On Monday, five members of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah carried out an incursion into the contested Shebaa Farms and were beaten back by Israeli forces.
The relatively minor altercation in an isolated area outside Israel nonetheless provoked furious reactions from the Israeli leadership, the latest suggestion the country may be ill-prepared for a major armed escalation.
“The level of the reserves is not good enough,” warned Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi in a letter leaked to the website MAKO earlier this month.
The Israeli military is built on active personnel and reserves. The reserves are almost three times as numerous as the regular army and are essential to any large military operation undertaken by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Kochavi cited budget cuts to equipment and training, as well as the elimination of entire units among the problems he is facing. The situation, he said, has undermined “the faith of reserve commanders and soldiers in us as an institution.”
Despite these warnings, a combination of budgetary issues and logistical problems related to Covid-19 have meant the reserves have not trained properly in over a year.
“By trying to stretch a limited budget in too many directions, the IDF is now both unable to really advance its doctrine and unable to maintain its previous capabilities,” a source in the Defense Ministry told Asia Times.
“This is unsustainable,” the source added.
According to an Israeli military spokesman, Hezbollah fighters on Monday entered Shebaa briefly before retreating. From preliminary Israeli analysis of the encounter, it appears the infiltration was not particularly sophisticated and the military forces on hand were more than ready to counter them.
Hezbollah denied the attack took place and accused Israel of trying to create “false victories.” However, Israeli military sources told Asia Times that they have footage of the incident from more than one angle and may release it in the upcoming days.
The denial is most likely an attempt to distance the Hezbollah political party from the failed retaliation for one of its fighters killed in Syria last week.
The Shiite group vowed that their response would come when the time was right and that they would take responsibility for any attack which leads to Israeli fatalities. It is clear this episode is not over.
“Hezbollah should know that it is playing with fire,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, warning the Lebanese militants not to press forward with another operation.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued a threat to Hezbollah’s sponsors: “I suggest that all the countries in the region, near and far — Iran, Lebanon, Syria or anyone else who may be involved in terrorism — remember that Israel has unlimited capabilities and knows how to use them.”
But the stern warnings and bolstering of forces to the northern borders comes against the backdrop of a failure to fund a long-sought military overhaul.
The IDF has in recent years become wary of the improving capabilities of Hezbollah, which has gained significant experience in asymmetric warfare over the course of its involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
In early 2019, the Israeli military brass presented the government with a multi-year plan called “Tenufa”, Hebrew for Momentum. The plan is geared toward the threat of Iran and its proxies, namely Hezbollah, which sits just over its northern border.
Tenufa focuses on increasing Israel’s precision-targeting through drones and missiles as well as countering Hezbollah’s increasingly sophisticated missile arsenal defensively. It will also involve improving the “search and destroy capabilities of the IDF and its ability to wage war in urban settings.
Hezbollah currently has the technology and training to utilize precision targeting with a significant percentage of its arsenal of roughly 130,000 rockets and missiles, according to Israeli intelligence.
“Whoever says that it can’t happen to us isn’t a professional,” Defense Forces operations head Major-General Aharon Haliva said after the precision attacks on Saudi Aramco last November.
The biggest snag to the Israeli plan, however, comes from within. Set to begin enactment in January of this year, the budget for Tenufa has still not passed.
At first the problem was the cycle of repeated elections which plagued the country from April 2019 to March 2020. When a government was finally formed in May, the problem persisted. Netanyahu insisted on passing a budget limited to the current year, even as his rival coalition partner Gantz insisted the coalition agreement called for a two-year budget.
The manner in which Netanyahu has handled the budget in a time of threats place Israel at risk if a serious conflagration develops on the border with Lebanon.
While the government may spew fire and brimstone in their public pronouncements, their credibility is undercut by the prime minister’s willingness to deprive the military of funds even as he claims Iran is the “biggest threat” to Israeli security.
There is currently a stalemate between the sides, and unless an agreement is reached by August 25, the Knesset will dissolve and the country will go to yet another election. This will put off the ability of the military to update its capabilities for another considerable and unknown period.
Netanyahu, known as Bibi, claims that this is not the time to plan far ahead since the effects of Covid-19 on the economy are not clear. His staunchest defenders accept this explanation, but few others.
Netanyahu also seems determined to sabotage the coalition agreement, under which Blue and White party leader Gantz is set to replace him as prime minister after eighteen months. In addition, Netanyahu is unhappy that the Blue and White have voiced support for the large daily demonstrations taking place against his handling of the response to Covid-19, which has entered a second wave.
According to some Israeli reports, Netanyahu is hoping for a new election which will be resolved in time for his corruption trial and before the true economic consequences of the virus hit the public.
Netanyahu also appears to deeply regret letting Blue and White have the Justice portfolio, as Minister Avi Nissenkorn has resisted his attempts to skew the trial schedule and proceedings in his favor.
Skeptics believe Netanyahu may be exaggerating the severity of the threat posed by Hezbollah to distract from his domestic troubles. The Hezbollah incursion took place in an area contested by the Lebanese and even the Syrian government with few Israeli civilians in the vicinity.
Attacks there are considered by many analysts to be an indication of a limited retaliation designed to be contained.
“When the Prime Minister is looking for any distraction from Corona and the economic situation, Hezbollah can’t even commit one small terror attack correctly,” Haaretz political correspondent Chaim Levinson Tweeted sarcastically.
“Hopefully Hezbollah can do better next time.”