A future war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah could see the Shiite militant group cross the border in strength and seize Israeli territory, a senior officer said in comments widely reported by Israeli media Monday.
The Jerusalem Post quoted the unidentified officer as saying that Hezbollah had learnt much about ground tactics from Syria, where it has fought alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the three-and-a-half-year-old civil war.
“Hezbollah’s confidence is growing, along with its combat experience in Syria,” it quoted the officer as saying.
“The battlegrounds of Syria have enabled Hezbollah to upgrade its capabilities. Hezbollah plans to send many combatants into Israeli territory near the border and seize it.”
Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war in 2006, which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
Since then the border has remained largely quiet, but in February Israeli warplanes attacked targets inside Lebanon for the first reported time since the 2006 conflict and Hezbollah vowed revenge.
Monday’s reports, based on a briefing to Israeli defence correspondents, said that although another confrontation did not appear imminent, it was inevitable sooner or later.
Army spokesman Major Arye Shalicar told AFP that the military was prepared for any threat from Hezbollah.
“We are ready for any challenge. We are observing… what’s going on,” he said. “We are ready and it’s not worth it for them, it’s not worth them even trying it.”
Shalicar said that since 2006 the Shiite movement had re-established itself in the frontier region.
“In more than 200 villages in south Lebanon, they’ve built up a lot of strength, with all kinds of weapons, all kinds of missiles of varying range,” he said.
“All of their money is flowing in various directions to an offensive capability which, among other things, includes about 100,000 rockets of various types, most of them from Iran and Syria.
“You don’t get yourself 100,000 rockets for nothing. It would seem there’s a reason behind it and it’s certainly not for the good of the people.”
The military spokesman’s office on Monday distributed photos that it said showed Hezbollah fighters walking in plain sight near the border with Israel.
– Defence spending split –
Some Israeli media linked Sunday’s military briefing to a fierce battle inside the governing coalition.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon are fighting for a big hike in defence spending against fierce resistance from Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
Shalicar said it was a routine briefing for defence writers.
Veteran analyst Yossi Melman, writing in Maariv newspaper, said the same.
“The briefing was scheduled two weeks in advance, and was held as part of a routine round of briefings that the (military) spokesperson’s office arranges between high-ranking officers… and military affairs correspondents and analysts,” he said.
Newspaper Haaretz said Israel was not Hezbollah’s most pressing problem and it was more immediately concerned with fighting Sunni extremists, including those of the jihadist Islamic State group, in neighbouring Syria and at home in Lebanon.
“Relations between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army have improved, mainly because of the Sunni jihadist threat from Syria,” the paper wrote.
“The two groups joined forces against Islamic State fighters in the town of Arsal in northeastern Lebanon last month,” it added.
The town is a mainly Sunni enclave within the Shiite-majority Bekaa Valley region near the Syrian border and saw fierce fighting in August between the Lebanese army and jihadists of both the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State.
The fighting killed 20 Lebanese troops, 16 civilians and dozens of jihadists, who withdrew across the border, kidnapping dozens of Lebanese troops and policemen.
Two of the kidnapped troops have since been beheaded, despite mediation efforts by Qatar.