With bloodless battle, Israel and Hezbollah can avoid war, but only for now

With bloodless battle, Israel and Hezbollah can avoid war, but only for now

Terror group could view missile strike as sufficient revenge and end current tensions, but its efforts to acquire precision munitions make another bout just a matter of time

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli soldiers stand near artillery units deployed near the Lebanese border outside the northern city of Kiryat Shmona on September 1, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers stand near artillery units deployed near the Lebanese border outside the northern city of Kiryat Shmona on September 1, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

After a week of threats, the Hezbollah terror group came through on its vows of revenge, firing several anti-tank guided missiles Sunday afternoon at an Israeli military position along the Lebanese border, hitting an armored jeep.

The Israeli military responded with artillery shelling and airstrikes on Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon. There, as in Israel, no casualties were reported.

With this attack, Hezbollah can claim a victory over the Jewish state, having effectively bypassed Israeli defenses and struck an IDF base and an armored vehicle from across the border.

The media-savvy terror group can even hint through its affiliated news outlets that Israel is covering up casualties and losses — helped in part by an Israeli psychological warfare operation — thus making its bombardment seem more successful.

According to military sources, the vehicle that was hit in the strike had minutes earlier been full of soldiers.

Whether the timing of Hezbollah’s attack was a case of dumb luck for both sides, or if the terror group deliberately avoided causing large numbers of Israeli losses to avoid such a conflict, was not immediately known.

But had the attack caused many casualties, it would have demanded a forceful response by Israel and likely another retaliation by Hezbollah until all-out war broke out.

Instead, this bloodless exchange, which lasted just a few hours, could bring to a close the current period of heightened tensions and mark a return to the quieter, though no less violent, status quo in which Hezbollah seeks to acquire precision-guided missiles and other advanced weaponry and Israel’s security services fight to prevent this from happening.

An IDF attack helicopter is seen in the skies above the border between Israel and Lebanon on September 1, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Following the brutal 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has largely stuck to a tit-for-tat dynamic with Israel, retaliating to a specific, pinpoint strike with a pinpoint strike.

In 2016, after Hezbollah arch-terrorist Samir Kuntar was assassinated in a strike attributed to Israel, the terror group detonated an explosive device next to heavy military engineering vehicles. The IDF said the attack caused no injuries and minimal damage, but Hezbollah claimed that it destroyed an Israeli Humvee and injured those inside.

And in 2015, after several senior Hezbollah officials and an Iranian general were killed in an airstrike attributed to Israel, the terror group conducted an attack similar to Sunday’s, firing several anti-tank guided missiles at IDF jeeps, killing two soldiers and injuring seven others.

Israeli military vehicles are seen burning following a Hezbollah missile strike across the border on January 28, 2015. Two IDF soldiers were killed in the attack. (AFP/MARUF KHATIB)

But as of Sunday night, it was not clear if the afternoon’s attack will suffice in Hezbollah’s search for revenge, or if another border exchange is in the offing.

The current tensions can be traced back to two main events: an airstrike by the IDF last Saturday night against an Iranian-controlled base in Syria from which Iranian operatives, including two Hezbollah members, planned to bomb targets in northern Israel with armed drones; and a drone attack in Beirut last Sunday morning that has been attributed to Israel that reportedly targeted key components of a joint Hezbollah-Iranian project to manufacture precision-guided missiles in Lebanon.

Throughout the past week, both incidents — the airstrike and drone attack — have been cited by Hezbollah officials as unacceptable forms of Israeli aggression, demanding retaliation.

However, in its official statement on Sunday’s missile barrage, the terror group referred only to the two Hezbollah “martyrs” killed in Israel’s airstrike in Syria, leaving open the possibility that a reprisal attack for the Beirut drone blast was yet to come.

Indeed on Sunday evening, the Israeli military said that while it considers the “tactical event” with Hezbollah to be over, the larger strategic threat posed by the terror group remains firmly in place.

Confusing confusion

As a form of psychological warfare, following the attack, the Israeli military flew soldiers made up to look as though they were seriously injured to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center.

The ruse appeared to be successful, with news outlets affiliated with the terror group and others in the Arab world publishing photographs of the “injured soldiers.”

But in a confusing, apparently self-defeating move, within hours, the IDF confirmed that this was a pre-planned exercise in deception.

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)

It is not clear why the military so quickly gave up the jig.

Was there an assessment that Hezbollah would only conduct one reprisal attack if it believed it to be successful? Did a senior politician — Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Gallant — prematurely out the trick by telling a news outlet there were no casualties in the strike? Or was this one minor aspect of some larger psychological warfare stratagem?

The IDF isn’t saying.

The precision missile threat

While this current period of heightened tensions may come to an end with Sunday’s attack, the underlying issues have not been resolved, most importantly Hezbollah’s efforts to acquire precision-guided missiles.

According to the IDF, since 2013 the terror group’s patron Iran has been working to provide these advanced munitions to Hezbollah.

A graphic by the Israeli military providing a general explanation of the production methods used in a joint Iranian-Hezbollah program to provide the Lebanese terror group with precision-guided missiles, which was released on August 29, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Tehran first tried transporting these missiles into Lebanon through Syria, under the cover of the Syrian civil war, but regular airstrikes attributed to Israel effectively blocked this route.

Beginning in 2016, Hezbollah and Iran changed tack and sought instead to produce these missiles inside Lebanon, by both converting the terror group’s current stock of simple rockets into precision-guided munitions and by establishing factories to produce the missiles from scratch.

Israel has vowed to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring these advanced missiles, seeing them as far more dangerous than simple rockets, which already pose a significant threat to the country.

Hezbollah’s existing arsenal of over 100,000 projectiles is largely made up of what are known as “statistic” weapons, so-called because they rely on probability to hit their target, rather than accuracy. These simple rockets can only be aimed in a general direction and fired en masse so that a handful can actually strike the target.

By using kits to convert these rockets into precision-guided missiles, Hezbollah would be able to overwhelm Israel’s missile defense batteries by firing large numbers of projectiles directly at individual targets.

Amos Yadlin speaks during a speaking event organized by IsraPresse for the French-speaking community at the Begin Heritage Institute, Jerusalem, February 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Currently, the terror group is believed to have several dozen of these missiles, an amount that can be reasonably blocked by Israel’s multi-tiered air defense array.

“They have 50 precision missiles. Five hundred would be harder. Five thousand would be impossible,” said Amos Yadlin, the former commander of Military Intelligence and current head of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, in an interview on Army Radio Sunday.

Yadlin compared Hezbollah’s efforts to produce these precision-guided missiles to Iran’s desire to acquire a nuclear weapon. In both cases, Israel has demonstrated that it will take military action in order to prevent such a situation.

The former intelligence chief said he believes that sooner or later the IDF will have to stage a major operation to prevent Hezbollah from improving its missiles.
According to foreign reports, Israel has stepped up its airstrikes against Iranian efforts to provide Hezbollah with the technology necessary to manufacture these munitions.

Explosions at an arms depot of a Shiite militia group in Iraq, August 20, 2019. (video screenshot)

While attacks attributed to Israel have taken place in Syria for years, in recent months these types of airstrikes have also been reported in Iraq.

Last week, in a bid to force the Lebanese government and international community to take action against this joint Hezbollah-Iranian project, the IDF declassified intelligence about the Iranian and Hezbollah officials running it.

Hezbollah and Iran, however, have in no way indicated that they plan to abandon the venture, meaning that while this round of violence may have come to an end, the next one is only a matter of time.

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