BEIRUT: The prospect of mass protests geared toward the Palestinian bid for statehood and the turmoil caused by the revolutions in Egypt and Syria appear to have prompted the Israeli military to take greater precautions along the Blue Line and in Lebanese airspace.
In recent weeks, observers have noted an uptick in Israeli defensive preparations along the Blue Line, particularly in the eastern sector running from Adaysseh to Abbassieh at the foot of the Shebaa Farms. The work, which appears to be more than routine maintenance, includes construction of new earth berms for armored vehicles and the installation of additional security cameras, the latter sparking a tense standoff last week between Israeli troops and Lebanese soldiers at the Fatima Gate in Kfar Kila. There has been an increase in Israeli troop maneuvers in the Shebaa Farms this month and, according to security sources, Israeli security forces have been spotted in the Golan Heights training in riot control techniques using nonlethal equipment such as water cannons and rubber bullets.
The Israeli government is bracing for the possibility of protests and acts of civil disobedience depending on the results of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ attempts to persuade the United Nations to vote for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Any possible unrest will likely focus on the West Bank, but the Israelis are preparing for the possibility of mass gatherings along its borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. In May, dozens of Palestinians were killed and wounded when demonstrations converged on the Golan Heights and at Maroun al-Ras in south Lebanon.
In tandem with the preparations on the ground, there has been a reduction this month in the number of daily Israeli overflights in Lebanese airspace compared to previous months. The number of overflights are not static each month but vary according to Israeli operational needs. There was a steady increase in the number of overflights from the beginning of the year, peaking in July with 158. Since mid-August, there has been a slight decrease. Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 19, 125 overflights were recorded, but almost half that number fell between Sept. 12-16, according to security sources.
It is far too soon to tell whether or not the slight reduction in overflights this month is a temporary measure or part of a new policy. However, the Jerusalem Post reported last month, that the Israeli air force has set new guidelines for reconnaissance flights to minimize the possibility of sparking an unwanted military escalation. The new guidelines state that only experienced pilots are permitted to fly reconnaissance missions and that the flights can only be conducted when a senior air force officer is present in the control room.
“We need to consider the effect such flights can have, considering the changes in the region,” a senior Israeli officer was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying. “We understand that there is a short distance between a tactical mistake and a larger crisis.”
The Israeli officer’s comments were unusual given that in the nearly 10 years since Israel resumed overflights in Lebanese skies (after a five month hiatus following Israel’s troop withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000), the Israelis have shown little regard for repeated U.N. and Lebanese complaints that the overflights are not only provocative but also breach Lebanon’s territorial sovereignty as well as various U.N. resolutions, including Resolution 1701.
Could the uncertainty generated by the uprising in Syria have forced the Israelis to act with more caution? It is no secret that the flow of weapons from Syria into Hezbollah’s arms depots has accelerated since March and there have been persistent reports over the past two years that Hezbollah has acquired more advanced anti-aircraft systems, including the SA-24 “Grinch” shoulder-fired missile system. The SA-24 is a more advanced version of the SA-18 “Grouse” which is believed to have been in Hezbollah’s arsenal since 2002 although there are no reports of its ever having been employed, including in the month-long war in 2006. It also has been reported that Hezbollah cadres have received training on the SA-8 “Gecko,” a somewhat antiquated radar-guided system but one which could still increase the threat to Israeli aircraft operating above Lebanon. Added to that is Syria’s alleged acquisition two years ago of an improved air-defense radar system, a development first reported in August 2010.
Israel has always considered Hezbollah’s acquisition and deployment of “game-changing” air-defense systems as a “red line.” It remains unclear whether Hezbollah has installed advanced anti-aircraft systems in Lebanon (very little is known about its air defense capabilities). But the Israeli military may be calculating that the turmoil in Syria raises the possibility of attacks against its aircraft performing reconnaissance missions over Lebanon, if not by Hezbollah units, then by the Syrian army itself.
At present, there appears to be little appetite from both Hezbollah and Israel to embark upon another war. But the downing of an Israeli aircraft could cross Israel’s “red line” and provide the spark for a fresh conflict, the magnitude of which analysts expect will dwarf the 2006 war.
Good reason, perhaps, for the Israeli air force to act with greater than usual prudence above Lebanon.