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Carrie Hart
News Analyst

NEW INTERESTS, NEW STRATEGIES: Israel’s northern border

Section of Israeli northern border security wall with Lebanon. In the town of Shtula. Wall painted by Artists4Israel.  Photo by Carrie Hart, May 2023.
Section of Israel's northern border security wall with Lebanon. Wall painted by Artists4Israel. Photo by Carrie Hart, May 2023.

While Israel continues its military campaign in Gaza, eliminating the stronghold of Hamas in that territory, which is seen as a vital national security interest for Israel and other nations, eyes are turning more and more to what is happening on Israel’s northern border. What is Iran’s strategy, in entrenching its proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, to try and defeat Israel? This is Iran’s greatest goal as it pursues hegemony in the Middle East.

How will Iran advance its aim of targeting Israel, while projecting its power and aggression in other parts of the region, as it continues to pursue an expansive war against the Jewish State?

As Israel is able to evaluate the wins in Gaza, in defeating Hamas, there are serious issues in how it will resolve problems that are affecting Israel’s home front in the northern part of the country.

During the recent ceasefire in Gaza, there was a pause on Israel’s northern border, as well. According to Lt. Co. (res.) Sarit Zehavi, Founder and President of ALMA Research and Education Center, “We had a week of artificial normality. When the week ended, everything ended, and went back to reality.”

That reality has consisted of an average of 10 Hezbollah attacks every day on the Lebanese border, with munitions, UAVs, and rockets – just as it had been before the ceasefire. Sixty days into the war, there are still 60,000 Israeli residents who have been evacuated from the north, and have not be able to return to their homes. It is difficult to bring them back now when they would be under a constant threat from Hezbollah, which is the strategy of the terrorist militia. The goal of Hezbollah is that the situation in the north will not return to normal.

The same mission that Hamas received in the south (to invade Israel), was, reportedly, given to the Hezbollah Radwan brigades in Lebanon. Hezbollah is already capable of launching hundreds of thousands of rockets into all of Israeli territory from Lebanon. It is ready to fight IDF troops that cross the border into Lebanon. With direction from Iran, Hezbollah could attempt to try and execute a similar plan to that of Hamas — grabbing Israeli civilians as hostages.

There were a series of meetings that took place between the Iranian foreign minister and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah. Nasrallah also met with the Islamic Jihad terrorist group. Nasrallah has been a key player that has connected with forces that want to destroy Israel.

Where Hamas has been decimated by Israel, so that it can no longer function as a governing force in Gaza, this is not the same in Lebanon. There is a war of attrition in the north. It has not turned into a full-scale war, but a key goal of Hezbollah is that the situation will remain unstable and unpredictable for the Israeli home front.

According to Zehavi, when she talks about Hezbollah, “If you understand interests, you understand strategies. It is not defending the Palestinian cause… It is to build its image as the protector of Lebanon and to take over Lebanon.”

Zehavi explains that Hezbollah doesn’t want to be connected to Hamas interests. Hezbollah has been fully prepared for war, and its military operatives have been ready for an invasion of Israeli territory. Their officers are in military positions, and Hezbollah has destroyed Israeli communications systems on the border.

In fact, a UN report, describing the situation from February-June 2023, recorded 600 border crossings from Lebanon into Israel.  Zehavi says, they were “touching the fence and going back; crossing and going back. The aim was to test the IDF response.”  Hezbollah was also getting the help of civilians on the Lebanese side of the border to determine where the best places were to invade. The Radwan brigades are still preparing for an invasion.

For Nasrallah, it’s a win-win situation, Zehavi points out. If it is not going to deteriorate into a war on the border (and Hezbollah will not start it), then Nasrallah has already created a situation where many Israelis cannot return to border towns; not even to the upper Galilee region, which is empty of residents who have been evacuated.  “This is unheard of,” Zehavi states, adding that Nasrallah has forced Israel into creating a security belt inside the Jewish State. Israelis do not feel safe in these parts of the country. Zehavi emphasizes that this is an area that is part of the state of Israel. “We should be capable of living anywhere in Israel in security.”

She reminds others that this is not disputed territory, nor is it being considered as part of a two-state solution. “The whole world should understand that if we give up on this, we are giving up on the state of Israel.”

Hezbollah is also watching the fighting in Gaza, to see how strong the Israeli response is, as well as that of the Americans, the Arab countries, and European nations, including how quickly the west is mobilized for war. However, Zehavi warns that the next phase involving Israel’s northern border is unclear, especially the timeline.

“All in all, Iran has the vision of a multi-front campaign against the state of Israel,” Zehavi claims. This includes militias attacking not only Israeli forces, but American forces, as well; and ships in the region — like the Houthi’s have been doing from Yemen.  This, along with Hezbollah’s plans to attack the Israeli home front, from Lebanon and from Syria.

Whereas before, Israel’s military assessments were that IDF strategy should be to release security alerts and focus on deterrence, to prevent a conflict like the Yom Kippur war, this is now coming under scrutiny.  Israel no longer wants to manage and contain conflicts. The nation’s military officials see the need to eliminate the enemy, and that includes not only Hamas but Hezbollah.

Zehavi claims, “The biggest lesson Israelis learned is that this security strategy cannot last forever. Intelligence fails. Deterrence doesn’t work.”  Zehavi sees that this kind of enemy does not value human life, as Israel does.

Furthermore, will Israel allow itself to be restricted from engaging in a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah, since this is reportedly America’s demand? Or, should Israel strike to have that advantage over its enemies, regardless of what western leaders demand?

Questions also remain about how effective western pressure will be on Israel’s ability to eliminate the enemy; and, will Israel find friends in the west that understand what Israel must do to survive?  “We are not going to get the support of the international community,” Zehavi says.

The victory for Hezbollah, already, is that some Israeli soldiers have been killed in the north, and there is no way that residents can now feel safe to return to border communities.

“Each scenario or solution that we are looking at has a price,” Zehavi explains. She disagrees with the latest demands that Israel is presenting to the United Nations, that includes the implementation of UN Resolution 1701, which was supposed to be implemented after the Second Lebanon War of 2006. “Why go back to something that never worked?”

There were 10,000 UN soldiers that were expected to stop Hezbollah from advancing to the demilitarized zone on Israel’s border. It wasn’t enforced. According to Zehavi, “Lebanon allowed Hezbollah to deploy to threaten Israeli lives.”

Now, Hezbollah is more entrenched in Lebanon than it was in 2006, and there is less stability. Hezbollah is a member of the Lebanese government and can block political decisions made. Zehavi analyzes the situation: “We understand Hezbollah became much stronger. Lebanon became much weaker.”

The Israeli government has indicated that if Lebanon does not push Hezbollah back to the Litani River, and allow a buffer zone on the border, Israel will advance to the next level of the conflict in the north. But, the idea of a full-scale war is not something Israelis are ready to grapple with now. There is a realization that such a war with Hezbollah would involve 10 times more rockets than the Hamas barrage.  It means a greater amount of more accurate missiles hitting Tel Aviv.  Zehavi says, “The damage in Israel will be huge, and in Lebanon.”

As in the case of Gaza, there are hidden rockets seen on IDF video in bedrooms, schools, public buildings, and hospitals. Zehavi determines, “What kind of legitimacy are we going to have while Lebanon is precious to the international community?”

Other options being considered by the Israeli government are: creating a kill zone, and stationing soldiers inside Lebanon. “We don’t want to be inside Lebanon. We don’t want our soldiers killed there,” says Zehavi.

While she thinks that decisions will eventually be made, or that circumstances will bring answers, “each of these situations comes with a price. We are already in a problematic situation here.”

One thing that is clear, Israelis have become united in this war, and they agree that they are fighting for their lives and their homes, from the south to the north. “We cannot let terror organizations survive. All of us agree on that. We just need to figure it out,” Zehavi explains.

Bringing Israelis back to their homes is one of the key problems that needs to be figured out. But, even then, Zehavi worries that Hezbollah will invade when Israeli reserve soldiers are no longer active in their service to the IDF on the Lebanese border. She is also concerned about the eventual lack of a U.S. presence of aircraft carriers in the region. She, like many other Israelis, does not believe the situation will go back to what it was before October 7, 2023… not for the south and not for the north.

 

Lt. Col. (res.) Sarit Zehavi, Founder and President of ALMA. At the northern security wall in May 2023. Photo by Carrie Hart.

About the Author
Carrie Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, military and social issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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