Israel plans evacuation in case of Hezbollah attack
Beirut - A newly revealed Israeli plan to evacuate up to 78,000 residents of the northern Galilee region in the event of another war with Hezbollah underlines concerns in the Jewish state that the Iranian-backed Lebanese group has unprecedented plans to storm across the border in that conflict.
The intention of the Israeli plan, dubbed Safe Distance, is to remove as many civilians from the front line as quickly as possible so that only Israeli troops will be waiting for any invading Hezbollah fighters.
It remains unclear how the Israeli Army will expedite a mass evacuation of civilians, especially given the suddenness with which conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel usually erupt.
Emptying northern Israel of 78,000 people could inadvertently help bolster Hezbollah’s strategic goals in the next war.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Army’s northern command plans to facilitate the removal of residents from a 4km belt from the border, an area covering 50 communities totalling about 78,000 people.
The evacuation “could knock the ground out from under Hezbollah’s moves”, Haaretz quoted an Israeli Army officer as saying.
If Hezbollah stormed a border settlement, “it will find the place empty of inhabitants and will have to deal with [Israeli] fighters”, the unnamed officer said.
Since the end of the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, there has been persistent speculation that Hezbollah plans to launch commando-style incursions into northern Israel in the next conflict.
From 2007, Hezbollah fighters have hinted in private conversations they are being trained in such tactics. In February 2012, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah made clear reference to a potential future invasion of Galilee.
“I tell the resistance fighters to be prepared for the day when war is imposed on Lebanon. Then, the resistance leadership might ask you to lead the resistance to liberate the Galilee,” he said.
Hezbollah’s fighters may not actually seize tracts of Israeli territory but its well-trained elite forces could mount commando raids into northern Israel at the onset of a war to seize border settlements before Israel’s military has a chance to react.
There are around 18 potentially vulnerable Israeli settlements 1km or less from the border. Many of them, such as Misgav Am, Manara and Shelomi, are connected to the rest of Israel only by a single road, which could be cut by an attacking force.
If Hezbollah adopts such a tactic, it will have to implement it before the Israeli military has had a chance to mobilise. The evacuation of 78,000 people would be significantly hampered if Hezbollah raiders had crossed into Israel and seized some settlements.
A mass evacuation on this scale, if achievable, would suit Hezbollah’s strategic intentions.
In a war with Israel, Hezbollah does not seek necessarily to inflict as many casualties or as much damage as possible. Its primary intention is to bring normal life in Israel to a halt for as long as possible, traditionally by pounding the country with missiles and rockets and, perhaps next time, by sending fighters across the frontier.
The longer Israeli civilians are kept in bomb shelters or away from their homes and work, the greater the pressure on the Israeli government to end the fighting with Hezbollah.
In any future conflict, the range and variety of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal could effectively cut off Israel from the rest of the world. Theoretically, at least, airports and seaports will shut down and most of the population in the northern half of the country will be under threat while hostilities last.
“Since the July war (in 2006), Israel insists that victory in any war in Lebanon must, first of all, be quick. It cannot take a long time and cannot turn into a war of attrition and bombing cities,” Nasrallah said in an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar daily in August 2014. “The enemy cannot withstand a war of attrition.”
The prospect of Hezbollah one day invading Galilee has kept the people of northern Israel on edge for years amid repeated speculation that Hezbollah has dug infiltration tunnels under the rocky border.
In 2014, residents of Zarit, a settlement in western Galilee 300 metres from the border, claimed they could hear drilling beneath their homes and urged the Israeli Army to investigate.
The Israeli military takes the notion of cross-border tunnels seriously and in 2014 conducted a multimillion-dollar survey of the 110km border. So far, the Israeli Army says it has found no evidence that tunnels have been dug.
In addition to subterranean surveys, the Israeli Army has been building obstacles and defences around the most vulnerable communities.
In the past year, it excavated the southern side of a steep valley between Hanita in western Galilee and the Lebanese border, turning it into a sheer limestone cliff to thwart Hezbollah attempts to storm the settlement. Other obstacles have been erected near Shelomi and Manara.