First, the good news: At the onset of 5777, the new Jewish year, there is no conventional or existential military threat against the State of Israel.
That is no small feat, considering that it was just 43 years ago when Israel was getting clobbered in Sinai and on the Golan Heights in the bloody debacle known as the Yom Kippur War. In a coordinated assault, the Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked Israel and killed over 2,600 IDF soldiers, and created an unprecedented sense of vulnerability that would take decades to shake off.
Today though, there is peace with Egypt, and no Syrian military to speak of.
Five years into a bloody and costly civil war, the Syrian military – Israel’s primary threat until recently – is almost completely eroded. Practically, this means that there is no adversary currently parked along Israel’s borders with the ability to conquer Israeli’s territory, no mobilized armored divisions or infantry corps that pose a serious threat today to the IDF.
In addition, while the Iran nuclear deal has plenty of problems and weak points – specifically, that in just a few years the deal will enable Tehran to be just weeks away from a nuclear device – for the time being it is working, and has stopped the mullah’s race to the bomb.
Within the IDF General Staff, the deal is looked at like this: it has stopped Iran’s nuclear program, but not Iran’s nuclear desire. One day, probably sooner than later, Iran’s nuclear sites will again need to be considered as potential military targets.
So the good news, if it can even be called that, is that because of Syria’s civil war there is no conventional military threat against Israel, and because of the unreliable nuclear deal, Iran is for now not an existential threat to the Jewish state.
But here is the bad news.
Israel today is challenged on five different but simultaneous fronts, each of which draws different resources, focuses and responses. The common denominator among all five is that while none presents Israel with an existential or conventional threat, they are all extremely unpredictable. On all five fronts, small tactical-level incidents have the potential to quickly escalate into full-blown conflicts.
Here is the breakdown:
The stabbing intifada, as it has become known, started last October with the murder of the Henkin couple in northern Samaria. Since then, the IDF has recorded nearly 300 attacks, over 100 directed against civilians. As recent events show – the violence in Silwan over Yom Kippur, and the murder earlier this week of two Israelis in Jerusalem – these sporadic attacks by lone attackers are likely to continue.
This, by the way, is the IDF’s working assumption. Terrorism, senior officers explain, has unfortunately always been part of the Israel story, since before the state was established. Despite everything the IDF and other security forces do, they don’t really expect it to ever fully go away.
Nevertheless, there is plenty they can and are already doing to try to keep it at a minimum. Today, an unprecedented number of IDF battalions and soldiers are deployed in the West Bank, and Israel Police officers are stationed in larger and greater numbers in known flash points like Jerusalem. Over 3,700 Palestinians have been arrested in the past year, alongside dozens of weapons workshops that have been demolished and hundreds of guns and rifles that have been seized.
The increased IDF presence – alongside impressive intelligence work that includes hunting for potential attackers on social media – has brought the number of attacks down in recent months. In September 2015, the IDF recorded 69 attacks, and in October, 43. This past September there were 14, after six straight months when the number was under 10.
The policy of staying away from collective punishment and differentiating between Palestinians who participate in attacks and those who don’t – put into place by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and continued by his successor, Avigdor Liberman – is believed to be the main reason why this past year has not spiraled into a full-fledged intifada with the participation of PA security forces.
Despite the violence, some 60,000 Palestinians still cross daily into Israel, and freedom of movement is allowed throughout the West Bank. The PA security services for the most part still cooperate with the IDF – the military says their effectiveness is at about 40% – and carry out arrests against Hamas terrorists.
Since 1968, the IDF has not recorded such a quiet period in the Gaza Strip as it has since the war in Gaza ended two summers ago. This does not mean the situation is quiet, or the potential for war does not exist. It definitely does, and when considering Israel’s various fronts, the most explosive is Gaza.
Since 2014, Gazan terrorists have fired 47 rockets and mortar shells into Israel.
This is almost nothing compared to 2014, when 4,891 rockets and mortar shells hit Israel, mostly during the war.
Of the rockets and mortar shells that have been fired this past year, 95% were launched by organizations other than Hamas, such as Islamic Jihad, which continues to receive tens of millions of dollars annually in support from Iran.
Even so, the IDF has struck nearly 100 targets throughout the Strip – many of them in recent weeks – and all of them belonged to Hamas, which Israel holds responsible for anything that happens in Gaza. None of these targets were just sand dunes. They were all real Hamas assets.
At the same time, the IDF is investing heavily in tunnel detection technology, and has set aside NIS 600 million from its own budget to match the same amount from the Treasury to continue the development and enable the eventual procurement.
There have been some successes, but the system is not fool-proof and will need more time for development.
What this means practically is that when it comes to Gaza, the IDF is currently focused mostly on intelligence collection and the creation of target banks for when another war breaks out. Soldiers are also constantly training for the guerrilla and tunnel warfare they will face.
But even as it prepares for war, the defense establishment is also supportive of initiatives – like the construction of a port off the Gaza coast – which it believes could improve the economic situation in the Strip and help stave off another conflict.
While economic prosperity is not directly tied to terrorism, there is a correlation.
Within the defense establishment there is no question that the worse off Gaza is, the less hope there is for change, and the more motivation there will be to engage in terrorist activity against Israel.
SinaiSinai remains a point of concern for Israel and a focus for IDF intelligence. On the one hand, Egypt seems to be doing a better job at cracking down on Islamic terrorist elements in Sinai, but ISIS cells still operate freely throughout the peninsula.
According to the IDF, many of the ISIS fighters in Sinai train with Hamas in Gaza, and receive funding, weapons and assistance from the Palestinian terrorist organization.
One of the last known attacks against Israel was in July 2015, when a rocket was fired from Sinai into Israel.
That October, a Russian airliner blew up over Sinai, killing all 224 people on board.
The attack is believed to have been carried out by ISIS.
To counter this growing threat, the IDF in recent years has beefed up its presence along the 400-kilometer border, with additional troops alongside electronic warning systems like phased-radar systems.
According to various reports, it seems that Israel and Egypt are cooperating in combating ISIS. In July, Bloomberg reported that Israel was carrying out drone attacks in Sinai “with Egypt’s blessing.” Israel has also allowed Egypt to deploy additional troops and combat vehicles in Sinai by slightly modifying the Camp David Accords.
Israel’s concern is that the Sinai front will escalate beyond an occasional rocket attack. It hopes that Egypt’s military campaign will keep ISIS preoccupied and away from the Jewish state.
For Israel, the situation in Syria presents an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, Israel benefits from the erosion of the Syrian military. On the other hand, today Israel is vulnerable – as recent skirmishes have shown – to attacks from terrorist elements based in Syria like ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, a known al-Qaida affiliate.
Israel has laid down three redlines when it comes to Syria that if crossed, will necessitate action: the transfer of sophisticated weaponry from Syria to Lebanon; the establishment of an Iranian presence on the Golan Heights; and any violation of Israeli sovereignty.
In recent months, Israel has noticed terrorist elements fleeing northern Syria and moving to the South, where they could shift their focus to Israel.
Russia’s expanding presence in Syria and investment in Bashar Assad’s survival – alongside its standoff with the US – means that there is very little chance a sustainable cease-fire can be reached that would end the war and return some semblance of quiet to the region.
What it also means is that Israel will need to watch over its three redlines to ensure they are not violated.
With its 130,000 rockets and missiles – some of which are capable of striking almost anywhere in Israel – Hezbollah is Israel’s primary threat for the year ahead.
The potential devastation that would be caused to Israel in a war with Hezbollah is incomparable to anything Israel has seen in past conflicts, with some estimates that up to 1,000 rockets could be fired in a single day.
However, according to Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah remains deterred from engaging in a full-fledged conflict with Israel due to two primary factors: the deterrence Israel created during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the organization’s continued involvement in the Syrian war.
There are approximately 7,000 Hezbollah operatives currently working inside Syria, fighting alongside the Syrian army.
Over the last few years, some 2,000 have been killed and more than 6,000 have been injured. Out of a force of around 20,000, that is a significant number.
Hezbollah also recently lost its top military commander, Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in May in a blast at a base near Damascus airport. Badreddine was the most senior Hezbollah operative killed since his brother-in-law, longtime military commander Imad Mughniyah, was blown up on February 12, 2008, by a bomb planted in his car in the Kafr Sousa neighborhood of Damascus that Hezbollah blamed on Israel.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has not forgotten the devastation Israel wreaked on Lebanon during the 2006 war, and the long-term negative impact it had on the country’s two key sources of income: tourism and banking.
Nevertheless, the political deadlock in Lebanon – illustrated by the inability to appoint a president – alongside growing tension in the region could lead to a change in Hezbollah’s calculus.
FORTY-THREE years after the Yom Kippur War, the enemy has changed. While Israel no longer needs to worry about tank divisions trying to plow their way into the Golan or the Negev, the unpredictability of its enemies and their changing modes of warfare mean that the IDF needs to constantly be at a state of readiness.
War can come from any of these fronts at a moment’s notice, and for that, the IDF is always preparing. On the other hand, victory with enemies like these is not absolute. Conflicts are like cycles these days. They come and then disappear for some time until the enemies rebuild their capabilities and reignite the passion and ideology of their followers.
The IDF’s real challenge is how to remain versatile in the face of multiple threats and adversaries that it faces in the region.
Hopefully, 5777 will go down as a quiet year for Israel. It has the potential to be something completely different.