To avoid another attack, Israel tries hard not to embarrass Hezbollah

While maintaining awareness along border, military avoided killing operatives in failed offensive by the terror group, holds off on releasing footage from it

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

Israeli soldiers work on tanks near the Lebanon border on July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli soldiers work on tanks near the Lebanon border on July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The Israel Defense Forces remained on high alert along the Lebanese border on Wednesday, believing that the Hezbollah terror group is planning to carry out an attack along the frontier in the coming days, following a tense night in which the military spotted suspects moving along the security fence separating an Israeli community from Lebanon.

Israeli aircraft filled the skies over northern Israel and southern Lebanon, according to residents on both sides of the border, apparently watching the region for signs of an imminent attack and preparing to respond to one. IDF combat intelligence units were deployed along the border, scanning the area with powerful cameras and other detection equipment.

On Tuesday, the IDF also sent advanced missile systems to the area, along with special forces units, in order to be able to respond forcefully if such an attack is carried out by the terror group. Hezbollah says it seeks revenge for one of its fighters who was killed in Syria, in an airstrike that was widely attributed to Israel.

The military anticipated Hezbollah would try to attack before or around the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins Thursday.

The IDF credits its heightened state of alertness with foiling an attempted attack by Hezbollah on Monday afternoon, in which a group of at least three armed terrorist operatives entered the Israeli-controlled area of Mount Dov, also known as Shebaa Farms, along the border.

A picture taken from the Israeli side of the Blue Line that separates Israel and Lebanon shows smoke billowing above Mount Dov on the Israeli-Lebanese border, on July 27, 2020. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

According to the IDF’s initial investigation of the incident, the men were spotted by a soldier operating a security camera just before they entered the region through a stretch along the Blue Line — the unofficial but internationally recognized border between Israel and Lebanon — where there was no security fence, and walked through rocky, overgrown terrain toward the IDF’s Gladiola outpost. The men were within 200 to 300 meters of the position before Israeli troops opened fire toward them, forcing them back into Lebanon.

The military is confident that the men were planning some kind of attack, entering the area armed with at least rifles, but does not know definitively what they planned to do. The IDF dismissed the possibility that they intended to fire an anti-tank guided missile at Israeli troops or vehicles as they did not seem to have one. Instead, the military suspects the men were planning to carry out a sniper attack on Israeli troops, attempt to break into the Gladiola outpost, or to plant an improvised explosive device along the main road on Mount Dov.

Hezbollah denied carrying out an attack on Monday night, saying the IDF’s claims were “absolutely false.”

While the IDF has been preparing for the possibility of another attack, it has also been working to avoid one, or at least to not antagonize Hezbollah further.

To that end, the IDF avoided killing the Hezbollah operatives on Monday night, shooting in their direction to force them to flee rather with the goal of hitting them, as additional fallen members would have likely spurred the terror group to retaliate yet more violently.

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

Though it may seem counter-intuitive that Israeli soldiers would deliberately avoid killing Hezbollah fighters who infiltrated into Israeli territory — and indeed the decision has been hotly debated within the military — the IDF top brass generally see this current round of border fighting with Hezbollah as a distraction from its main goals: driving Iran and its proxies out of Syria and blocking the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah from Tehran.

As such, the military prefers to see this bout over as quickly and quietly as possible. And if that means letting three Hezbollah members escape, so be it.

In the days since, the Israeli military has also decided not to release its footage of Monday night’s incident, believing that doing so would embarrass Hezbollah, which vehemently denied that such a clash occurred. However, the IDF was considering releasing portions of the video in the coming days if it deemed the move unlikely to add fuel to the fire.

Israel has also conveyed messages to Hezbollah and Lebanon through third parties that the death of the operative in Syria was not intentional and that it does not want an escalation in violence along the border.

IDF soldiers set up a roadblock on a highway near the border with Lebanon on July 23, 2020. (Basel Awidat/FLASH90)

In its bid to avoid confrontation with Hezbollah, the IDF has also scaled back its presence on the border — moving troops deeper into Israeli territory and keeping them away from highways that are vulnerable to attacks.

No such restrictions have been placed on civilians, as the IDF anticipates Hezbollah will carry out an attack on military targets only.

Last September, Hezbollah took advantage of a lapse in discipline by the IDF, when an armored ambulance with five soldiers inside drove along a road near the community of Avivim, as the highway was in clear line of sight of a Lebanese hilltop. A Hezbollah cell fired two anti-tank guided missiles at the vehicle, narrowly missing it. Another missile was fired at an army post, causing limited damage and no injuries.

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