Israel attempts to de-escalate tensions with Hezbollah

Preferring to avoid escalation, Israel decided to let Hezbollah emerge unscathed from a July 27 incident and escape humiliation.

al-monitor A photo taken from the Israeli side of the Blue Line that separates Israel and Lebanon shows smoke billowing above the Shebaa Farms sector after reports of clashes in the border area, on July 27, 2020.  Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images.

Jul 31, 2020

The order to open fire on members of the Hezbollah cell who infiltrated Israel in the morning hours of July 27 was given when they were a few dozen meters away from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) position on Mount Dov. The IDF was prepared to the hilt, armed with machine guns and a Merkava 4 tank on the ground and drones in the air. The IDF fire was sudden and massive, but ineffectual — not because the snipers missed their target, but because of the order to deploy “nondirectional fire.” In other words, do not shoot to kill; shoot to make them flee. The snipers and tank crew operated accordingly, under the vigilant eye of the drones buzzing above.

They were very successful, perhaps too much so. Members of the cell, who had been trudging up the slopes of the mountain for hours, camouflaged by the dense undergrowth and skipping patiently from cover to cover, turned back, “running amok,” as one senior military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, described their flight down the dangerous, steep slope covered with shrubs, boulders and other obstacles. “We were worried about them as they ran down,” the Israeli security source told Al-Monitor. “It was a very dangerous course, in heavy heat and we weren’t sure they would make it down in one piece and not totally dehydrated.”

The group continued to flee for long minutes, with the IDF closely tracking it. When they arrived at the bottom safe and sound and were picked up by a waiting vehicle, the IDF breathed a sigh of relief. It had wanted a peaceful end to the saga. The top brass believed that the cell’s tactical retreat from the IDF position toward the wadi below would provide Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah with the strategic retreat he sought from the organization’s pledge to avenge the killing of one of its men (Ali Kamel Mohsen, also known as Jawad) in a strike near Damascus, Syria, the week before.

Nasrallah, however, did not take the hint. As of the writing of these lines, tensions persist along the Israel-Lebanon border. Israel does not understand why Nasrallah failed to take advantage of the opportunity to end this round with Israel peacefully, why Hezbollah keeps insisting revenge is still to come and why Nasrallah has distanced himself from the July 27 event but is keeping the pressure cooker on a low flame.

The decision to allow members of a Hezbollah terror cell who tried to attack an Israeli army post to get home safely has generated considerable criticism in Israel. Critics targeted the politicians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, but also the IDF, which they accused of losing its lethal instinct and agreeing to overlook a blatant challenge to Israeli sovereignty and an attempted attack on its troops. Senior security officials vehemently reject the claims. Sometimes, they argue, wisdom is the better part of valor, and it is better to avoid rash decisions, to consider the broader picture and strategic goals rather than falling in love with a single tactical event that could result in protracted strategic damage.

Israel’s reasoning is simple. The state is facing the toughest economic crisis of its history and a second wave of COVID-19. Unemployment surged from under 4% to 20% within weeks. Gross domestic product is shrinking. Thousands of businesses are collapsing, with “to rent” or “for sale” signs dotting the urban landscape. The timing of the attempted Hezbollah attack was critical. The Israeli government had just decided to relax some of the lockdown restrictions, the Galilee region was humming with domestic tourists, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts were filled to capacity. With the summer season at its peak, presenting the first opportunity for businesses in the north to recoup some of their coronavirus-induced losses and restore smiles to their owners’ faces, a war was simply a nonstarter.

Killing the Hezbollah infiltrators would have set off an instant clash, emptying the hotels and vacation lets, the malls and the stores and handing the fragile economy a knockout. This was the main consideration guiding the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and the Northern Command chief, Maj. Gen. Amir Baram. “There’s no need to fix something that is not broken,” a senior Israeli defense source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Hezbollah is mired in a deep crisis, Lebanon is collapsing, people there do not have food, there is no power supply, the situation in Iran is affecting Nasrallah’s budget and he is withdrawing and growing weaker. A day of fighting or even a war with Israel at this point could have the opposite effect and give him an out from his predicament. Nasrallah continues to nurture his image as the defender of Lebanon and there is no need to play into his hands at this stage.”

These considerations led to the Israeli decision to let Hezbollah emerge unscathed from the incident, to avoid humiliating the organization and to provide Nasrallah with a way down from his high horse. Nasrallah’s decision to reject these gestures is mystifying officials in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, the IDF is ready, whether for a skirmish or a full-scale war. Ready, but not fired up. Israel would rather maintain its low-key operations that it dubs “the war between the wars,” continue undermining Iranian entrenchment in Syria and Nasrallah’s precision-rocket program in Lebanon and avoid total conflagration. Should the need arise, IDF officials say, Israel will know how to fight and win. The IDF is not overly concerned about Nasrallah’s threats to conquer the Galilee.

Nasrallah “cannot capture the Galilee or any Israeli town or village,” another defense expert told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “He could cause damage or carry out an attack in our territory, but he would then sustain a serious blow. Shiite villages [in southern Lebanon] would evacuate residents much faster than would Israeli ones and would look completely different after a war, and Nasrallah knows it,” the expert added. “He cannot afford the risk.”

To reduce the likelihood of war to the extent possible, Kochavi aspires to accelerate construction of the concrete wall along the border with Lebanon. So far, the wall covers only some 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the steep, mountainous 140-kilometer-long (87-mile) terrain between the two countries. The IDF has drawn up detailed plans to complete the project, but given the costs in the billions of shekels and the current budget hole, the likelihood of that happening is slim. The IDF will be forced to maintain a beefed-up presence along the border to avoid an escalation and deterioration into war. The organization’s current troubles reduce the odds of an all-out conflict with Hezbollah. The question is whether Nasrallah might change his mind at some point and start believing that a confrontation with Israel is his only “hope” vis-a-vis Lebanese citizens angry at Hezbollah’s powerful hold on the country. Israel hopes he won’t.

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