IDF spokesman boasts staged ‘rescue’ of troops duped Hezbollah

Ronen Manelis says that for 2 hours, Hezbollah leader was convinced his operation had successfully targeted Israeli soldiers, insists ambiguity policy intact

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A 'wounded' IDF soldier, in a staged evacuation, at the scene of an APC that was struck by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile on the Lebanon border on September 1, 2019. (Screen capture/Twitter)
A 'wounded' IDF soldier, in a staged evacuation, at the scene of an APC that was struck by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile on the Lebanon border on September 1, 2019. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Ronen Manelis said Thursday that the army’s staged evacuation of “wounded soldiers” from an APC that was targeted by two Hezbollah anti-tank missiles earlier this week succeeded in baffling the terror group’s leader. The missiles exploded alongside the moving vehicle, and shrapnel from one of them punctured a tire.

Hezbollah gleefully announced it had killed and wounded soldiers after firing anti-tank missiles into northern Israel on Sunday, but Israel later said no soldiers were injured and media reports indicated that footage of wounded soldiers being rushed to a hospital was part of a ruse.

“Our understanding was that we had to produce a battle fog that would cloud [Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan] Nasrallah’s decision making,” Manelis said during an onstage interview at Channel 12’s Influencer’s Conference in Tel Aviv. “To our understanding, there were two hours when Nasrallah didn’t understand what was happening.”

The IDF spokesman’s remarks appeared to be the first time the army was publicly acknowledging that it had staged the ostensible evacuation of wounded soldiers.

This picture taken on September 1, 2019 from a location near the northern Israeli town of Avivim, close to the border with Lebanon, shows fires and smoke rising after Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah terror movement fired anti-tank missiles into northern Israel. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

Manelis credited the ploy with allowing the flare-up between Israel and Lebanon to conclude without any casualties, giving Hezbollah a chance to save face without actually maiming anybody in its attempt to exact revenge for an Israeli strike in Syria.

“The fact that he was shown a scenario in which there were wounded soldiers, even though there weren’t, allowed for the incident to conclude in the way it did,” Manelis said, describing the gambit as a success.

Israeli Army spokesman, Brigadier General Ronen Manelis, briefs the media about Hezbollah tunnels infiltrating Israel’s territory from Lebanon, in Tel Aviv, on December 4, 2018. ( JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Following the attack, Israel launched some 100 shells into southern Lebanon, but Hezbollah, apparently believing it had already exacted revenge, refrained from any further response. Hezbollah has continued to assert that the APC suffered a direct hit.

Israeli authorities initially indicated that the APC was empty at the time of the attack, but a video released by Hezbollah shortly after the incident and footage from the Israeli side of the border showed the jeep had been on the move and narrowly missed being hit.

Subsequent Israeli reports have indicted that there were five soldiers in the jeep at the time of the attack. A piece of shrapnel from the explosion of one of the projectiles hit a tire, forcing the vehicle to stop on the side of the road.

Spanish UN peacekeepers patrol along the Lebanese-Israeli border, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Some analysts have charged that the initial effort by the Israeli political and military hierarchies — via a mix of statements, leaked footage and unsourced briefings — to depict the incident as not merely a failure by Hezbollah, but one in which the Iranian-proxy terrorist army across the border was outmaneuvered and outsmarted in an episode of psychological warfare, did not accurately represent what had happened.

Manelis dismissed concerns that the public’s trust in the IDF has been diminished by the episode. “The public’s confidence in the IDF is the oxygen that allows the IDF to act,” he said.

He also pushed back on suggestions that a shift from the IDF’s traditional policy of ambiguity regarding its activities against Iran in Syria was due to politically motivated directives from government ministers.

Supporters of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wave Palestinian flags during a rally to mark Jerusalem day or Al-Quds day, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

“What influences the decisions of the commanders, the chiefs of staff and the members of the general staff are intelligence, security considerations and the IDF’s deterrence,” Manelis said.

On August 25, Israeli planes attacked an Iranian cell in Syria that was planning on sending explosives-charged drones into Israel, according to the IDF. The army’s decision to acknowledge the report was seen by some as bragging motivated by upcoming elections.

“Our policy is of ambiguity, except in events where an attack has been thwarted – such as the Saturday night attack in Syria,” Manelis said.

“I think the success of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit in recent months is that we have been able to create a crack in the credibility attributed to Nasrallah in Israel and Lebanon,” he added.

Manelis also claimed that Nasrallah is forced to spend his days in an underground bunker, repeating a talking point used frequently by Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials.

“For the last 13 years, he has not at all been living freely,” the army spokesman said, adding that the Hezbollah leader is contained in the Dahiyeh quarter of Beirut like a “wanted man”

Israeli authorities have recently upped their rhetoric against Hezbollah, threatening to launch attacks on Lebanon to thwart Hezbollah’s precision missile program.

Soldiers in the north have reportedly remained on high alert even after the missile attack on the APC, amid fears that Hezbollah will still attempt an attack to avenge a reported Israeli drone strike in the heart of Beirut.

According to reports, the exploding drone which landed in Beirut on August 26 damaged an industrial machine used for manufacturing precision missiles.

According to an Israeli TV report, Patriot anti-missile batteries have been deployed near the northern border to thwart any new attacks by armed drones.

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