From a military standpoint, the Har Dov sector
is a paradox: a mostly quiet sector, but one from which you can
literally see the enemy -- a dangerous enemy representing a highly
Since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon 17
years ago, the Har Dov sector has become the unofficial "playground"
where Israel and Hezbollah face off. The relative small number of
civilians on both sides of the border and the multiple military outposts
throughout the area has made it a sphere where action and reaction are
ostensibly legitimate, reasonable and containable; where the parties can
exact prices from each other without risking an undesirable security
This unusual situation, where a constant
threat is brewing close to the surface but only rarely erupts has made
Har Dov a relic of a different time -- the only place reminiscent of
southern Lebanon not only topographically, but also in terms of military
strategy. Physically separated from the homefront, this sector is
different on a practical level as well: There is almost no cell
reception up there and unlike other sectors, where soldiers get off duty
and plunge into the internet, social media and their family's WhatsApp
messaging groups, here there is a real combat deployment.
The Givati Brigade's 435th Rotem Battalion is
currently deployed in the sector. Givati has a long history with Har Dov
and it has lost three battalion commanders and dozens of soldiers to it
over the years. But the soldiers have their own logic, and being as cut
off as they are is not very popular. Most believe Har Dov is too
boring; that they don't see enough action. There is no shortage of
commentaries on the change in our times or how this generation of
soldiers is different from its predecessors, but the fact is that the
average fighter prefers to be deployed in Judea and Samaria, where the
terrorists are, and if not in Judea and Samaria then in the Gaza Strip.
The northern border lacks the necessary interest, and it has the
roughest deployment conditions, as soldiers are routinely on base for
17-day stretches, broken only by brief four-day leaves.
There is no doubt that this is the biggest
challenge the military faces in this sector: maintaining vigilance as
well as high motivation among the troops. The 435th Battalion is
deployed across a section spanning from the Sion River to Gladiola
outpost -- the highest outpost on the mountain, while simultaneously
being deployed across Haemek sector through to Metula, a town that lies
in the northernmost point of Israel. Other Givati troops are deployed
along the Israel-Lebanon border, as well as in the southern Golan
Heights and in Nablus.
"Har Dov is different from any other place,"
Lt. Col. Tal Ashur, commander of the 435th Battalion, says. "The threat
here is more significant and if anything were to happen here, it would
probably be far more complicated."
The threat lurking on Har Dov is tangible. The
2017 version of Hezbollah is brazen and as the Shiite terrorist group
no longer hides or operates under civilian auspices. Hezbollah makes
sure to maintain high visibility, so that everyone is clear on who the
landlord is on the Lebanese side of the border. Dozens of Hezbollah
outposts are deployed along the border, and its operatives routinely
patrol the Lebanese side of the fence, overtly demonstrating their
presence as well as constantly gathering intelligence. On Mount Dov
itself, where there is no fence, intelligence gathering is also carried
out by shepherds and farmers, who are often paid by Hezbollah to
facilitate terrorist attacks.
"The majority of what we do involves security
-- detecting, thwarting and preventing border infiltrations or the
placement of explosives," Ashur explains. "Nothing here as is innocent
as it seems and the challenge is to remain vigilant and sharp even when
everything around seems quiet and pastoral and harmless, and understand
that the situation can change at any second."
The best way to maintain vigilance, he says,
is mainly though military drills. The troops stationed on Har Dov spend a
considerable amount of time outside the outpost in initiated
operational activity. This offers a triple gain: training, breaking the
routine and the constant deception of the enemy.
The main threat in the sector is that of
border infiltration, mainly for intelligence gathering purposes and --
in a more severe scenario -- for the purpose of anti-tank, mortar and
sniper fire; and there is also the constant threat of abduction attacks.
Hezbollah has previously targeted the Gladiola
outpost, claiming it had "seized control" of it and even showing its
flag allegedly flying over it on its TV station. In reality, the flag
was planted on a nearby hill and filmed from an angle that made it look
like it was flying over the outpost. But the message -- echoing a past
statement by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that the organization's
purpose was to "conquer the Galilee" -- was clear: The Shiite terrorist
group is looking to inflict more than physical harm, it wants to mark a
resounding psychological achievement.
Ready, but not exactly willing
This is a relatively good period for
Hezbollah. It is physically strong and its recent achievements in the
Syrian civil war have afforded it significant gains in the public's eye.
Politically, Hezbollah is at one of its peak times in Lebanon:
President Michel Aoun is a staunch Hezbollah ally and in his efforts to
legitimize the group, he recently told Egyptian media that "the
resistance is part of us."
The underlying message of these synonymous
interests is clear: Hezbollah is the sovereign on the ground and
Nasrallah is the landlord. It was not for nothing that his deputy, Nabil
Qaouk, recently said that these were the organization's "glory days."
Even Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun is considered a
Hezbollah sympathizer and regularly coordinates his troops' moves with
the group -- some even say he runs his operations by Hezbollah for
Hezbollah's confidence was best expressed
recently by Nasrallah's mouthpiece, the Al-Akhbar daily, whose
editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al-Amin, wrote that "if the Israelis make a
mistake, they will be made to pay."
Still, none of this suggests Hezbollah is
looking for a fresh round of hostilities with Israel at this point in
time. If anything, the opposite is true: The organization is preoccupied
with the Syrian civil war, in which it has already sustained 1,800
fatalities and thousands of casualties, and it is not ready to fight on
another front, especially when it is not fully vested in it --
especially given the strong Israeli deterrence. But the years of
fighting in Syria -- and the efforts by Hezbollah advisers counseling
Shiite forces in Iraq and Yemen -- have also done the organization good:
it has come to know itself, to build up its strength and prepare for
the real challenge of war with Israel.
It is still too early to assess the impact of
the American airstrike on a Syrian airbase last week, following the
chemical attack in the Idlib province, but until that point Hezbollah
was riding high as part of a multinational force, alongside Russia,
which marked a series of military achievements, the most notable of
which was the reoccupation of Aleppo. The latter stabilized President
Bashar Assad's regime and established the supremacy of the Shiite axis,
comprising Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, in the Syrian civil war.
With this, Hezbollah has justified the
tremendous Iranian investment in it as the "defender of Shia Islam," and
Nasrallah has justified the highly criticized decision to send his
operatives to fight in the bloody war in Syria, as now he can claim
Hezbollah's involvement has prevented it from spilling over into
Confidence aside, the assessment in Israel
remains the same: the chances that Hezbollah will provoke a war with
Israel are slim-to-none, certainly as long as it continues fighting
Syria. This probability, however, increases should it be required to
respond to a specific event, for example, an incident in Syria that
Israel would be held responsible for and which Hezbollah would find
difficult to contain, such as the 2015 assassinations of Jihad Mughniyeh
and Samir Kuntar.
Should Hezbollah's response to such an
incident be harsher than expected in terms of the number of casualties
or the sector targeted, it is likely to lead to a harsh Israeli
response. The potential ensuing series of attacks and counterattacks
could easily lead to an undesirable escalation.
This scenario is at the heart of the IDF's
preparations, which focus on Har Dov: rocket fire on IDF posts, roadside
bombs, or mortar fire on first responders or evacuation forces all
spell a complex incident and not solely because of the highly skilled
enemy. The topography of the area -- the convoluted roads, the
convenient outlook from Lebanese territory that enables anyone moving up
the mountain a long-range view of their targets, and the relatively
great distance between outposts -- presents the IDF with a complicated
challenge. Evacuating casualties, for example, could take a very long
time if helicopters are unable to land in the area; senior commanders
could find it difficult to arrive at the outposts to oversee the event
on the ground; and reinforcement would take longer to ascend the
This situation requires greater independence
from the Givati troops deployed on Har Dov, certainly in comparison with
other sectors. The auxiliary company stationed in Gladiola for example,
has all the means to fend off an attack on its own for a prolonged
period of time, including tanks, mortars, missiles, surveillance
technology and heavy engineering tools. This may be unusual for the
company but it is required considering the perilous sector.
"We keep everyone here on their toes," says
Maj. Uri Shabat, who commands the company stationed in Gladiola. "Every
day begins with a briefing, including an up-to-date review of the
threats in the sector. We show the soldiers footage of the fighting in
Syria so that they know what capabilities the enemy has. We do
everything to be prepared for a scenario in which we are attacked and
have to fight alone."
Gladiola itself is built accordingly. Life
here takes place in a series of concrete compounds, ready to absorb
massive attacks and minimize the risk that any harm will come to those
stationed in them. Movement between the buildings is done through
trenches and any and all activity takes place in fortified spaces.
None of the Givati soldiers currently
stationed at Gladiola serve in southern Lebanon, not even Ashur, who
enlisted in the IDF in the early 2000s. But for those who are older,
Gladiola is a constant reminder of the days of the security zone, when
soldiers had to sleep in triple bunk beds to save space.
Changing points of contact
The third Lebanon war could very well begin with at attack on Gladiola that could result in rapid escalation.
The scenarios are endless, but the principle
guiding Hezbollah is simple -- win. If in 2006 Hezbollah's primary
objective was not to lose, it has set its sights higher for the future.
The organization seeks to deal Israel a painful blow, to exact a price
from it and to etch in the collective Israeli, Lebanese, regional and
global memory the fact of who won and who lost.
Overall, Hezbollah's would-be blow to Israel
would comprise three levels: rocket fire, clandestine strategy and
The first and most significant level is
firepower: Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles that
can cover any point in Israel. To illustrate, if during Operation
Protective Edge in 2014 Hamas fired an average of 120 rockets at Israel a
day, Hezbollah is preparing to fire a four-digit number of rockets at
Israel every day throughout the conflict.
Most of the projectiles are short-range
rockets, meaning life Haifa and northward will be challenging. But
Hezbollah definitely plans to massively target Tel Aviv as well, mainly
using its M-600 rockets, and it is also trying to procure precision
missiles with bigger warhead, so as to maximize the damage.
The second level includes operational
surprises, such as the use of drones and multicopters, some carrying
explosives, divers and speedboats, cyberattacks and targeting strategic
infrastructure, all with aim of inflicting as much harm as possible on
Israel, and if possible -- cripple it.
The third level is pure psychological warfare
and it touches on Nasrallah's statements about "conquering the Galilee."
Using Hezbollah's elite Radwan forces, Nasrallah seeks to carry out
quality cross-border raids into Israel, and take a settlement or outpost
hostage while simultaneously firing hundreds of heavy rockets on the
border area to maximize casualties.
This is much more than planning a flag on the
Gladiola outpost: A quality attack of this kind will exact a heavy toll
-- dead, wounded and abducted Israelis -- and it will, to a large
extent, shape the image of victory during the first blow.
Preparing for the first two levels of threat
is done on a national level and within the military is crosses corps,
branches and sectors. Dealing with the third threat is supported by many
factors, but the sole responsibility for it is lies with the Galilee
Division. In any war scenario -- and certainly in routine times -- its
role is to maintain strong defenses along the border to prevent
Hezbollah from marking any achievement. This means both increased forces
and a variety of measures, actions and emergency contingencies, as well
as routinely taking preventive measures.
Anyone traveling on Route 899 in northern
Israel cannot miss the extensive engineering work aimed at making life
difficult for Hezbollah: clearing roads, building barriers and setting
up fences. The IDF is changing the line of contact -- "reorganizing the
sphere," as they call it in the military -- and it can see how across
the border, Hezbollah is doing exactly the same, bolstering its
positions to make things difficult for the IDF in the next round of
Here, Hezbollah is not pulling any punches and
it is investing considerable resources in systematic intelligence
gathering; in the orderly activity by which each of the 230 villages in
southern Lebanon has been turned into a fortified combat zone; in
setting up obstacles and establishing ties with the Lebanese military.
In a large number of places Hezbollah uses
Lebanese army posts for intelligence and operational purposes. The past
rivalry between these organizations has dissipated in light of their
recent fighting against joint enemies -- Islamic State and al-Qaida --
on the Syrian-Lebanese border and also in light of Hezbollah clear
emergence as the real landlord in Lebanon.
This is good news as far as Israel is
concerned, as in the next war there will be no dilemma as to whether to
separate the Lebanese state from Hezbollah. In 2006, Israel refrained
from targeting Lebanese infrastructure to drive a wedge between Lebanon
and Hezbollah, but the next conflict will be free of this dilemma. The
statements made by the Lebanese president and chief of staff and the
open cooperation between the Lebanese military and Hezbollah have made
Lebanon and its armed forces a legitimate target for Israel, making the
IDF's life a tad easier.
Still, the next war will see Israel face
unfamiliar challenges, not only with respect to the threats to the
homefront, whose clear purpose is to deal a blow to the Israeli public
with aim of generation pressure on the government, but also on the
frontline. The war in Syria turned Hezbollah into a skilled fighting
force with significant combat experience -- in other words, it has made
it into an army.
From the IDF's standpoint this has clear
disadvantages, namely Hezbollah's ability to operate in larger
contingents and use a variety of weapons, from tanks and artillery to
advanced air and intelligence technology, but there are also advantages:
It is easier to fight a military precisely because it is
institutionalized, hierarchical and has multiple measures, i.e.,
The Givati renaissance
The Givati Brigade joined the Second Lebanon
War on its last leg. Prior to that, it was deployed in the Gaza Strip,
immersed in the counterattacks that were carried out in the wake of the
2006 abduction of Gilad Schalit by Hamas; its troops frustrated by the
fact that they were not called up to take part in the bigger war. In
future operational plans there is no longer a question as to its place
as Givati plays a key role in every operational outline, in every
Givati will wrap-up it operational deployment
in late May and begin training. The multiyear work plan enables the IDF,
and Givati in it, to train often and maintain a high level of combat
readiness. This is illustrated in both ability and resilience: Today,
Givati is a strong, confident and highly sought-after unit. Its
reassignment to the 162nd Armor Division, also known as the Steel
Formation, seems to have gone off without a hitch, many of its top
soldiers go on to become officers and many of its officers seek a
But the past year has been rough. The case of
Elor Azaria, a soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing an
immobilized terrorist in Hebron in March 2016, rattled the IDF to the
core, and Givati was not immune to it. Givati commanders made sure to
speak to soldiers in every unit, to make sure they all knew right from
wrong. The bottom line was clear: Follow procedures and you will have
the IDF's full backing.
You have to be particularly naive to believe
the Azaria case would be the last of its kind. The heated political and
religious debate it provoked, the blatant involvement by lawmakers,
rabbis and other boisterous public figures who attempted to weigh in on
IDF procedures and the resonating impact social media had on the issue,
these will all require continuous attention by IDF commanders.
It stands to reason that Givati will miss Har Dov. After
completing its training, the brigade will resume operational activity,
this time in Judea and Samaria, with all of its familiar dilemmas. But
for now, Givati is deployed up north, where things are clearly black and
white. It is only if and when Israel and Hezbollah trade blows again
that the troops will understand what they have gone through during this
deployment, where -- more than anywhere else -- they military service
was by the book, and where any uneventful day means war has been staved
off, by at least that day.