again failed to carry it out, which has prompted it to rethink its strategies.

The annual assessment

Each year, the Military Intelligence Directorate produces an annual intelligence assessment for the coming year, identifying trends and threats that the country is likely to encounter and recommendations for how to address them.

While the dominant issue over the past year in the world was the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed millions of people and affected nearly every aspect of daily life, according to the IDF’s assessments, despite an initial interruption caused by the disease, Israel’s enemies, most of which are suffering from intense economic, social and public health crises, have hardly diverted their efforts at all from rearmament and force build-up. This is true for Hezbollah in Lebanon; for Iran and its proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; and for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

The Israeli military expects that these Iranian proxies — save for Hamas, which is connected to Tehran, but more independent — may attempt to attack Israel both as retaliation for IDF strikes against them and as a way to ramp up pressure in the region and improve Iran’s negotiating position with the United States regarding its nuclear program.

People carry portraits of late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad Airport, in Baghdad on January 2, 2021, at the site of their killing (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

This past year saw Iran and its proxies operating without the guidance of the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, a hugely influential figure in the region who was killed in an American airstrike in Iraq last January.

Though Iran has pressed on with its efforts in the region, the IDF believes that Soleimani has not been replaced — despite his official position being filled by Esmail Ghaani, who is seen as far less charismatic a leader — and that his absence has prevented Iran from being able to conduct the types of strikes against Israel it was able to perform under Soleimani’s command, such as those from Syria in May 2018.

In general, the IDF believes that its so-called campaign between campaigns or war between wars — or as it’s known by its Hebrew acronym Mabam — has succeeded in countering Iran’s ambitions of establishing a significant military presence in Syria, but that has not prevented the Islamic Republic from pressing on with those efforts anyway.

“Thanks to our advanced intelligence capabilities we succeeded in attacking hundreds of targets as part of the Mabam and in preserving Israel’s regional superiority,” Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman told reporters this week.

IDF Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, chief of Military Intelligence, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2019. (Flash90)

In Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have been focusing their efforts on establishing a front on the Syrian Golan Heights, from which they can attack Israel, as Iranian proxies attempted to do twice last year with failed explosives attacks near the border.

“The [Iran] axis is continuing in its attempt to entrench [itelf in Syria] in order to attack Israel from the Golan Heights. Our extensive efforts have succeeded in harming and minimizing this capability,” Hayman said.

The IDF believes that in light of its successes against Iran in Syria, the Islamic Republic has pivoted and has deepened its existing military presence in Iraq and Yemen, from which its proxies could launch attacks on Israel using long-range missiles or armed attack drones. These more advanced and more powerful weapons are easier to smuggle into Iraq and Yemen than Syria or Lebanon, but the longer range also gives Israel more time to defend itself against these types of attacks.

In the case of a drone attack from Yemen, for instance, Military Intelligence estimates that the IDF would have a roughly six-hour window to see the attack coming and address it.

“The proxy threat in Iraq and Yemen is an inexpensive, effective and a ‘deniable’ solution for Iran to carry out attacks without risking war,” a senior Israeli military official told reporters this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Precision missiles

While the IDF does not anticipate that Hezbollah or Iran and its proxies will start a large-scale conflict with the Jewish state, the Israeli military is similarly wary of initiating a war against Hezbollah, despite the terror group’s ongoing efforts to obtain precision-guided missiles, something the military sees as a major potential threat to Israel.

These munitions, if Hezbollah had them in sufficient quantities, could overwhelm the military’s air defenses and allow the terror group to strike the country’s critical national security sites. In the past, Israeli officials have indicated that if Hezbollah tried to manufacture these weapons en masse in Lebanon, it would be a cause for war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows what he says is the entrance to a Hezbollah arms depot next to a gas station in the Janah neighborhood of Beirut, in a video address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 29, 2020 (UN screenshot)

Currently, the military believes that Hezbollah has an arsenal of several dozen precision-guided missiles — not the hundreds that have been reported in some cases — the components for which were smuggled into Lebanon, where they were used to convert existing rockets into these more advanced munitions. For now, the IDF believes that it still has an edge over the Lebanese terror army on this front.

“We are constantly working and dealing with this threat of precision-guided missiles, and despite the fact that this is a threat that cannot be downplayed, we are convinced that we have a high-quality response in a number of ways, both overt and covert,” Hayman said.

The military’s response to these weapons has four main elements: Exposing Hezbollah’s actions, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF did last year by identifying the locations where the terror group is trying to build these missiles; striking the shipments of the missile components as they are en route through Syria; improving the country’s missile defense systems and other protective measures; and through its covert activities, the details of which are strictly classified.

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