Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Vic Rosenthal's weekly column

On Monday there was a “security incident” on our northern border. I am not going to try to explain it, because I have no idea of what actually happened. First reports were that Hezbollah fighters had crossed the border in the Shebaa Farms area at the foot of Har Dov, and fired an antitank missile at a Merkava tank. The missile was said to have missed, and IDF soldiers returned fire, killing four of the enemy. Lebanese sources, on the other hand, said that that several Israelis were killed.

Then it was reported that none of the Hezbollah fighters had been hit, and that no missile was fired. The story was that they had infiltrated into Israel (apparently the border fence is not continuous in the area), were detected, and driven back by IDF fire. Artillery fire and Israeli aircraft, as well as explosions, were seen in the area.

There were credible reports that the IDF deliberately did not aim directly at the Hezbollah fighters, in order to drive them back without killing them.

Hezbollah claimed that they had not crossed the border and had not fired any missile.
The background is that a couple of weeks ago a Hezbollah operative was killed when Israel bombed an ammunition dump some 15 km. south of Damascus. Several Iranian and Syrian personnel were killed as well. Israel sent a message to Hassan Nasrallah saying that the Hezbollah operative’s killing was unintentional. But Nasrallah has promised that every Hezbollah casualty, wherever it occurs, will be avenged. So the IDF has been expecting and preparing for Hezbollah to retaliate.

Monday’s incident was supposed to be that retaliation. But Nasrallah has said no, the debt is still unpaid (though the mother of the man killed in Syria gave out sweets in honor of the operation).
Another similar incident happened on the border last August. Again Hezbollah owed the IDF a debt of violence after its personnel had been killed by an Israeli strike in Syria. Several antitank missiles were fired at an IDF APC, and troops were seen evacuating apparently wounded soldiers from it. But it turned out that the vehicle had been empty. Apparently the idea was to convince Hezbollah that they had succeeded in getting their revenge.

All this makes me uneasy. It seems as though we are trying to prevent escalation by exhibiting weakness, rather than strength. Think about the statement that the death of the Hezbollah fighter in Syria was “unintentional.” That ammunition dump was most likely bombed because it contained equipment being sent from Iran to Lebanon to enable Hezbollah to convert its tens of thousands of rockets to precision-guided munitions, able to strike within a few meters of a selected target. Everyone understands that such weapons are game-changers. The goal of Hezbollah’s buildup, financed and supplied from Iran, is to kill Jews and destroy our state. Does it make sense that we should in effect apologize for killing someone involved in that project?
The same strategy seems to be applied in Gaza. Hamas is allowed to fire barrages of hundreds of rockets at towns and cities in Israel; we try to knock them away (so far, pretty successfully) with our anti-missile systems. Then we punish Hamas by carefully targeting empty Hamas facilities in the Strip. If we killed anyone, then they would need to retaliate, and this way we prevent escalation while at the same time make them pay a price.

There is a problem on several levels here, which should be evident to anyone:

On the level of deterrence, the message we are sending is, “go ahead, try to hurt us, nothing much will happen if you fail.” And the natural result of this is that they are encouraged to keep trying.

On the psychological level, we are telling them – and ourselves – that we are targets. Shooting at Jews is acceptable. We have come to believe this ourselves. If we didn’t, we would respond more strongly.

Finally, on the level of honor, our failure to respond harshly to attempted murder is a sign that we are too weak to defend our own lives and property. In a Mideastern culture in which personal, family, clan, and national honor are almost tangible, someone who can’t defend what he has doesn’t deserve to keep it.

The appropriate response to maximize deterrence, self-respect, and honor is to always respond to attempts to hurt you with greater, even disproportionately greater, force. This is an elementary schoolyard lesson for dealing with bullies that kids of my generation learned quickly.
The youthful Ariel Sharon understood this when he commanded Unit 101. Today, our leaders seem to have forgotten.

The strategy our leaders have chosen is to avoid escalation at all costs, even when it damages deterrence. They continue to kick the can down the road, perhaps in the hopes that war can be avoided until Iran self-destructs and Hezbollah withers away. In any case, they hope that whatever bad things might happen, it will be after their term as PM or Chief of Staff is finished.

Unfortunately, the long term application of this strategy has left us in a situation in which we are deterred by Hezbollah, rather than the opposite. They have the initiative, and can turn the pressure on and off at will. We are demoralized, despite the fact that we are objectively stronger than our enemies. And as a nation without national honor, we are held in contempt by allies and enemies alike.

This is not an easy thing to turn around. Our enemies have been conditioned to expect certain behavior. We need to teach them otherwise, which won’t happen overnight. But we have to try. Miscalculations on either side might lead us into war; but continued weakness will almost certainly do so.


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