BEIRUT: The Israeli intelligence officer who warned of an invasion of Galilee by Hezbollah in the event of another war has merely picked up on a tactic to which Hezbollah has repeatedly alluded in recent years.
According to Israel’s Haaretz daily, the officer, a lieutenant colonel identified by the initial N, wrote in the Maarachot military magazine that Hezbollah, in tandem with its traditional defensive posture, is likely to launch offensive operations as well in a future war, with the party “taking the initiative and making a ground offensive and multi-pronged attack on Israeli territory.”
Hezbollah watchers have known for a number of years that the party’s cadres have been training for just such a scenario, including breaching the border defenses, potentially seizing Israeli settlements that abut the frontier and mounting ambushes and sabotage operations across Galilee.
Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah fighters have hinted at such tactics in private conversations. In February 2012, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, made clear reference to a potential invasion of Galilee.
“I tell the resistance fighters to be prepared for the day when war is imposed on Lebanon. Then, the resistance leadership might ask you to lead the resistance to liberate the Galilee,” he said.
The comments came during one of Nasrallah’s periodic “deterrence” speeches in which he attempted to strike a balance against the capabilities and possible plans of the Israeli military in a future war: if central Beirut is bombed, Tel Aviv will be struck by Hezbollah’s missiles; if the Israeli navy imposes a blockade of Lebanese ports, Hezbollah will threaten Israel-bound vessels with its anti-ship missiles; if Israel invades Lebanon, Hezbollah will invade Israel.
In August 2012, Hezbollah held a three-day military exercise involving 10,000 fighters that simulated a conflict with Israel. While the exercise focused on the Bekaa Valley – expected to be a key zone of confrontation next time – it also included drills for incursions into Galilee.
Last year, Hezbollah aired two propaganda videos that further pointed to this innovative tactic. Both showed Hezbollah fighters maneuvering along a “street” and storming small, square, roofless, cinder block “houses” at an urban warfare training site near Janta, one of at least four such facilities dotting the Bekaa. If there was any doubt as to the purpose of the exercise, Hezbollah helpfully decorated the “houses” in the colors of the Israeli flag.
Although this potential cross-border tactic has only gained prominence in recent years, it may not actually be that new. The Daily Star reported as long ago as March 2002 that Hezbollah had drawn up plans to seize Israeli border settlements and hold the residents hostage in the event of a major war with Israel.
The fact that the tactic was not exploited in the 2006 war was because Hezbollah fought in a reactive and defensive manner in the hope of ending the fighting as quickly as possible before too much damage was inflicted. The 2006 war was ill-timed for Hezbollah, as it prematurely exposed new tactics and weapons systems for little gain.
There are perhaps 18 potentially vulnerable Israeli settlements lying beside the border. Many of them are connected to the rest of Israel only by a single road that could be severed by an attacking force. Some, such as Manara, opposite Mais al-Jabal, and Misgav Am, opposite Addaisseh, lie directly adjacent to the border fence and on top of an escarpment, potentially facilitating Hezbollah’s seizure of the settlements and subsequent defense against Israeli rescuers.
The Israeli army mans around 60 permanent and temporary positions of varying sizes and purposes along Lebanon’s 110-kilometer southern frontier, but relatively few of them lie inside the border settlements. A swift assault by Hezbollah units at the immediate outbreak of war amid diversionary fire could allow the attackers time to seize one or more border settlements and cut the approach roads before the Israeli army has a chance to react.
Furthermore, the Israeli military announced in September 2013 that it was planning to withdraw troops deployed as guards in nine communities on Israel’s northern border after it was assessed that existing security measures were sufficient.
Beyond the seizure of border settlements there is no shortage of other potential targets in Galilee, both military and infrastructural, which could be ambushed, blown up or booby-trapped, sowing panic among the population and greatly complicating Israel’s prosecution of a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The tactic is a natural next step in Hezbollah’s military evolution. It would force the Israeli army to fight on Israeli territory, reversing Israel’s long-standing doctrine of fighting its wars on the soil of its neighbors. Hezbollah’s battles in Syria, where the cadres are fighting relatively fast-moving offensive operations, provide useful experience in the context of a future incursion into Israel.
Also, breaches of Israel’s border may not occur only by land. Hezbollah has an amphibious warfare unit that is trained in underwater sabotage operations and seaborne landings. Iran possesses a number of semi-submersible and submersible fast attack vessels as part of its swarming tactics against enemy shipping in the shallow waters of the Gulf.
It is unknown if any of these vessels have been supplied to Hezbollah, but such boats would facilitate seaborne incursions into northern Israel or even attacks against shipping in Israel’s northern ports.