In threat to Iran, IDF general says another war in the north will be the last

Northern Command head Yoel Strick downplays danger posed by Hezbollah, says Israeli citizens should trust in military to protect them

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

Major General Yoel Strick, Commander of the Northern Command, at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Major General Yoel Strick, Commander of the Northern Command, at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the Israeli military’s Northern Command issued a clear threat to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and its Iranian patron on Monday, saying Israel’s next war with the terrorist group would be its last.

“[Hezbollah] will feel the force of our arm. I hope there won’t be another war, but if there is, it won’t be another Second Lebanon War, but the final northern war,” said Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick at a conference organized by the Hadashot TV news outlet.

Strick was referring to the 2006 conflict with the Shiite militia, which was marred by allegations of unpreparedness and mismanagement by the military and the country’s political leaders.

In his onstage interview, the Northern Command chief stressed that the Israel Defense Forces had dramatically improved in the 12 years since the war, with a more intensive training schedule, better weaponry, and improved intelligence capabilities.

“If [Hezbollah] knew what we know about them, they wouldn’t be speaking so confidently,” Strick said.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a televised speech during a ceremony in Beirut to commemorate Hezbollah leaders who have been killed, February 16, 2018. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

“In Hezbollah, they make statements from bunkers. We are aware of their economic situation and their capabilities,” he said, referring to the group’s leaders’ tactic of hiding underground for fear of Israeli airstrikes.

Hezbollah was formed in the mid-1980s and has grown into the Israeli military’s primary threat in the region, with an arsenal of between 100,000 to 150,000 mortar shells, rockets, and missiles. According to Israeli and Western intelligence officials, Iran has been helping Hezbollah develop precision-guided missiles, with which the group has the capability to stage a more successful attack on Israel.

Strick acknowledged the threat posed by Hezbollah, as the Israeli home front is “not un-hittable,” but said that the IDF would respond to any rockets and missiles fired at Israel with “tons of precision weaponry aimed at Hezbollah.”

“Citizens of the State of Israel can remain calm and put their trust in the security establishment, which knows how to act determinedly, accurately, and even to use the most aggressive force possible,” he said.

The Northern Command chief also mocked Hezbollah’s Iranian sponsors as having more bark than bite, noting that it took three months before Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps retaliated for an Israeli strike against it earlier this year.

“It has to be said straightforwardly — they have a lot less than they planned. We all remember February 10. The Iranians planned to act immediately, but in the end it took them three months,” Strick said.

The remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed in the northern Israeli Jesreel Valley, after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses during attacks against ‘Iranian targets’ in the war-torn country, on February 10, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

On February 10, an Israeli attack helicopter shot down an Iranian drone that penetrated Israeli airspace and, simultaneously, Israeli fighter jets bombed the air base from which the unmanned aerial vehicle was being piloted. In the resulting clash with Syrian air defenses, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down.

Only three months later, in the pre-dawn hours of May 10, some 20 rockets were fired at Israeli military positions along the Syrian border in what Israel says was an attack by the IRGC’s Quds Force. In response, the IDF conducted airstrikes against dozens of Iranian targets in the country.

“[IRGC Commander] Qassem Soleimani understood the gap between threats and capabilities. I’m glad that we are keeping him from those capabilities,” Strick said.

Israel has been waging a largely quiet war with its arch-nemesis Iran in recent years, mostly in Syria, where Tehran is supporting dictator Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war. Israel has accused Iran of attempting to establish a permanent presence in Syria with which to threaten the Jewish state.

Israel has vowed to prevent such entrenchment, and has conducted dozens of airstrikes in Syria in recent years to that end, including, most recently, on Sunday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, left, with Hadashot news’s Dana Weiss at Hadashot’s Influencers Conference in Jerusalem on September 3, 2018. (Hadashot)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday appeared to imply that Israel could hit Iranian targets in Iraq as well, days after the Reuters news agency reported that Tehran was providing ballistic missiles and training to loyalist militias there.

“As for the threat from Iran, we are not limiting ourselves to Syria. That should be clear,” Liberman told the Hadashot conference.

Asked specifically if that included Iraq, the defense minister answered: “I’m saying we will handle any Iranian threat, no matter where it comes from. We are maintaining the right to act… and any threat or anything else that comes up is dealt with.”

Some blamed Israel for an airstrike on an Iraqi Shiite militia near the town of al-Bukamal on the Iraq-Syria border in June.

The Reuters report, citing several unnamed Iranian, Iraqi, and Western officials, stated that several dozen rockets capable of hitting Israel and Tehran’s Sunni rival Saudi Arabia had been deployed with Iran’s Shiite proxies in Iraq.

It added that Iran was working to provide its allies with missile manufacturing facilities, and has been training militia members in operating the new weapons.

A fighter on an armored vehicle belonging to the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah Brigade waves a v-sign as he patrols east of Ramadi, Iraq, on May 27, 2015. (AP/File)

The deployment is meant to improve Iran’s ability to retaliate against any Western or Arab attacks on its territory, as well as expanding its options for attacking opponents in the region, the report said.

Iran denied the report. “The lie disseminated by some media on shipment of Iran-made missiles to Iraq is totally irrelevant and unfounded,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said.

“Such news comes merely to cause panic among countries in the region and is in line with their policy to spread Iranophobia,” he said.

Iran has long used its Shiite proxies and allies in Iraq to hit back at its opponents. According to transcripts of interrogations in 2007 of a top Shiite military and religious figure in Iraq declassified earlier this year, Iran was heavily involved in Iraqi Shiite militias’ attacks on US troops in the years following the American invasion of the country in 2003.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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