Headlines may have focused elsewhere in recent weeks, but tensions along Israel’s northern borders remain high. For more than four months, the Israel Defense Forces has been on a high alert in the north, bracing for a promised Hezbollah attack.

Twice the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organization has tried hitting targets in Israel to avenge the death of its operative in Damascus last July. The first time, a Hezbollah cell approached the perimeter of a military outpost at Har Dov, fleeing after being exposed. In the second incident, a Hezbollah sniper attempted to shoot Israeli soldiers near Manara.

“I wouldn’t advise [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah to test us again, because our response will be disproportionate to what he estimates will happen,” warned Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder, commander of the IDF Northern Command’s Galilee Division, in an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom. “We are well prepared, even for a situation where we’ll have to fight for several days. Hezbollah will pay a steep price for it.”

Binder has had very little time off lately. He’s shuttled between the units and forces on the ground to ensure everyone is ready, personally approving all military activity and every operation. He’s had to employ all the operational cunning garnered as a long-time member of the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, to predict and counter Hezbollah’s next move, while at the same time preparing the IDF response should such an attack succeed.

Last weekend, too, Binder was on base. Between speaking with his troops and visiting a new training facility in his sector, he found time for an interview—his first in all his years in the military. “I prefer speaking less,” he explained with a smile.

Binder, 45, is married to Yael and is a father of three. He lives on a moshav in the Golan Heights. He spent his entire mandatory service in Sayeret Matkal, but before he was appointed to command his original unit, he also commanded Egoz Reconnaissance Unit, whose missions involve counter-guerrilla warfare.

During his tenure as commander of Sayeret Matkal, the unit received two citations: one for its role in detecting Hamas attack tunnels during “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, and one for other missions carried out in its aftermath. After completing his three-year command of Sayeret Matkal, he was tapped to lead the Golani Brigade. From there he went on to study in Washington, returning to Israel a year and a half ago as commander of the Galilee Division.

A reorganization of the sector
Binder speaks quietly and is cautious with his words, but what he does say is worth listening to. Binder isn’t only one of the IDF’s most exceptional field commanders, but also one of its wisest. In speaking with him, one gets the impression that at this sensitive time, the volatile northern sector is in good hands.

Binder believes the current tension with Hezbollah isn’t solely due to the killing of the organization’s operative in Syria four months ago, instead attributing it mainly to the long string of unfortunate—from Hezbollah’s perspective—events over the past six years. Among these were the assassinations of Imad Mughniyeh and Samir Kuntar, Hezbollah’s failure to exact a price for the death of its people in Syria, and the discovery and destruction of the extensive infiltration tunnels it dug into Israel.

“This was a tough blow from its perspective,” said Binder. “It’s extremely disconcerting when one of your strategic projects is exposed, which cost you millions of dollars.”

An Israeli soldier stands at a Hezbollah tunnel that crosses from Lebanon to Israel, on the border between Israel and Lebanon in northern Israel, on May 29, 2019. Photo by Basel Awidat/Flash90.

Q: Has Nasrallah abandoned the idea?

A: He has stopped. We continue to monitor at all times. At the moment we’re unaware of any new tunnels. But this doesn’t mean they’ve given up on the idea. For now, they’ve taken a break to stop and calculate a new course.

Q: The tunnels were supposed to provide them the element of surprise. In their view, do they have an alternative?

A: Just because you can’t infiltrate [Israel] underground doesn’t mean you can’t infiltrate above ground. There’s no impenetrable barrier here that can’t be crossed. They intend their attack to be on land, as they’ve done on many occasions in Syria. We are preparing ourselves for that.

Q: But what does Nasrallah want to achieve?

A: Two main things: disturb our own offensive and seize land. Our job in the Galilee Division is to ensure that vital land, primarily communities, don’t fall into Hezbollah’s hands. This is a complex challenge. In many segments of the border area, Hezbollah enjoys a clear topographical advantage. It’s doubtful the existing barrier can prevent the organization from seizing one of the 22 border-adjacent communities or one of the IDF outposts originally built to counter the Palestinian terror threat from the 1970s, but [that] are not suitable for repelling an advancing Hezbollah guerilla army.

The way to prevent [such an attack] is by reorganizing the sector, and by incorporating every type of firepower. The attacker’s advantage is obvious, but the defender also has an advantage: He can prepare surprises and use subterfuge, and we are utilizing every minute to do exactly that. Hezbollah will encounter a lot of surprises here in relation to its plans, and this will allow us to destroy it more effectively.

(As part of this defensive effort, the IDF in recent years has been constructing walls in several areas, intended to hinder infiltration into Israeli territory, as well as artillery fire from Lebanese territory. Such a wall has already been erected near Rosh Hanikra, and between Misgav Am and Metula. Binder insists on calling these walls “sophisticated barriers” and says they “provide a nice, albeit partial, response.”)

Q: If you could, would you build such a wall along the entire border?

A: I’d build the barrier in a compatible manner. Some of it out of cement, some from other materials, with advanced technology. But certainly, if there were no budgetary problems I’d do that.

Israeli army forces stationed near the border between Israel and Lebanon in the Golan Heights on July 27, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.

Hezbollah, says Binder, doesn’t want a war. It wants to “rearrange the equation,” meaning it wants it to be clear that for every one of its operatives killed by Israel—in Lebanon or Syria—an IDF soldier will be killed. The goal: to deter the IDF and hamper its activities in the northern sector.

“I want to be clear on this matter: We don’t operate according to Hezbollah’s equations,” said Binder.

Q: Meaning?

A: We will do what suits us at that given moment. I always want to be two steps ahead of Hezbollah. It’s not a matter of if he does something to me, I’ll do the exact thing back. The Manara incident also illustrated this point: They fired two bullets at an IDF force, missed the target, and in response, we launched 180 mortars into Lebanese territory and destroyed two observation outposts.

IDF Artillery Corps seen firing towards Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, on the Israel Lebanon border on Aug. 26, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.

Q: In other words, if, heaven forbid, one of our soldiers is killed, the response will correspond?

A: I have no intention of delving into our plans, but I think if that were to happen, Hezbollah would discover it [had] made a very big mistake. Our level of battle-readiness is extremely high today, and we are willing to take risks on this basis because we are not willing to live according to Hezbollah’s equation.

Q: Meaning Hezbollah insists on maintaining this equation and you insist on not maintaining it.

A: I insist on not engaging with Hezbollah in a dialogue about equations. My job is not to be stagnant and to be ready for any development.

Q: And if you find yourself in a protracted battle with Hezbollah, what would you like to accomplish?

A: Without getting into objectives, I’ll answer with one sentence: That next time, Hezbollah will think long and hard before acting again.

‘Hezbollah is a rational actor’

Since the Manara incident, Hezbollah has not attempted any further action against IDF soldiers. Considering the number of troops in the sector, we can assume it had opportunities to act. Binder believes this partially stems from the “scattered surprises” the IDF is continuously devising, which are disruptive to Hezbollah’s situational picture, but also stems from the terrorist organization’s fear of stepping into an undesired escalation.

Still, however, Binder cautions that “from Hezbollah’s perspective, it isn’t over. It is seeking its revenge and it’s my job to prevent it, but also to prepare our response if it does happen because things can always go wrong.”

In Binder’s view, Hezbollah’s conduct these past few months reconfirms it is a rational actor. The fact that it hasn’t acted impulsively indicates the existence of situational assessments on its part and that it weighs a broad array of considerations—such as the economic situation in Lebanon, which is on the brink of insolvency, and the coronavirus pandemic (last week, 2,000 new cases were confirmed in Lebanon in a 24-hour period).

A map detailing the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon. Credit: American University of Beirut.

Lebanon’s negotiations with Israel over the countries’ maritime border are also a consideration for Hezbollah because they represent an extraordinary financial opportunity for Lebanon in the form of offshore natural gas fields.

“I think there’s a willingness by both sides to settle this issue,” said Binder of the border talks, “but it’s an opportunity that can easily be squandered if Hezbollah decides to fan the flames over here.”

Q: There’s been quite a bit of criticism in recent years over the IDF’s readiness for war. Are you satisfied?

A: I think we’ve improved. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to do. I’m satisfied with the level of commitment, with the professionalism, but these are things that require ongoing attention. The tensions of the past few months are the best catalyst for battle readiness one can ask for because over this time the forces have dramatically improved, all my reservists have come through here, all the battle stations are operational, functioning, and trained, we’ve conducted a lot of simulations.

Q: It sounds like you want to stay on this high alert forever.

A: For a division, operational friction is a good thing.

Q: Do you see improvement on the other side as well?

A: Of course I see improvement. We are in a fight, and they are also learning from mistakes and trying to get better […] Our biggest challenge is to try and understand their improvement process, and to provide a response to that. It’s a never-ending race. A fight of who learns quicker.

The Israel Defense Forces “Lethal Arrow” exercise in the Galilee, which simulated war on both the Lebanese and Syrian fronts against Hezbollah, Iranian forces and Iranian-backed militias, October 2020. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

Q: Maybe the Iranians are pushing Hezbollah into a corner?

A: The Iranians are very influential over what happens in our space, in both Syria and Lebanon. They certainly aren’t an element of restraint—and in Lebanon, only Hezbollah is capable of restraining Hezbollah. The Iranians don’t care about Lebanon.

Looking ahead

Binder himself served in Lebanon as a young team leader in Sayeret Matkal, carrying out numerous missions both with that unit and later on as commander of Egoz—and now as commander of the Galilee Division. His higher-ups recently decided to keep him in that role for an additional, third year. He was offered command of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s special operations division but declined.

“I’m in the most interesting place in my opinion. In a position to observe, learn and come into contact with the most significant enemy facing the IDF today,” he said. “I enjoy the job very much and feel I can make a difference. Two years isn’t enough.”

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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