On northern border, IDF and Hezbollah forces patrol meters from each other

‘The rules of the game are very clear,’ an Israeli battalion commander says. ‘But if they break the equation, they are going to get hit’

Israeli soldiers patrols near the area where Hezbollah held a rally to mark al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, at the village of Maroun el-Rass on the Lebanon-Israel border, June 8, 2018. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari, File)
Israeli soldiers patrols near the area where Hezbollah held a rally to mark al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, at the village of Maroun el-Rass on the Lebanon-Israel border, June 8, 2018. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari, File)

ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER (AP) — On a moonlit night, some two dozen Israeli soldiers in full battle gear march near a Lebanese border village with a bomb-sniffing dog, searching for explosives and infiltrators.

Suddenly the force stops. Through night-vision goggles, two suspicious men appear over the ridge, holding what looks like binoculars. Could they be undercover Hezbollah gunmen? Lebanese soldiers on a night patrol? Or perhaps UN peacekeepers?

The men appear unarmed and since they are on the other side of the internationally recognized “blue line” that separates the two countries, Israeli troops move on, completing another routine foot patrol along a scenic frontier that has remained quiet but tense since the bloody battles of a 2006 summer war.

Even with attention currently focused on Gaza and the southern front, Israel’s main security concerns lie to the north, along the border with Lebanon.

Israeli officials have long warned the threat posed by Gaza’s Hamas rulers pales in comparison to that of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group — a heavily-armed mini-army with valuable combat experience and an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets that can reach nearly every part of Israel.

Fighters of the Shiite Hezbollah terror group attend the funeral in the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Hatta of a comrade who died in combat in Syria, March 18, 2017. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

It’s along this northern front that Israeli soldiers come face-to-face with Hezbollah and where any skirmish could spark an all-out war.

“The rules of the game are very clear. They know I’m here and I know they’re there,” said Lt. Col. Aviv, a regional battalion commander. “But if they break that equation, they are going to get hit.”

From his base along the border near the Israeli farming community of Avivim, he can see the hilltop Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras, a UN observer outpost and a new square house inside an agricultural field, assumed to be a Hezbollah lookout.

Under the UN-brokered cease-fire that ended the 2006 war, Hezbollah’s forces are prohibited from approaching the border. But Israeli intelligence says Hezbollah men operate freely, generally unarmed and in civilian clothes. Sometimes they come within just a few meters (feet) of the Israeli troops, it says. Only a coil of barbed wire separates them but there are no interactions.

“They are very disciplined soldiers. They won’t initiate anything,” said Aviv, who can only be identified by his first name under military regulations.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently decided against a full-scale offensive in Gaza, he cited the current “security-sensitive period” in what was widely assumed to be a reference to the northern front.

Israel has generally refrained from engaging in Syria’s civil war, where Hezbollah has fought fiercely alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops, though it has carried out scores of airstrikes against what Israel says were Iranian shipments of advanced weapons bound for Hezbollah.

Israeli soldiers watch a construction worker building a wall along the Israeli border in the coastal town of Naqoura, south Lebanon, February 8, 2018. (AP/Hussein Malla, File)

Until recently, Israel flew its jets through Syrian skies with impunity. But that was severely restricted after a Russian plane was downed in September by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli air strike, a friendly fire incident that stoked Russian anger toward Israel and hastened the delivery of sophisticated S-300 air defense systems to Syria.

With Syria’s civil war winding down, an empowered Hezbollah is now free to re-establish itself back home in Lebanon and refocus on Israel, said Eyal Ben-Reuven, a lawmaker and retired general who commanded Israeli ground troops in the 2006 war. Armed with more exact rockets and munitions, Hezbollah now poses a far more dangerous threat, he said.

“A terror organization, unlike a country, doesn’t stockpile weapons for deterrence but in order to use them one day,” he said. “I suspect they will now try to goad Israel. … The war the Israeli military has to prepare for is the one against Hezbollah.”

Neither side appears interested quite yet in another full-fledged confrontation like the month-long 2006 war. With a lagging economy and a paralyzed government, Lebanon appears unlikely to have the stomach for another war. Though emboldened politically from the Syria war and having surged in power in Lebanese parliamentary elections earlier this year, Hezbollah is going through a financial crunch. It also is recovering after having hundreds of fighters killed or wounded in Syria.

Still, Israel accuses it of ratcheting up tensions.

Lebanese men, whom the IDF says are members of the Hezbollah terrorist group, peer into Israel from an observation post near the border, as seen in images released by the military on October 22, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military says it recently uncovered surveillance outposts along the border, set up under the guise of a tree-planting campaign by an environmental advocacy group, “Green Without Borders.” The group acknowledges its affiliation with Hezbollah but says its work is purely environmental.

Netanyahu also accused Hezbollah of setting up secret rocket launching sites near Beirut’s international airport. The military says Hezbollah is establishing new launching sites among civilians — a trap that could make it difficult for Israel to respond forcefully.

But the military says its major concern is Iranian-backed efforts to convert some of Hezbollah’s unguided rockets into precision munitions that could wreak far more devastation on Israeli targets.

Hezbollah declined to respond to the accusations. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said recently the group is “more confident than ever” and ready for war at any time.

On the ground, the potential for trouble is clear. Israel occupied parts of southern Lebanon before withdrawing in 2000 to the UN-demarcated “blue line.” But Lebanon and Hezbollah have disputed parts of the UN map, and an official border has never been agreed on by the two enemy countries.

Due to the uneven terrain, Israel’s sophisticated northern fence does not run precisely along the border, creating enclaves of Israeli territory that are inside the blue line but beyond the fence.

An Israeli construction vehicle drives by a concrete wall being built along the ‘Blue Line’ separating Israel and Lebanon, as members of the Lebanese Armed Forces watch from a guard tower, near the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra on September 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Israel had previously neglected these areas and its troops were ambushed there in 2006. Now it’s stepping up its presence, fortifying fences and clearing away brush to improve observation.

It’s also sending a signal that violations won’t be tolerated — even on a night patrol, Israeli troops don’t hide their presence.

“I have an interest that they see I’m here,” said Lt. Col. Aviv, a bullet loaded in the chamber of his modified M-16 rifle. “There are no surprises.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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