Monday, December 09, 2013
Looking Hezbollah in the Eyes: Druze Soldiers Prepare for the Enemy
While Hezbollah enhances its attack capabilities, the IDF’s all-Druze battalion is preparing to counter a growing threat along the northern border. As they learn to battle Hezbollah terrorists – positioned just kilometers from Druze villages – the soldiers explain that they are just protecting home.
On the backdrop of Israel’s moutainous Galilee region, near the villages they call home, soldiers from the IDF’s Herev Battalion set out for an elite military exercise. As members of the IDF’s all-Druze battalion, they are some of the only IDF soldiers who carry out their missions in Arabic as well as Hebrew.
Throughout their exercise, the soldiers advance on a makeshift position atop a mountain, which is meant to represent a post of the Lebanese military. As time passes, soldiers acting as Hezbollah fighters flood into the position and simulate an attack.
“Hezbollah’s fighting in the Syrian Civil War instills confidence in [its forces], and this changes the pattern of its activity,” explains Lieutenant Colonel Rafat Halbi, the commander of the Herev Batallion. “Nevertheless, it’s clear to everyone – even to Hezbollah – that the IDF is much stronger and will remain this way.”
The soldiers finally reach a crossing point intended to represent the Lebanese border, and with tension rising, they emerge from their hidden positions. Lt. Col. Halbi, surrounded by three different radios, calls to the troops and asks them if any enemy forces remain in the area. An intelligence officer, reacting to the question over radio, suddenly sits up straight. “Can we pass, or not?” the commander asks again.
Hezbollah Advancing Capabilities in Syria
Minutes later, the Herev fighters cross into an area representing Lebanese territory. The unit’s Combat Engineering forces clear an area littered with makeshift explosives, making way for Israeli forces to carefully advance. As they pass into the enemy’s domain, an organizer of the exercise points his finger downward, signalling to the crew that a fighter has been injured. “Nobody move,” a voice calls out, and the soldiers freeze in their positions as the organizer runs away. “There’s an injured soldier,” the voice continues. “Someone stepped on a mine. We need to evacuate [him].”
The crew begins an emergency evacuation, but more soldiers acting as Hezbollah fighters fire blanks in their direction. The Herev soldiers quickly locate the terrorists, who are hidden in bushes only five meters away, and quickly return fire on the enemy forces. “Recently, Hezbollah has been trying to enhance its attack capabilities,” Lt. Col. Halbi explains. “We take this into account in the exercise, and we prepare for it according to the most up-to-date picture of the situation in all sectors.”
Major Shushan, an Operations Officer along the Lebanese border, describes this recent change as one element within a larger picture. “After the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah lost its resonance within the Lebanese world,” he claims. “Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to develop new operational capabilities, and to restore the faith of the Shiite public. In Syria, it is gathering operational experience, and if we meet its forces on the battlefield, we will see this.”
While climbing the slope of a mountain, the soldiers glance at the valley behind them, looking out onto the villages where their families live. When the last soldiers arrive, a commander tells them to look back at the path they have just climbed. “We feel that we are defending our homes,” explain the soldiers, many of whom live very close to the border.
Lebanese Army: Neutral but Potentially Hostile
To take control of a large mountain, the Herev soldiers must cross a complex fortified area, typical of Hezbollah-controlled territory in Lebanon. As the fighters simulate heavy fighting in the area, Hezbollah fighters successfully “kidnap” two soldiers, changing the rules of the game entirely. In addition to taking control of the mountain, the soldiers must now attempt to rescue the two Israeli captives. “The battalion dealt well with this challenge, and we managed to bring the soldiers back,” Lt. Col. Halbi says after the exercise. “The threat of kidnapping is a central challenge in the sector. Therefore, we’ve practiced [dealing with] all scenarios in the past few days – even kidnapping without any previous indications [of an attack] along the border.”
While the exercise simulates the dominating reality in Lebanon, it also prepares soldiers to deal with three complex and interconnected elements – the United Nations, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces. “In this exercise, we are training the battalion’s fighters to move quickly between situations,” explained a senior official. “The Lebanese army is a neutral element to begin with, but in the middle of battle it could turn into an aggressive force. From the moment they try to harm us, we will attack them with full force.”
In addition to enhancing its attack capabilities, Hezbollah is focusing its efforts on improving its ability to fight at night. “It had a gap in this area until now,” explains Lt. Col. Hali, but stresses that the terrorist organization doesn’t even begin to approach Israel’s capabilities.
A senior official from the IDF’s Northern Command explains that this exercise is no typical drill, performed in a way that prepares soldiers for the unexpected outbreak of war. “This is an exercise that transitions the battalion from their routine security operations into war, as they may be forced to do one day in the event of an emergency,” he says. “The border is very volatile, and it’s important to exercise the battalion in its assigned sector.”