So, Israel and Hezbollah were “30 minutes away from war,” Yakov Bardugo, a presenter on Army Radio, marveled on Sunday evening.
He was speaking, in tones that mixed relief and horror, moments after the station’s military correspondent had reported that the “military ambulance” hit and destroyed by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile that afternoon was empty when it was struck, but that soldiers had been inside it a mere half-hour before.
He was speaking, moreover, amid the fog of conflict, when Hezbollah was claiming to have killed and wounded soldiers, when Israeli news media were showing footage of two “injured” soldiers being evacuated by helicopter to Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, yet when a senior Likud minister, Yoav Gallant, was also saying there had been no casualties, as far as he knew, in the Hezbollah attack.
By later Sunday evening, some of the fog had cleared. The vehicle that was hit, a Wolf armored personnel carrier that can seat up to eight, was not in fact a military ambulance; that description had been erroneous, the IDF clarified.
More dramatically, the “injured, evacuated” soldiers were not injured at all, Israeli military sources acknowledged. The film of them being carried by stretcher to a waiting helicopter, and thence ferried to hospital, was a decoy operation — an instance of “psychological warfare” — designed to fool Hezbollah into thinking that it had, indeed, managed to harm IDF soldiers in its much-anticipated attack on troops at the northern border.
(נדרשתי לצייץ מחדש) תרגיל ההונאה שצהל נקט אחה״צ: המסוק לא פינה פצועים כי לא היו פצועים. הפינוי המוסק כולו תוכנן מראש כפעולת הונאה, שמטרתה לגרום לחיזבאללה לחשוב שהצליח לפגוע בחיילים. שימו לב לרמת ההפקה pic.twitter.com/EYWuUNdt2p
— רועי שרון Roy Sharon (@roysharon11) September 1, 2019
And the staged evacuation appeared to have worked: Hezbollah, which was bent on avenging a preemptive Israeli strike August 24 on a site south of Damascus from which its Iranian masters were about to launch armed “killer drones” at Israel, hailed its ostensible success, Israel hit back with 100 mortar shells at various targets in southern Lebanon, and a tense calm was rapidly restored to the north.
Gallant, it further turned out, had been speaking out of turn when he vouchsafed that the IDF had sustained no casualties; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hurriedly told ministers to keep their mouths shut for a little longer — until, that is, it was clear that this episode was over, and he felt it was safe for him to personally report that no soldiers had been so much as scratched.
So confident was the Israeli military and political leadership that the flareup had indeed flared down that farmers right up against the border were back in their fields by late Sunday evening, and schoolchildren in northern Israel were told that there would be classes as usual on Monday.
Nobody believes Sunday’s incident prefaces prolonged calm, however. Hezbollah could choose to maintain the fiction that it killed and/or maimed IDF soldiers, profess itself satisfied with its missile strikes, and go back to its longer-term, Iranian-financed planning for Israel’s ultimate destruction. Or it could prepare a second reprisal attack, for the drone strike on a core component of its missile manufacturing systems, in Beirut a week ago — a strike attributed to Israel, but one that Israel has not claimed. Or, acknowledging and fuming at the Israeli deception, it could try again to avenge the August 24 Israeli strike in Syria, in which two of its fighters were killed.
From Israel’s point of view, too, further confrontation is inevitable. Iran is trying to deepen its military capabilities in both Syria and Lebanon, and Israel will continue to strike at arms warehouses, military convoys, and other targets in Lebanon, Syria and beyond as it tries to thwart the ayatollahs’ plans.
Of specific relevance to Sunday’s escalation, Israel has also made clear it will do its utmost to thwart the Iranian/Hezbollah effort to enlarge the arsenal of precision guided missiles at Hezbollah’s disposal. The former head of IDF Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, said Sunday that Hezbollah has 50 such precision missiles at present, which Israel’s various rocket defense systems could handle. If there were 500, that would be harder for Israel to grapple with, he added. And 5,000 would be impossible. Thus, suggested Yadlin, the IDF would sooner or later have to launch some kind of major operation to tackle that missile infrastructure.
While it is clear that the next Hezbollah-Israel confrontation is only a matter of time, some aspects of Sunday’s dramatic border conflict remain obscured by that fog of almost-war.
For one thing, how can the military and political echelon so confidently assure Israel’s civilians that the danger has passed even as the IDF remains on wary alert at the border?
For another, why did Israel expose its decoy operation, when it had worked so effectively? Was it because Rambam hospital refused to play along, and issued a statement saying that the two evacuated soldiers were released without requiring medical treatment? Was it also because somebody, somewhere in the military or political hierarchy, decided that it would be unconscionable to maintain the fiction — to tell the Israeli public that two soldiers had been injured when they had not?
Israel’s Kan TV news on Sunday evening rebroadcast a recent interview with the IDF’s spokesman, Ronen Manelis, in which, when asked precisely about the readiness or otherwise of the spokesman’s unit to disseminate misinformation, Manelis promised that “everything that the IDF says in official statements is true” and that he would not issue “fake” news to either the Israeli public or “the other side.” Kan’s military reporter noted, in this context, that the IDF had not officially claimed that two soldiers were injured. Maybe not, but the decoy footage did the talking for it.
האירוע כולו תוכנן מראש כפעולת ל״פ על חיזבאללה, הפעולה הצליחה, חיזבאללה חישב שני פצועים במשוואה. אבל משהו לא עבד כמו בתכנון, והחור בסיפור הפצועים כבר היה בחוץ. וזה ההמשך https://t.co/JRfHf23JGF
— רועי שרון Roy Sharon (@roysharon11) September 1, 2019
And finally, then, were Hezbollah and Israel really 30 minutes from war? Or, to put it another way, were there really IDF soldiers in that APC half an hour before Hezbollah destroyed it?
The Kan reporter, for one, was adamant that “there were soldiers in [that vehicle] until shortly before the [Hezbollah] shooting.” And maybe there were. In which case, thank heavens they got out when they did. Or maybe there weren’t. Days earlier, after all, the IDF was seen to be deploying army vehicles with dummy soldiers inside, apparently to draw Hezbollah fire.
When the fog of war is deliberately made foggier, even for the best of reasons, it gets harder to know who and what to believe.