The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

     Dr. Eran Lerman on the tensions on israel’s northern border.

Xinhua news, 29.8.2019

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to “relax” on Tuesday following days of heightened tensions on Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria.

Netanyahu’s message also included a warning to Iran. “Israel knows how to defend itself and how to pay back its enemies,” he said in Jerusalem.

An Israeli airstrike in Syria over the weekend reportedly left two Hezbollah operatives dead. According to the Israeli military, the targets of the airstrikes were Iranian attack drones meant to be launched from Syria to infiltrate Israel.

After the Israeli strike, Nasrallah made threats of retaliation against Israel. But Nasrallah was not only holding Israel accountable for events in Syria. The leader of the Iranian proxy group is blaming Israel for two attacks in Lebanon against Hezbollah targets. The incidents were hours apart.

Immediately after the military announced the attacks it had carried out in the outskirts of Damascus, it also increased the alert level of its forces in the north of the country. Movement of military vehicles along the border was restricted on Tuesday, along with anti-missile defense systems that have been deployed in the region.

According to a report released Tuesday in the British Times newspaper, the target of the Israeli attack in Beirut was “crates believed to contain machinery to mix high-grade propellant for precision guided missiles.”

While Israel took responsibility for the surgical strike in Syria, it has not commented on the events in Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006. Since the conclusion of the war, there has been tension but only isolated incidents along the border. An Israeli attack in Beirut, and specifically in the southern part of the city where Hezbollah is based, would be a game changer.

Backed by Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy, the militant group is seen as one of Israel’s biggest threats. It is believed to possess hundreds of thousands of missiles, many of them considered to be highly precise, that can threaten cities all over the Jewish state.

“If these reports are accurate – what happened in Lebanon is much more significant than the Israeli attack in Syria,” said former Deputy Head of Israel’s National Security Council, Eran Etzion, “We are on a path of deterioration. There is a higher chance for a Hezbollah response, which will lead to an Israeli response.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the attack was a blatant violation of Lebanese sovereignty. The UN called for restraint from all parties.

Again, Israel remains silent on the matter, aside from Netanyahu’s warning to Nasrallah. Netanyahu has never been silent about his policy to deny Iran of its offensive abilities against Israel – nuclear or other.

According to Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a former senior intelligence officer in Israel, the significance of the strikes in Lebanon is less significant. “It was probably an intelligence gathering mission that went wrong and merited the destruction of the military drone.”

The attack on Syria would not be a first for Israel. In recent years, Israel has reportedly struck at Iranian targets in Syria, mostly without Israeli official confirmation. Recently, however, Netanyahu has confirmed Israel has “acted hundreds of times” against Iran in the region. Reports in the American media say Israel is behind recent drone strikes in Iraq that targeted militia bases. These reports quoted sources in the American defense echelon.

Regardless of the target of the alleged Israeli drones over Lebanon was, it is increasingly clear that Israel is widening its scope of attacks against Iran. Lerman believes Iran is feeling the heat from international, mainly American, pressure regarding its nuclear aspirations and is acting out in other arenas. This then forces an Israeli reaction. Armed conflicts as a result of events spiraling out of control wouldn’t be new to the Middle East.

“This is a branching out of Iranian activity in the whole region intended to destabilize the region,” Lerman told Xinhua, “This is an escalation that the Iranians are not shy about.”

“There are conservative Iranian officials who believe in increasing Iranian military activity against Israel and stronger reactions to Israeli activity,” said Ezion.

But has Israel really been successful in containing Iranian attempts to use Syria as a staging ground for attacks on Israel?

“Despite the ongoing Israeli campaign…, the Iranians are continuing to act and success ding,” Ezion told Xinhua, “Israel’s widening of the scope is a result of necessity.”

“Iran is trying to use its regional assets to shake up the region….it is a dangerous mistake,” Lerman said.

Looming behind these developments, are the upcoming Israeli elections slated for another 20 days. While Netanyahu’s bravado in the wake of recent events is most certainly an attempt to gain votes, both experts believe the decision to take military action is not a political one.

“It is unthinkable that the political system will ask the military establishment to take such a risk at this level, that can lead to a major deterioration or loss of life, for political goals,” said Lerman.

“The action was most likely necessary,” added Ezion, “But the hype and talk after, that may have been used for political gains.”

For now, and it may be a matter of hours or days, Israel seems to be in a holding pattern. While there have been unconfirmed reports of another Israeli strike in Syria, Israel seems to be bracing itself for a retaliation.

“We are in a period where there is a high chance of deterioration,” is Lerman’s assessment.

“Something can happen suddenly that will change the considerations on both sides,” he concluded.

 Xinhua news,  29.8.2019