Will there be war in 2018?

In the past year, Israel’s defense establishment was successful in preventing the outbreak of war, large-scale security escalations, and frequent mass casualty terrorist attacks. In the coming year, the defense establishment will try to reach those same objectives, but it will face greater challenges in its path.

2017 saw a number of tragic deadly terrorist incidents, mostly carried out by unorganized attackers. Despite those sporadic incidents, most of Israel’s civilians, and the national economy, experienced a relatively quiet year, and were able to pursue their routine, daily affairs. This is due to the protective security layer that is highly effective in thwarting attacks – in numbers that are quite astonishing – before they materialize.

According to figures released in December by the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, security forces foiled no fewer than 400 significant planned terrorist attacks in 2017. These include 13 planned suicide bombings, 228 gun attacks, 50 bombings, eight kidnappings, and 94 vehicle and knife attacks. The Shin Bet was able to disrupt 148 Hamas terrorist cells that were operating in the West Bank in 2017 alone. Many of these attacks were planned by local Hamas cells, with the assistance and funding of Hamas’s headquarters in the Gaza Strip, and the newly established Hamas presence in Lebanon, which is under Hezbollah’s protection.

One can only imagine what daily life would look like in Israeli cities, in the absence of the Shin Bet’s cutting edge intelligence protective shield, and the IDF’s nightly security raids in the West Bank.

A volatile 2018

In other arenas, like the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and beyond, Israel’s enemies control territory, and pursue ambitious arms build-up programs. They are deterred by Israel’s unmatched military power, and are bogged down with their own challenges, but continue to prepare for future conflict against Israel. They are stockpiling standoff fire capabilities that were once reserved for the great powers, and are pointing them at the Israeli home front.

For a country in the heart of a Middle East boiling over with conflict, where the proliferation of weapons among radical actors is occurring, and coalitions of heavily armed forces are on the move, a year of relative quiet is far from being a given.

The defense establishment was successful in maintaining stability by pursuing a delicate balancing act, using a combination of selective force, and unrivalled intelligence capabilities, to monitor and deter Israel’s enemies. Israel was able to disrupt their arms build-up programs when necessary. This was done in a calculated way that avoided a deterioration of the security situation.

In the coming year, most of these threats are expected to develop and grow further. Sectors to the north, east, and south of Israel could ignite with greater ease. The explosive potential of the area is set to grow. Even though no side seems to be planning on initiating an armed conflict in the immediate timeframe, unforeseen tactical incidents could trigger one anyway.  The overall state of calm is therefore deceptive.

2018: The year of the Shi’ite axis?

The growth of an Iranian-led Shi’ite axis to Israel’s north and northeast is set to remain as the biggest military challenge to Israel in 2018. Under the cover of Russian air power, the Shi’ite axis is approaching full victory in Syria. The Assad regime and its Shi’ite coalition members on the ground – Iran, Hezbollah, and an assortment of Iranian-sponsored militia groups sent to Syria – are consolidating their power.

The stated intent of the Shi’ite axis is to convert its control of Syria into a new forward base against Israel, and to link the Iranian-run Syria up to Lebanon, which is already under Hezbollah’s firm military and political control.

Iran could try to send more Shi’ite militias into Syria, creating a new army there, and set up missile production factories on Syrian soil. It might also try to create an air force and naval presence in Syria. At this time, Iran is linking its Syrian military assets to its militias in Iraq, where Iranian-backed forces are highly active.

Israel has no intention of allowing this to happen. It has already launched multiple air strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah weapons targets in Syria, according to international media reports. These alleged attacks send a clear message to the Shi’ite axis that its plans to take over Syria are intolerable to Israel.

In the coming year, the the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Hezbollah partners will have to decide how far they are willing to go to test Israel’s red lines in 2018.

Israel’s intelligence community is highly focused on this challenge, and is monitoring the situation with an array of advanced sensors, from those placed on satellites in space, to those on board drones, fighter jets, and an array of advanced intelligence gathering means.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s divisions are returning to their bases from Syria, with the benefit of years of real life combat experience behind them. Hezbollah in 2018 knows how to seize territory, use drones to bomb targets on the ground, gather intelligence, and launch commando raids. Its elite Radwan special forces have gained much combat experience. Hezbollah can adapt these new battlefield skills to a future potential conflict against Israel.

Hezbollah’s surface-to-surface firepower arsenal, meanwhile, surpasses 120,000 rockets and missiles, and is larger than that of most NATO members.

Hamas, for its part, is continuing to domestically produce rockets, mortar shells, and anti-tank missiles in its weapons factories in the Gaza Strip. It is thinking of new ways to infiltrate Israel, as the IDF’s Southern Command eliminates the underground cross-border tunnel threat, using new technology and a deep underground wall.

Like Hezbollah, Hamas does not wish to enter into a new conflict with Israel in the near future, since this would jeopardize its Gaza base. But a mounting humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip could push it to attack Israel anyway, in a bid to prevent a rebellion by angry and poor Gazans, whose needs have been utterly neglected by their Islamist regime. Hamas is first to alleviate pressure by pursuing a unity agreement with the Palestinian Authority, and work with Egypt. Yet these attempts to delay an economic and humanitarian breakdown in Gaza are stalling. If these efforts fail, the risk of an armed conflict with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad will rise.

The IDF is studying these developments closely, and building up its own force, using revolutionary military technology to do so. The coming year will carry with it many opportunities for Israel to grow militarily stronger, and forge low key alliances with moderate Sunni powers facing many of the same threats. But the new year will also bring with it heightened challenges to the goal of shielding Israel’s civilian population from war, at least for another 12 months.

Edited By Benjamin Anthony

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.

About the Author
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs expert. His areas of coverage are focused on Israel’s defense establishment, and the country’s strategic environment. He receives briefings on a regular basis from senior military and intelligence officials. Yaakov is the Israel correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly, and a regular guest on international TV and radio outlets, providing commentary on defense issues. In 2011, Yaakov published his first book, Virtual Caliphate, which explored the online jihadist presence, mindset, and recruitment method. He is in-house analyst for Our Soldiers Speak (www.oursoldiersspeak.org)
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