Sunday, August 25, 2019

Can Israel defeat Hezbollah? - Anna Ahronheim

by Anna Ahronheim

While former prime minister Ehud Olmert insists the 2006 Second Lebanon War was a success, former IDF deputy chief of staff Yair Golan calls Israel’s presence in Lebanon ‘a story of failure.’

More than a decade after the last shot rang out, the border between Israel and Lebanon is quiet.

There are no tanks rumbling in the distance, no artillery shells breaking the silence, no screams of the injured or dying. The pastoral green hills are welcoming farmers and hikers rather than IDF troops and Hezbollah militants.

With over 10 years of relative quiet along this explosive border with only isolated incidents, many feel that Israel’s achievements in the 2006 Second Lebanon War were greater in many respects than the more recent military operations in Gaza.

“The war was perhaps the most successful in the history of any military confrontation that Israel was ever engaged in since the War of Independence, because there never was a military confrontation which resulted in complete silence and lack of any military confrontation in the area where the military engagement took place,” former prime minister Ehud Olmert told the Magazine in his office in Tel Aviv.

Indeed, Hezbollah’s leader, secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, had to apologize after the end of the war for the ambush that set everything off. He has since promised the Lebanese people that he is doing all he can to prevent another war with the IDF.

“Nasrallah has even said that had he known even 1% of my reaction of the ambush, he wouldn’t have done it,” said Olmert, who served as Israel’s 12th prime minister from 2006-2009 and oversaw the 2006 Second Lebanon War. “It was said before the war that they knew how to fight, but at the end of the day, they lost hundreds of their fighters and were on the verge of complete collapse and surrender.”

To him, Israel won the war.

“Over the past 13 years, there’s never been a quieter and more successful period for the northern part of the country,” he continued. “There are kids in Kiryat Shmona who are celebrating their bar mitzvah who have never heard of a rocket or missile or had to sit in a shelter for one minute. That’s unprecedented in the State of Israel. This is the ultimate proof of the success of the Second Lebanese War.”

But for former IDF deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen (ret.) Yair Golan, who fought and served in various roles in Lebanon, the story of Israel’s presence there is “a story of failure.”

“I like to say that I grew up in Lebanon,” he said, explaining that he served there from 1982 until 1998 when he commanded the Eastern Brigade of Lebanon Liaison Unit.

“The story of Lebanon is the story of failure because, although the achievements of the first Lebanon War were formidable... After September 1982, we made almost every possible mistake,” he told the Magazine as we sat in his office in Tel Aviv.

Golan – who commanded the 91st Galilee Division from 2003-2005, preceding Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch who served in that role during the Second Lebanon War – said even back then it was clear a war with the Shi’ite group was imminent.

“I was sure that we were heading to war. I was sure about it the minute I got the command. It was 100% clear that we were going to fight Hezbollah,” he said. “Hezbollah provoked us over and over and over again. It tried to expand its freedom of action all the time, and I thought to myself at the time that if this is the momentum, there is no other way to fight Hezbollah than open war.”

Golan, who is running on the Democratic Union Party list in next month’s election, said he tried to explain and convince others in the military of his take on things. While he thinks he convinced the head of the Northern Command at the time, Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Benny Gantz, and others, he noted that he was never able to convince the General Staff and chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Dan Halutz that Israel should prepare for war.

“There was a kind of common saying at the time in the IDF that the Katyushas are gonna rust, so alright, what are our plans for a possible deterioration? It’s totally unacceptable and it’s not an answer. In military life, you should prepare for the worst, not the best. It was against my nature to think, OK, they are going to rust,” he said.

FORMER IDF deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen (ret.) Yair Golan (right) on a visit to supercarrier ‘USS George H. W. Bush’ in February 2017. (Credit: US EMBASSY JERUSALEM/FLICKR)FORMER IDF deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen (ret.) Yair Golan (right) on a visit to supercarrier ‘USS George H. W. Bush’ in February 2017. (Credit: US EMBASSY JERUSALEM/FLICKR)

WHILE GOLAN was commanding the Judea and Samaria Division, he visited the North at times during the war to meet and encourage former subordinate commanders.

“It was a very depressing experience,” he recounted.

The first visit was to Tamir Yadai, then-commander of the Golani Brigade, after the battle in Bint Jbeil, Golan explained. 

“I asked him to portray the battle and he described the maneuvering and clashes and all the incidents, and by the end I asked, ‘Alright, but why did you go there?’ And he replied ‘I don’t know.’

“A brigade commander entered his most important experience without knowing the purpose and goal? It was a shock. I asked him why and he said, ‘Day after day I got missions and they were all canceled, so at the end of the day when someone told me I could go, I went without asking any further questions.’”

According to Golan, the incident with Yadai “shows the whole blunder of the war. We had no plans, commanders didn’t understand the goal of the war, they didn’t understand their missions, they did all sorts of things without purpose. And that’s totally unacceptable.”

For Olmert, Golan “proved in his comments why it’s always better to have civilians taking the strategic decisions on national measures rather than generals. His opinion is a classic military perspective, which is dominated by the performance in a specific military confrontation in one specific part of the front rather than a comprehensive review of the entire event and its long-range consequences.”

ASK ANYONE who lives along the border and they have stories upon stories of the Second Lebanon War, of loved ones lost, of the rockets that rained down on them, and of the fear and the determination they have.

Shula Giladi – known by many as Shula from Shtula – stayed in her community of Shtula during the last war when children were evacuated from the community of 100 families. She opened her home to troops, fed them and gave them a warm bed to sleep in before they went back to the battlefield.

Some never returned.

“I remember one Ethiopian soldier. He came to my home and I remember as he put on his camouflage before he went back across the border. He never came back. I still have his laundry.”

Shula cooks for large groups of tourists who come to visit the North, and her garden has Jewish National Fund flags fluttering in the breeze. When we visited, she was cooking for a group of 55 Israelis who were scheduled to arrive the next day.

She isn’t scared of Hezbollah.

“I was born on the border and I’ve lived through many wars. I was never afraid – of anything,” Shula said as she served a plate of home-cooked food.

“I was 20 when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, and no one thought we could win that war. Now the IDF is the strongest in the world. When you have enemies surrounding you on all sides, you have no choice but to be strong,” she said.

She told the Magazine that she and other border community residents heard sounds of digging and knew of cross-border tunnels “before the IDF knew.” Even with the risk posed by Hezbollah infiltration, she said, she will never leave her home of 50 years.

“Hezbollah will never walk into Shtula. It will never happen. I trust the army with my eyes closed. But if Hezbollah kills me, it’s OK. The IDF would have done everything it could have before such a thing would happen.”

DURING THE war the IDF, in fact, did do all it could and dealt Hezbollah a blow that has kept if from launching another war against Israel.

While Hezbollah claimed to have lost 250 fighters during the war, other figures put the movement’s death toll above 600. More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed and thousands more were evacuated from Lebanon during the fighting by various countries via Cyprus, Turkey and Syria.

Israel lost 121 soldiers during the 34-day 2006 Second Lebanon War, and 43 civilians were killed.

A section of the border fence where the Hezbollah ambush set off the war has 121 flowers painted on it; a flower for every soldier lost, explained Lt.-Col. (res.) Sarit Zehavi, a resident of the northern community of Kfar Vradim, as we drove along Route 8993.

At 8:40 a.m. at that same spot 13 years ago, Hezbollah ambushed an IDF patrol, sparking the war. Zehavi explained that for many years she would not drive along this road without a military escort of at least two armored Humvees.

But the road is now open to civilians, and we were alone with no army escort as we drove, passing by a poster of the IDF troops who were killed in the Hezbollah ambush that set off the deadly war.

Following the end of the war, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 tasked the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) with patrolling southern Lebanon.

UNIFIL   spokesperson Tilak Pokharel told the Magazine that major escalations have been prevented due to the “continued commitment” by all sides to UNSCR 1701, which ended the conflict.

According to Pokharel, the peacekeepers, who are from 44 countries, carry out more than 450 operational activities every day. These include foot, vehicle and air patrols; the setting up of checkpoints; training the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF); and community engagement activities.

Pokharel stated, “UNIFIL’s works center around securing a permanent ceasefire between the parties and a long-term solution to the conflict,” but Jerusalem has repeatedly slammed UNIFIL for failing to fulfill its duties by turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s activities in southern Lebanon.

Israel accuses the terrorist group of continuously violating the resolution and storing much of its weaponry in villages along the border.

Golan said, “UNIFIL is useless and we should say it. It’s not a unique Israeli phenomenon. UN forces across the world are a failure. They are not willing to fight or confront Hezbollah,” he asserted, stressing that while he wouldn’t recommend removing UNIFIL from southern Lebanon, “Their benefits are limited. And if you ask me if we can trust UNIFIL to preserve our security? Not at all.”

EVEN THOUGH the border is quiet, Hezbollah isn’t asleep at the wheel. built its arsenal since 2006 and now is estimated to have hundreds of thousands of short-range rockets and several thousand missiles that can reach deeper into Israel.

It is believed that in the next war, the terrorist group will try to fire some 1,500-2,000 rockets per day until the last day of the conflict. With more than 40,000 fighters organized in battalions and brigades, Hezbollah forces have gained battlefield experience from fighting in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad.

Olmert said that while he doesn’t underestimate the capabilities of Hezbollah, and though the next war might be harder to win, the outcome will be the demise of the terrorist group.

“They have missiles that can cause serious damage to the State of Israel, it’s obvious,” Olmert said. “In the event of a military confrontation, they will probably use some of them against areas that haven’t been attacked in the past, like civilian centers and strategic sites in the center of the country. However, Hezbollah knows very well that the outcome of the situation is the total and complete destruction of Hezbollah and I’m not sure if they want it.”

According to Olmert, Nasrallah knows his days are numbered if another war breaks out.

“The day he shoots the first missile, he can count the number of days until he will be dead and everyone in his organization will be dead. He knows it. He knows it better than anyone else,” he said.

But while Nasrallah sits in his bunker in Beirut, the order to strike will come from his superiors in Tehran.

The Magazine asked Olmert if he thought Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was as deterred as Nasrallah. The former prime minister leaned back in his chair clasping his hands and said, “Qassem Soleimani knows better than any person on Earth how volatile and unpredictable the course of life can be. He knows.”

Much of Hezbollah’s capabilities and infrastructure are intertwined with the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon, a country that receives millions of dollars in military aid and equipment from the United States and other Western countries.

LEBANESE SOLDIERS and UN peacekeepers (blue berets and turbans) serving with UNIFIL inspect areas targeted by IDF shelling in the Shebaa area, southern Lebanon, on October 8, 2014. (Credit:REUTERS/KARAMALLAH DAHER)LEBANESE SOLDIERS and UN peacekeepers (blue berets and turbans) serving with UNIFIL inspect areas targeted by IDF shelling in the Shebaa area, southern Lebanon, on October 8, 2014. (Credit:REUTERS/KARAMALLAH DAHER)

Many experts have said that one of Israel’s mistakes was to distinguish between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state and refrain from striking Lebanese infrastructure. Olmert, however, defends that decision, saying he wanted to focus on the group itself and its infrastructure.

According to Olmert, the army thought there was no need to differentiate. “But I didn’t accept it and thought it would have been a big mistake, because after the war, the Lebanese population and international community would be against us, and Hezbollah wouldn’t have been destroyed enough.”

But 13 years later, politicians and senior IDF officers have threatened to send Lebanon “back to the Stone Age” – all of Lebanon, not just Hezbollah. That artificial distinction between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state is gone.

Golan warned that Lebanon and Hezbollah need to understand that the next war will cause unbelievable destruction to the country.

“I have nothing against the Lebanese people, but I have a lot against the government. The Lebanese people are captives of Hezbollah and they will suffer from it,” he said. “The message should be sent that another open war with Israel could see major destruction to Lebanon as a whole and especially southern Lebanon south of the Zahrani River.”

According to Golan, there’s no reason to reoccupy Lebanon, but he warned that eliminating Hezbollah, “won’t be a matter of days. It could be a few weeks to a few months. You need to clean the area of Hezbollah’s presence and that takes time. The best way is to tell the people the truth. It’s not a terrible demand from the government.”

As we drove with Zehavi along the border with Lebanon, she stressed, “Contrary to what the Americans think, the Lebanese Armed Forces is not an alternative to Hezbollah. They coexist side by side in Lebanon, and in the next war the LAF will, of course, in my opinion, have to fight shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah because they have to show the Lebanese population that they are protecting them. Otherwise, what good are they?”

EHUD OLMERT, the former prime minister who oversaw the 2006 Second Lebanon War: ‘Had [Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah] known even 1% of my reaction to the ambush, he wouldn’t have done it.’ (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) EHUD OLMERT, the former prime minister who oversaw the 2006 Second Lebanon War: ‘Had [Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah] known even 1% of my reaction to the ambush, he wouldn’t have done it.’ (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

ISRAEL IS warily keeping its eyes on the North. 

While the primary threat posed by Hezbollah remains its missile arsenal, the IDF believes the next war will see the group try to bring the fight to the home front by infiltrating Israeli communities in order to inflict significant civilian and military casualties.

In December, the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield to discover and destroy all cross-border tunnels dug by Hezbollah into northern Israel. It has found and destroyed six such tunnels, but there are others which haven’t infiltrated into Israeli territory. 

The tunnels, Golan said, were on the edge of being a just cause for war as they were a serious violation of Israeli sovereignty. Nonetheless, he said, “Israel reacted correctly.”

Israeli officials have warned that any war that breaks out in the North will not be confined to one border – with Lebanon or Syria – but both.

Though originally a Lebanese group, Hezbollah and its patron Iran are continuing their work to entrench themselves on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and now, Iraq. While Iraq may be much further away, Iran is believed to have transferred ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel to terrorist groups.

Olmert contends that Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria has changed the strategic situation.

“The biggest security failure by the State of Israel was to not have prevented Iran from entering Syria,” he said. “It was done completely under the reckless and irresponsible and fearful leadership of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu. He was making a world festival about Iran’s nuclear weapons, and right under his nose the Iranians penetrated into Syria. Every now and again we attack Iran and Syria, but they take it lightly and we don’t push.”

Admitting that there were failures in the last war, should another war in the North break out, Olmert hopes that Israel and the IDF are in a much better position to destroy the group than they were 13 years ago.

“I hope that they [the IDF] are more ready than 13 years ago. I don’t think we had a good opportunity since the Second Lebanon War – including the Gaza operations where there was no ground maneuvering at all. We have not had the opportunity to show that we manifested an improvement,” he said.

The IDF has not conducted a full and proper ground maneuver in enemy territory since troops entered Gaza in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead. During operations Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014, the IDF and the political leadership chose to rely mainly on the Israel Air Force, directing ground troops and armored corps to stay out of the Gaza Strip, and in the border area to neutralize Hamas tunnels.

The military knows that in a war in the North, it will not be able to rely solely on the IAF. It has publicly boasted about the preparedness of the ground troops, showing off to journalists major drills simulating war with Hezbollah as well as new technology and techniques.

Though Golan believes the IDF is much better prepared for future challenges, he is concerned that the IDF hasn’t fought a war with a serious enemy since 1982. And while that’s a significant worry, Golan said the military is not willing enough to protect Israeli civilians, the real target of Hezbollah in the next war.

“I still have deep concerns that we are not willing enough to protect our civilians. It’s mainly a problem of the General Staff and chief of staff. But it’s also a problem of the political echelon and people because we are no longer fighting existential wars. And we ask ourselves that if it’s not existential maybe we don’t have to fight it,” he said, adding, “Wherever civilians are under threat... this is the time for the military to attack.”

According to Golan, the gap between IDF and Hezbollah is so large that even a future war with Hezbollah with the support of Iran won’t be existential.

“It’s wrong to go to war just because your enemy becomes stronger,” Golan said. “We need to be patient, and if Hezbollah doesn’t provoke us in an active manner, then there is no just reason for war.”

While it is generally accepted that Israel is stronger militarily than Hezbollah, the military and political leadership know the population still cannot tolerate soldiers coming home in body bags.

“At the end of the day, there is no alternative to a ground-to-ground confrontation in a war of whatever size, and therefore even with all the technology we possess, there will still need to be a ground operation,” Olmert said. Nevertheless, he added, it will be “completely different than before, with the protection we have on tanks and the precision artillery and UAVs and drones, which replaced a lot of what has been done in the past with ground forces.”

DESPITE THE war of words between Netanyahu and Nasrallah, it seems the two sides are far from interested in another military confrontation just yet, because when it does explode, it will be war at a whole new level not yet seen in the region.

“Both are big talkers and to curse each other gives them enough space to refrain from a real confrontation,” Olmert said. “It’s not likely that Hezbollah is interested in a military confrontation, and neither are we.”

Zehavi believes the IDF is “as ready as it can be,” having undergone a big change in the amount of drills and operations (including the exposure and destruction of Hezbollah cross-border tunnels). Nonetheless, the civilian population will be greatly affected.

“It’s hard for them to accept dead bodies. Can we beat Hezbollah? Yes. But at what price? Who knows? The Hezbollah we met in 2006 is different from the Hezbollah of 2019.”

While the likelihood for another war is still low, Golan warned that the next war in the North might cost hundreds of Israeli civilian lives.

“By our most severe predictions, a 30-day war against Hezbollah will end with a few dozen to a few hundred civilian casualties. It’s a low number when you put it in proportion... and it won’t erode the Israeli mentality to survive and flourish here. But from Hezbollah’s and Iran’s perspective this is the way to end the Zionist project,” he said.

Contrary to Olmert, Golan doesn’t believe the Second Lebanon War was a success. He suggested that Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war might also play a role in their unwillingness to fight against Israel. But, he warned, Israel has no other choice than to prepare for war with Hezbollah.

“We are going to win this war, but it will take time and it will have a price. There is no war without a terrible price, but if we want to keep our presence here in this troubled region, there is no other way. That’s the truth.”

Anna Ahronheim


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