- By Rhys DubinRhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.
The Israeli military is in the midst of its largest military exercise in nearly two decades, focusing on a potential war with Hezbollah.
Held in the north of the country, the roughly two-week drill – dubbed “The Light of Grain” – comes amid rising tension along the Lebanese-Israeli border, where Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia, has maintained a presence for decades.
The drill will simulate “scenarios we’ll be facing in the next confrontation with Hezbollah,” an Israeli defense source told Agence France-Presse.
Tens of thousands of soldiers from multiple branches of the Israeli Defense Forces – including the air force, navy, ground units, intelligence, and cyber command – are set to participate.
On Thursday, senior Hezbollah leader Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, the head of Hezbollah’s governing Sharia Council, dismissed the operation. “The maneuvers that [Israel] is conducting on the border are part of coercions after the triumphs that [Hezbollah] has made against terrorism,” he said, according to the Daily Star.
The line of demarcation between the two countries has been relatively peaceful since the last war in 2006. However, tensions between Israel and Hezbollah have increased steadily over the last several months due at least in part to Israeli actions on the border and Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the Syrian war.
Israel has often targeted Hezbollah units in Syria in an attempt to limit the transfer of strategic weapons to the group, and Hezbollah has rearmed and reinforced its positions along the so-called “Blue Line” dividing Israel and Lebanon.
According to Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official, the recent exercise – though planned long in advance – fits into that general pattern of tit-for-tat escalation, but with a new strategic element.
“Now that the [Syrian] war has moved into a new phase with the impending defeat of ISIS, the Israelis are concerned that the Iranians and Hezbollah will exploit the subsequent vacuum,” Danin told Foreign Policy.
Danin said that the Israeli drills served the dual purpose of both demonstrating the Israel Defense Forces’ combat effectiveness, and sending a signal to Hezbollah, Iran, and the Syrian government. “This is largely about messaging,” Danin said. “Given that Israel has historically communicated with Syria and various Lebanese parties through the language of deterrence and military signalling, I see it in that context.”
Israeli military and political leaders have said that the IDF’s strategy in a future conflict could be dramatically different from those in the past. Among other changes, some Israeli politicians, including the head of the right-wing Jewish Home Party Naftali Bennet, have controversially argued for expanding the scope of future operations to targeting the Lebanese government, as well as broader Lebanese national infrastructure.
In an op-ed published in the Times of Israel in April, Bennet outlined potential shifts. “Unlike last time , if we defend ourselves against a future Lebanese attack we will not use tweezers to search for a needle in a haystack: We will neutralize the haystack.”
According to Danin, it’s not clear whether either side wants a war of this catastrophic magnitude.
After the 2006 conflict, both sides are proceeding cautiously. “There’s a lot of deconfliction [that has to take place]. There’s a lot of room for error,” Danin said. “This adds to the volatility of the situation.”
Photo credit: Jalaa Marey/Getty Images