Zarit, Israel — The winding mountain roads leading to the eastern sector of Israel’s border with Lebanon were crawling with army forces on Monday: teams of soldiers in combat gear camped out at the entrance to villages as convoys of vehicles plied the highways.
Though the area remained peaceful, the regional training exercise of the Israel Defense Forces 91st Division was a sign of the nagging unease. The soldiers from the unit are charged with security along the border with Lebanon and were likely simulating a response to a Hezbollah infiltration into a northern Israeli town, according to a local security expert. Smaller scale exercises are held on a frequent basis.
“It’s always tense here,” said Koby Cohen, the deputy security chief of Moshav Zarit, a border agricultural cooperative with fields in the shadow of southern Lebanon buildings just a few hundred yards away across the Israeli border fence.
Ironically, after years of intermittent Katyusha rocket salvos and the 2006 war with Hezbollah, the Lebanon border has become one of Israel’s calmer frontiers (while formerly calm borders like the Golan Heights have become destabilized), thanks to the mutual deterrence agreement established in the wake of the war. That calm was strengthened when Hezbollah became embroiled in the Syrian war, making it more difficult for the Iranian-backed militant group to handle a second front with Israel.
But the constant drills of the army along the border reflect an assessment that the calm is nonetheless fragile, and that the military must be ready for an unexpected collapse of stability or a miscalculation by one of the sides that triggers an escalation. Indeed, the Israeli military has taken note of the combat experience that Hezbollah fighters have gained fighting in Syria (albeit at a high cost in dead soldiers).
“Intelligence is working day and night regarding Hezbollah,” said Mordechai Kedar, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and a reserve intelligence officer with the IDF’s northern command. “Nobody goes to sleep thinking that they are our friends.”
The tension along Israel’s northern border escalated a notch last week amid accusations by the Syrian government and footage of a daytime air strike on one of Damascus’ airports. Israel’s government remained mum even though some officials made general statements interpreted as indirect acknowledgement that Israel had made good on a promise to block the movement of strategic weapons from Syria into Lebanon to Hezbollah. The attack spurred questions in Israel about whether the strike — believed to be the latest Israeli offensive — might push Syrian President Assad into a serious military response.
Might Hezbollah respond to an attack on its Syrian ally by striking across the Lebanon-Israel border? Israel has already blamed Hezbollah for launching a strike from Syria at Israeli forces in the Golan. Kedar believes that Hezbollah doesn’t need an excuse to strike Israel, and could even inflict damage on northern communities with rockets while still embroiled in Syria. But that involvement in Syria leaves Lebanon and Hezbollah’s bases there more exposed to an Israeli ground offensive. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s allies in Iran want to save their firepower to deter an Israeli attack on Iran. Taken together, Kedar says the risk of a major flare-up with Hezbollah in the coming year is low.
“As long as we don’t have any problems with Iran, I don’t see Hezbollah attacking Israel because they have nothing to gain from it,” Kedar said. “They only will attack if they assess that Israel will not retaliate. But they’ve miscalculated in the past, like in 2006.”
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli army, said that while Hezbollah has a vast missile arsenal and improved on the battlefield, they are constrained by their commitments in Syria and the Lebanese the Lebanese polity which doesn’t want a war with Israel. Still, he said. “our forces need to be ready.”
Lately, however, that tension ticked up a notch at Zarit and other border farming cooperatives; residents there believe that Hezbollah is trying to tunnel under the border to carry out attacks, the way Hamas did in the recent Gaza war. Locals claim to have spotted a Lebanese operative emerging from a tunnel opening behind the Zarit mushroom factory to do surveillance, said Cohen, the deputy security officer. The army, however, has largely ignored the claims, Cohen said.
At Zarit, residents say that for the last year they have been hearing the sound of knocking, gravel being moved and drilling from heavy machinery.
Ohad Adoni, a Zarit resident, said he heard knocking noises twice — once at noon and the other time at 3 a.m. “It’s like small knocks on the wall,” he said.
The anxiety is understandable: In the middle of the war in Gaza, residents of farming cooperatives of Shetula and Avivim, which are just a few hundred yards from the border fence, complained of similar noises in interviews with Channel 10 television. Kibbutzniks who live at the border with Gaza also complained about such noises in the months before the war.
The notion that Hezbollah and Hamas would use the same tunneling tactic against Israel is a reasonable assumption, said Atai Shelach, the former head of the IDF warfare department and the former head of the army’s elite combat engineering unit charged with dismantling tunnels.
“No one would be surprised that someday Hezbollah will emerge from the ground near northern border settlements,” he said while noting that he had seen no proof to that effect. “The terrain is different, but Hezbollah already proved to us in 2006 that they have the ability and technology to dig in the north.”
Standing in front of an Israeli vineyard that abuts the border fence, Cohen points out new buildings erected on the Lebanese side of the border that bear down on Zarit. Hezbollah flags that once fluttered along the border are noticeably absent, but a lone Palestinian flag hangs from a pole. A white watchtower, jeeps and an outpost of UNIFIL, the United Nations observer force for southern Lebanon, are distant, but clearly visible on the border horizon. UNIFIL observers monitor the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, the 2006 cease-fire declaration that forbids Hezbollah from rearming in southern Lebanon.
Speaking to reporters on the Israeli side of the border crossing at Rosh Hanikra, UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said the 10,000-man force hasn’t found any evidence of a Hezbollah military buildup in southern Lebanon, as the Israeli army has claimed over the years. The same goes for tunneling, the spokesperson said. Even the Israeli army hasn’t brought up complaints of cross-border tunnels in meetings with counterparts from the Lebanese army. He said “there’s no appetite” among residents in southern Lebanon — including local Shiite leaders who identify with Hezbollah — to destabilize the border.
Back at Zarit, it’s unlikely that the UN spokesman’s words of reassurance would do much to calm nerves. Though the Israeli army generally has its “finger on the pulse” regarding Hezbollah’s activities on the border, Cohen, the moshav’s deputy security chief, believes that the Israeli army has refrained from acknowledging their concerns because they want to keep residents along the border calm.
“We want them to just start digging,” he said. “The situation is like a ticking bomb. It’s going to go off eventually.”