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“In the long term, a war with Hezbollah cannot be avoided.” On the move on Israel’s northern border.

Malte Ian Lauterbach reports for Berlin Story News from the Middle East, where a dangerous confrontation is developing along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Hezbollah, once a loose terrorist group, has transformed itself into a well-equipped militia that challenges Israel's defense capabilities. This article highlights the growing tensions, recent events and emerging challenges that could once again bring the region to the brink of conflict.

Guardians of the Shadow: Israeli Soldiers in the North

Israel's North, May 23.05.2023, XNUMX

Under the cover of night, a covert operation begins near the Lebanese-Israeli border, as a group of well-selected Hezbollah men crossed the border from Lebanon into northern Israel.

After hours of waiting, they push forward as daylight paints the horizon in pastel hues. The busy morning atmosphere in the small Israeli town is suddenly interrupted by gunfire, the staccato rhythm of which drowns out everything else. The echoes of gunfire mingled with the screams of unsuspecting civilians, the sound of mortars hitting the ground, and the ominous chorus of wailing sirens.

At the same time, the earth shook with a series of explosions as carefully coordinated missile strikes from Lebanon trailed through the air, exploiting weak points in Israel's normally vigilant air defenses.

Amid the chaos, the Israeli sergeant's attentive ears caught the rhythm of the gunfire and the desperate cries of the injured. The staccato rhythm of the Lebanese Kalashnikovs filled the air with a deadly cadence. His grip on the cold precision of his American M4, a lifeline in this chaos, tightened. His loyal unit followed close behind, a trio of brothers bonded through relentless training and unbreakable camaraderie. A dance of mutual reassurance followed, the harmony of which reverberated through the tumult. A few moments earlier, a radio message had appeared that they had been waiting and training for years: “Enemy infiltration in the border area, civilians at risk.”

A subtle gesture from his wingman snaps the sergeant out of his reverie and back to the present. Unspoken, his squad synchronizes, a brotherhood attuned to each other's every thought. The sergeant and his wingman move forward slowly, meticulously mapping every nook and cranny, every rooftop as a potential trap. Before them lay the scene of the first battle, where the attackers were still at large and hiding in the shadows.

A new volley of shots shattered the tense silence. Before the young sergeant can answer, an eerie whistle pierces the air, cutting through the uncertainty of the moment.

Suddenly all the adrenaline of the moment is blown away. A startled gasp escapes the lips of the two men, momentarily forgetting their rifles, as the shrill sound reverberates. Then a grin breaks through the drill sergeant's stern expression, a knowing glint in his eye. With a dramatic gesture and a simple “Mazel tov,” he announces that the young sergeant has just been shot.

The young sergeant waits concealed for a signal.

In the midst of the sober discussion, a nod of understanding goes around, a silent promise to learn from the mistakes made. And then, like a pendulum, the exercise resets. Participants reorient their focus, each step a meticulous dance, to rewrite the unfolding story, armed with the knowledge that lives might be at stake next time.

The grim realization dawns as the quartet conducts a quick debrief amidst the exercise's hushed backdrop. The coach's voice is stern yet instructive when it comes to analyzing the team's missteps. He points out the serious consequences - the loss of two civilian lives due to their mistakes.

Exercise debriefing.

The entire scenario, from the staged rocket attack to the border infiltration, forms a complicated web of exercises meticulously staged by the Israeli army. Behind this sophisticated simulation lies a frightening reality: these exercises are designed to prepare the military forces stationed in northern Israel for an eventuality that defies the limits of imagination - a head-on encounter with Hezbollah.

With these simulated events, the Israeli military is trying to prepare its troops for the unthinkable - a direct and potentially colossal confrontation with Hezbollah. During these complex exercises, soldiers must deal with scenarios that represent the entire spectrum of challenges of such an operation - from pinpoint missile attacks to infiltration across borders.

The exercises not only sharpen troops' tactical skills, but also promote a deep understanding of the multidimensional challenges that a conflict of this magnitude would pose. During the exercises, the soldiers are confronted with the harsh reality.

Since the end of the last Lebanon War, Hezbollah, originally a loosely organized terrorist group, has undergone a fundamental change. In the years since, through dedicated training, a steady supply of Iranian weapons, and careful strategic planning, the group has evolved into a militia that rivals the capabilities of many (smaller) conventional armies.

After the war, Hezbollah's leadership recognized the need for adaptation and growth. Close cooperation with Iran gave it access to modern weapons, finance and training facilities, which significantly increased its capabilities. By adopting disciplined training methods, Hezbollah moved from hit-and-run tactics to coordinated maneuvers, embodying a mix of guerrilla warfare and conventional military structure.

Western analysts report that Hezbollah has an extensive weapons arsenal, which is said to include around 30.000 operational rockets and missiles with different ranges. The range extends from short-range missiles to medium-range ballistic missiles that can penetrate deep into Israeli territory. The estimated total inventory of rockets and missiles is around 130.000 to 150.000, coming from sources such as Iran, Syria and former Soviet stocks. This inventory is not limited to conventional missiles, but also includes advanced guided missiles and drones that can add a precision dimension to Hezbollah's arsenal and target strategic points in Israel.

In addition to its military assets, Hezbollah has built a well-organized and influential political and social network in Lebanon. The group is believed to have 20.000 to 30.000 full-time members as well as a large number of followers and allies. While its military wing is designated a terrorist organization by various countries, including the United States and Israel, its political wing remains very present in Lebanon's political landscape. This dual identity highlights the complexity of Hezbollah's influence, combining military strength with influential political maneuvers.

Recently there have been increasingly serious clashes at the demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel. Almost a year ago, I reported for Berlin Story News on tensions between Israel and Hezbollah over gas production from the Karish gas field, which were ultimately resolved through diplomatic negotiations by the last Israeli government, US and Hezbollah mediators. However, the current government repeatedly criticizes this agreement - especially when a shaped charge of Iranian origin seriously wounded an Arab worker on a country road in northern Israel in the spring, and investigations clearly indicated that the shaped charge had been smuggled into Israel by Hezbollah. To this day it is unclear what the actual aim of the attack was and how the perpetrators got into the country and then left the country again.

During Passover, one of the worst escalations to date occurred on the border with Lebanon. Excerpts from a previously unpublished article from April 6.4.2023, XNUMX.

Passover is traditionally considered the holiday where Jewish families around the world come together to celebrate the exodus of the Israeli people from Egypt. In northern Israel, people also flock together from dusk to dusk to commemorate the “Exodus” and celebrate the survival of the Israeli people.

In the midst of the celebrations in northern Israel, the air raid sirens suddenly wail loudly and the dark clouds of short-range missiles spread across the sky. Launched from the Lebanese border area, the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system only had fractions of a second to intercept. In many villages along the Separation Line, the advance warning time is literally 0 seconds - the first warning here is the impact. At short intervals, 34 rockets fall on Israel from southern Lebanon. Most of the rockets are intercepted by Israel's missile defense systems, but two direct hits on the small town of Shlomi cause severe property damage. It is only by chance that there are no civilian casualties.

In retrospect, there is increasing evidence that the rockets were fired by a splinter group of the Palestinian Jihad (PIJ), rather than by Hezbollah, as originally suspected. From a tactical perspective, the rocket attack from southern Lebanon is well thought out - the PIJ, which has been firing rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israel's cities in the south on a daily basis in recent weeks, this rocket attack from the north essentially opens up a second front to put pressure on to increase the Israeli military. Furthermore, by firing rockets from Lebanon, the PIJ is sending a message to Israel that they are capable of attacking from other areas outside the Gaza Strip and causing damage beyond the immediate conflict zone. I have already written in detail about the motivation and mode of operation of the Palestinian Jihad as part of my reporting from the Palestinian cities of Jenin and Nablus.

The Israeli response to these rocket attacks by the Palestinian Jihad came just a few weeks later, in June Israeli aircraft attacked Palestinian Jihad headquarters as part of the “Sword and Shield” operation and thus eliminated the PIJ command staff with enormous precision, and then on replacement staff called into office on the same day.

After these airstrikes, there were several days of fighting between the PIJ and Israeli forces, and more than 1000 rockets were fired at Israeli cities.
Iron Dome, reinforced by the Arrow-3 system (actually built to intercept Iranian ballistic missiles), neutralized much of these attacks. On the Palestinian side, 10 people were killed by Israeli airstrikes and five more were killed by Palestinian rockets. The ceasefire, negotiated by mediators from the Arab states, Israel, the Palestinian Jihad and Hamas, still holds today.

In recent weeks, however, there have been repeated events that indicate that the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is further intensifying. “Basically,” a senior Israeli military official told me during the April rocket attacks, with the fires in the Israeli town of Shlomi still burning on the horizon, “a long-term war with Hezbollah is inevitable.” When asked in detail, he clarified his statement: “We expect a new war in Lebanon in the next 12 months. It's time."

Both sides are already preparing for this conflict - on the Israeli side, this is done through the emergency exercises mentioned at the beginning. “Train as you fight, fight as you train” is the motto here.

Hezbollah is constructing more and more outposts in the Lebanese border area, which Israeli soldiers showed me during a visit in May. From these outposts, elite Hezbollah forces would surge out to attack the Israeli army - or serve as a line of defense. Military sources report 31 outposts constructed this year.

Since the rocket attacks on Passover, the Israeli army has been on heightened alert in the north. The latest generation of armored personnel carriers (see picture) patrol the Israeli border fortifications. Searchlights and flares illuminate the night. Incidents also occur again and again at these border fortifications where the Israeli army and Hezbollah, or in special cases, the Lebanese army, face each other. These incidents are usually defused by the intervention of the UN mission in the border area, and in the past they have mainly served propaganda purposes - both sides can show their effectiveness, take a few photos and then retreat back to their positions.

However, more critical incidents occur again and again. Just recently there was a failed assassination attempt by Hezbollah on the Lebanese defense minister, who had repeatedly argued for negotiations. Days earlier, Hezbollah militiamen threatened Israeli civilians at the border.

In an emergency, according to Israeli army circles, the effects of a war in the north would be felt extremely. Thousands would flee northern cities into the center of the country as concentrated rocket attacks from Hezbollah would overwhelm Israeli air defenses. The exact course and consequences of such a war are basically unimaginable. Concentrated attacks on energy and water infrastructure using drones such as the Iranian suicide drone Shahed-136 are highly likely.
The consequences would be massive personal injury and property damage.

Armored personnel carriers at the border.

In fact, Netanyahu's government is caught in a dilemma. Public calls from army circles and Netanyahu's own political circles for an army operation to combat the power and influence of Hezbollah are becoming increasingly louder. Netanyahu could take a cue from Israel's previous actions in southern Lebanon, particularly Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982. In that operation, Israeli forces entered Lebanon to stop Palestinian attacks on northern Israel and create a security buffer zone in southern Lebanon. At that time, the terrorist organization PFLP fired two RPGs at a school bus in northern Israel, killing 14 people, mostly children.
Lebanon's war ended with a fragile ceasefire in 1991, and Israeli forces withdrew from most of the country, except for a small strip of land in the south known as the "safe zone." This strip of land was patrolled by Israeli and allied forces to protect Israeli civilians from Hezbollah attacks. The security zone remained a source of tension and conflict until 2000, when Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon under a United Nations-brokered agreement. The withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon marked the end of a 22-year military presence in the country. There has never been a classic peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon. The “border” I reference is essentially the “Blue Line,” a demarcation line drawn by the UN under Security Council Resolution 425.

The “Blue Line”

It is unclear whether the Israeli government is willing to risk another large-scale military operation in Lebanon or whether it will look for other options to address the ongoing threat. As tensions continue to rise and violence continues in Israel and surrounding regions, a peaceful resolution to the conflict for all sides appears unlikely at the moment. A resident of one of Israel's northern cities expressed his frustration and cynicism with the dry comment: "We have tried peace, now perhaps we should give war a chance." This statement reflects the ongoing feeling of hopelessness and despair reflects how many Israelis and Palestinians feel about the cycle of violence and conflict that has plagued the region for decades.

Meanwhile, protests against the judicial reforms continue in the rest of the country - 7 months ago I reported - actually more as a side note - for the first time about the judicial reform in Israel. Within a few weeks, however, this small protest suddenly developed into one of the decisive political forces of the year. The protests against judicial reform which I have already explained in detail in several articles, culminated in May in the dismissal of the defense minister, a general strike, demonstrations involving almost 20% of the country's population, the resignation of the Israeli consul in New York, the hunger strike of several Israeli mayors and the deep division in the country. With more and more reservists refusing to serve due to judicial reform, Netanyahu finds himself in a difficult situation. These same men - most of them specially trained experts such as pilots, reconnaissance officers and tank commanders - would be missing in an emergency. Without the rapid alerting of reservists like the young sergeant at the beginning of the article, Israel's security situation is at risk.