Tel Aviv — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the last few months focusing the world’s attention on the threat of the Iran nuclear program, but in recent days many Israeli analysts and officials have suggested that Israel’s most immediate threat actually comes from Iran’s proxy in Lebanon: Hezbollah.
The possibility of a serious flare-up between the Shiite militants and Israel was once again at the center of discussion this week as tensions flared along Israel’s northern border for the second time since the beginning of 2015.
Arab reports of Israeli attacks in Syria against targets with so-called “game-changing” weapons — potentially destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon — spurred an attempted retaliation along the Golan border by operatives in Syria that most Israelis consider linked in some way to the Shiite militants. Israel responded by calling in an air attack on the border that killed four Syrians who were attempting to plant an explosive device near the border fence outside the Druze village of Majdal Shams.
In January, Israel was accused of launching a one-of-a-kind strike on a Hezbollah convoy in the Syrian Golan Heights that killed an Iranian general and the son of Hezbollah’s former military chief. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon repeated this week what Israeli officials said after reports of the January attack emerged: “We won’t allow Iran and Hezbollah to establish a terrorist infrastructure with Syria.”
Quiet for more than 30 years despite the lack of peace, the Golan has become, over the last four years, the site of battles between Syrian regime forces and rebels in the civil war — hostilities that occasionally have spilled over the Israeli border. But analysts say a strategic shift has taken place in recent months as Hezbollah, which has focused mainly on propping up the Assad regime in the ongoing civil war, has started targeting Israel from across the Golan.
The move has expanded the Hezbollah-Israel standoff from Lebanon — where there’s been nine years of stability and quiet —into new uncertain territory where the so-called ground rules are much more murky.
Israel’s United Nations ambassador, Ron Prosor, complained in a letter to the Security Council Tuesday about the “growing threat” to Israel from terrorists using Syrian territory as launching pads. He said Hezbollah is “openly operating in the Golan Heights and preparing for a violent confrontation with Israel.”
“The international community can no longer ignore the warning signs,” he added. “The threat to our region is very real.”
“The stakes are much higher,” said Daniel Nisman, head of Levantine Group, a Tel Aviv-based defense analyst who focuses on the Middle East. “You have a Hezbollah that is seemingly emboldened to directly retaliate against Israel.”
Indeed, earlier this month, a Foreign Ministry policy paper authored by Director Gen. Nissim Ben Shitrit described the need to formulate a stance toward Hezbollah and the rising threat on the northern border as the “most severe problem” facing Israel. “The military experience that Hezbollah is getting in Syria and the amount and quality of ammunition that is being smuggled from there into Lebanon makes dealing with the organization the most pressing and critical problem for Israel,” the paper said.
Though the paper seems like a divergence from the prime minister’s talking points, Haaretz military commentator Amos Harel said that the nuclear talks with Iran has rendered the probability of a military confrontation between Israel and Tehran unlikely. That makes Hezbollah the most pressing problem.
“In recent years there’s been a rise in
the boldness of Hezbollah regarding Israel and its desire to show that Hezbollah is not paralyzed by fear in the face of [Israel’s] military strength,” Harel wrote.
Though attacks in Syria attributed to Israel in recent years have usually passed without a significant response by the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s new Golan operations are seen by Israeli analysts as an effort to rewrite the rules of engagement across the Israel-Syria frontier. Every time Israel is fingered by reports as going on the offensive in Syria, Hezbollah is expected to try and mete out revenge along the Golan Heights.
At stake is the rising potential for an all-out escalation in which Hezbollah might unleash some of the tens of thousands of rockets in an arsenal capable of covering all of Israel, hitting close to targets, and raining thousands of missiles a day. Such a conflict would be exponentially worse in terms of damage and casualties than Israel’s battle against Hamas in 2006.
Nisman said Israel may be betting that Hezbollah still doesn’t want an all-out war at a time when its units are propping up Assad in Syria and fighting ISIS in northern Lebanon. If that bet is wrong, the analyst noted, the timing for a flare-up with Hezbollah would still favor Israel.
“Israel’s willingness to go ahead with these strikes — even though it knows that it has a real risk of escalation — begs the question of whether Israel wants to take the initiative against Hezbollah while it is involved in Syria,” Nisman said. “In my opinion, Israel believes a new conflict might be inevitable with Hezbollah, and some may think that now is preferable to when the conflict in Syria is over and Hezbollah is stronger.”
In the hours after the attempt to place the explosive and the Israeli air attack, Arab news networks reported that Israel carried out a fresh attack on weapons targets in Syria. The Israeli media, however, reported that a defense official — who was presumably worried about a further escalation —- broke Israel’s usual silence to issue a rare denial of responsibility.
The border fighting was audible from the Golan village of Majdal Shams, where residents reported hearing three explosions overnight on Sunday. There have been at least two other border incidents near the village in the last year, said Salman Fakhir Aldeen, a resident and a human rights activist.
“Israel and Hezbollah are sending text messages to one another at the border,” he said ironically. “It’s a bloody dialogue.”
Some prominent Israeli national security experts are worried that officials here might be misreading the intent of those signals coming from Hezbollah. In a recent opinion article in Haaretz, former Defense Minister Moshe Arens wrote that even though Israel has relied on the deterrence established during the 2006 war with Hezbollah and threats to obliterate Lebanese villages in case of an all-out war with the Shiite group in the future, there is a substantial threat that Hezbollah may one day resort to its missiles.
“Despite the efforts that were made over the years to interfere with the supply of weapons to Hezbollah from Iran and Syria, the Shiite group’s capabilities to cause severe damage to civilian population and infrastructure has continued to grow,” Arens wrote. “It should be clear the hope that Israel will be able to deter Hezbollah from utilizing this capability cannot be considered an adequate strategy for Israel.”
Some believe that Israel’s deterrence against Hezbollah is already eroding and in need of bolstering. Kobi Marom, a former colonel who served in southern Lebanon and now lives in the Golan Heights resort of Neve Ativ, said that Israel erred by not retaliating after Hezbollah killed two IDF soldiers in a tit-for-tat attack in January.
He said that Hezbollah is trying to establish new “rules of the game” for hostilities along the Golan border in which it is acceptable for the Shiite group to retaliate for attacks linked with Israel. Marom, currently a research fellow at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Institute, said that Israel should take advantage of Hezbollah’s relative weakness to reestablish that deterrence.
Despite the concern about an emboldened Hezbollah and the possibility of the Syrian war coming close to Israel, he said, life in the Golan continues as normal.
“I just came from the border, and it’s really quiet,” he said. “We continue our life here in the northern Golan Heights. Our kids went to school this morning, and everything is working as normal.”
The question is, whether time is running out on that sense of normalcy.