Worrying days for Israel when Hezbollah is a key source of credible information

Israel has always rightly seen our enemies’ resort to disinformation in times of conflict as a sign of weakness. So why are our military and political leaders now engaging in it?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Footage from Hezbollah's Al-Manar television network showing a September 1, 2019, missile strike against an Israeli military vehicle near the northern border, broadcast on September 2. (Twitter, screen capture)
Footage from Hezbollah's Al-Manar television network showing a September 1, 2019, missile strike against an Israeli military vehicle near the northern border, broadcast on September 2. (Twitter, screen capture)

Overnight Sunday-Monday, amid a profusion of information, misinformation and disinformation over what had and hadn’t happened hours earlier when Hezbollah missiles targeted the IDF at the northern border, I wrote a short piece worrying that the truth of what had occurred was being obfuscated in the fog of near-war, and wondering whether, as some Israeli military reporters had breathlessly told Israelis late on Sunday afternoon, we had really been 30 minutes away from all-out war.

Now, it turns out, we were, rather, meters and milliseconds from all-out war — and we know this courtesy not of the Israeli authorities, but because of Hezbollah’s footage of the attack, belatedly acknowledged by Israel.

To recap: On August 24, the IDF preempted a planned Iranian-Hezbollah armed drone attack on Israel by targeting a site south of Damascus from which the “killer drones” were to have been launched, killing a reported five people including two Hezbollah operatives. Hours later, two drones attacked a Hezbollah facility in Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood — hitting a media HQ, according to Hezbollah; targeting a sensitive, sophisticated instrument crucial to the Iranian-Hezbollah effort to equip Hezbollah with a game-changing arsenal of precision-guided missiles, according to Israeli sources. Israel acknowledged responsibility for the strike in Syria, stayed officially silent about the strike in Beirut, and braced for the promised retaliation by Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah.

That Hezbollah attack came on Sunday afternoon. Israel acknowledged that a military base and IDF vehicles were targeted with guided anti-tank missiles. Initially, Israeli military officials said a clearly marked IDF ambulance had been hit and “penetrated,” though they said later the “ambulance” reference was erroneous, and that the vehicle did not bear medical markings. Footage emerged of two apparently injured soldiers being evacuated by military helicopter to Haifa’s Rambam Hospital. Hezbollah crowed that it had injured and killed Israeli soldiers.

A ‘wounded’ IDF soldier at the helipad of Rambam hospital in Haifa, in a staged evacuation after an APC was struck by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile on the Lebanon border on September 1, 2019. (Screen capture/Twitter)

But then Likud minister Yoav Gallant told Army Radio that no injuries had been sustained. Rambam said the two soldiers had been released without requiring medical treatment. Israeli sources indicated that the footage of their evacuation had been part of a ploy to fool Hezbollah into thinking that its missile strike had “succeeded” and thus desist from further attacks. That evening — after the IDF fired 100 mortar shells into south Lebanon, including at the cell that launched the missiles — Hezbollah indeed refrained from further fire on Israel, and a tense calm was restored to the border. At this point, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a relieved nation that no soldier had been so much as scratched.

It now appears, however, that the military correspondents’ reports late on Sunday afternoon that the principal target of the Hezbollah rocket fire was an empty and/or parked IDF medical vehicle were incorrect, and that the assertion that there had been soldiers inside that same “Wolf” armored personnel carrier until “30 minutes” before it was hit (according to Army Radio, for instance) was also wide of the mark.

Rather, as footage of the missile strike broadcast Monday evening by Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar television shows, the targeted vehicle was most certainly not empty or parked. It was, rather, barreling down a road between Moshav Avivim and Kibbutz Yir’on. And inside, according to a new spate of Israeli military reporters’ stories late Monday night, were five soldiers, who are today extremely lucky to be alive.

Hezbollah is still insisting that its missiles hit, killed and maimed. Its footage indicates that the missiles came mighty close to doing exactly that. The IDF is now specifying that 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. Had Hezbollah’s two missiles been slightly more effective, an Israeli military source told Israel’s Channel 12 news late Monday, Sunday’s flareup would most certainly not have been over. “The fact that Nasrallah missed and didn’t kill any Israelis saved Hezbollah from the destruction of its precision missile program,” said this source. “The planes were already in the air.”

What is emerging, therefore, is that the IDF, and by extension, Israel, was extremely fortunate to have avoided loss of life in Sunday’s Hezbollah attack — loss of life that would have drastically altered what has played out here since Sunday afternoon.

What is further emerging is 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.

There was, inevitably, a lot of confusion in those first minutes and even hours after the Hezbollah missile attack. Even now, the full picture is not completely clear; the IDF itself is now investigating exactly what occurred. Some of the reporting inaccuracies and contradictions were doubtless a consequence of misunderstandings amid the initial chaos. But some, too, was a product of disinformation designed to make the IDF look good — and to make Hezbollah look both bad and lacking in credibility — when the full picture was far more complex.

Israel’s readiness through the decades, by contrast, to acknowledge strategic and tactical failure, to face it head on and thus learn the lessons to avoid it in the future, has been rightly regarded as a key component of our strength

Let’s make this clear: The first obligation of our military and political hierarchies is to protect and safeguard Israel and its citizenry. And this writer does not doubt for a second that this imperative sits front and center for Israel’s army chiefs and government. But a core component of our national resilience is the Israeli people’s confidence that their military and political leaders are, within the limitations of their wider security concerns, telling them the truth.

A speech by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah terror group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah is transmitted on a large screen in the Lebanese capital Beirut’s southern suburbs on September 2, 2019. (AFP)

We have for decades mocked Arab leaders who utterly misled their citizens over the progress of their various wars against Israel, and have rightly regarded the desperate disinformation with which our enemies attempted to cover up their military failures as a sign of weakness. Israel’s readiness through the decades, by contrast, to acknowledge strategic and tactical failure, to face it head-on and thus learn the lessons to avoid it in the future, has been rightly regarded as a key component of our strength.

In that context, it is deeply discomfiting to watch Hezbollah footage of a missile attack on a most emphatically moving, occupied IDF vehicle, a day after Israel’s official hierarchies, through a combination of things said and carefully left unsaid, initially facilitated a narrative designed to suggest a less threatening, less effective attack.

Israelis do not want to get our credible information about what is unfolding near our northern border, or anywhere else for that matter, from Hassan Nasrallah or our other enemies. Again, within the limitations of their wider security concerns, we expect to get it from our leaders.

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