Middle East

Israel 'readier' for new Hezbollah war

Israeli soldiers patrol near border with Lebanon Image copyright AFP
Image caption Israel says it will devastate Hezbollah if a new war erupts

Some Israelis refer to the war with Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah 10 years ago as a national trauma. Its civilians in the north of the country came under attack and Israel hit back hard, bombing Lebanese towns and infrastructure.

It was a conflict many feel Israel was not prepared for. Thirty-three days after it was triggered by a deadly cross-border attack by Hezbollah, it ended with a ceasefire.

Hezbollah was damaged, but rebuilt over the past decade with the help of Iran and Syria. Israel says the group's firepower is now much greater than before the war.

"Now they have more than 120,000 rockets and missiles," says General Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor, now with the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"It's a huge number that you don't find in any country in Europe for example. When you see all these efforts, you ask yourself one question - what for?"

The Israeli military sees Hezbollah as a stronger, more professional fighting force and says it should be treated as an army - and it has had to raise its game.

"The military is such an important issue in Israeli society, there are very high expectations," says defence journalist Amos Harel.

He says in 2006 the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were not equipped for conflict with Hezbollah "because they were so busy fighting the second intifada [Palestinian uprising] in the West Bank and in Gaza. We need our reserves to be more ready and all of this has been done and there's been quite a lot of operational changes."

Civilian frontline

Heading out on a surveillance mission with Israeli troops on the northern border, the soldiers go through a final equipment check, before a long march in the darkness.

Scrambling down the hillside overlooking Lebanon in pitch black, we can only whisper so as not to arouse suspicions.

In these stakeouts, troops keep an eye on Hezbollah operatives around the clock. From what they see, the weapons Hezbollah has are being stored in civilian areas.

"Every mission that I've been on personally has been observing Hezbollah operations in a heavily populated area," says one of the soldiers, Gabriel. "In a house with a family living in it or in a house next door or behind it."

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Media captionKaty Watson joined the Israel Defense Forces on a night time border stakeout

Israel has long said that it will target places where the weapons are stashed. It warns if war breaks out, Lebanese casualties would be high.

Major Eyal Levi fought in the last war. He now leads the surveillance unit on the border.

He drives me alongside the fence where it is apparent how security has been reinforced.

A ridge has been cut out of the hillside to make getting to the Israeli side much harder. He tells me it is quiet - for now.

"The next war is only a matter of time. In the next war, we will hit Hezbollah so hard that the war after that will be decades from now."

Image caption The border has been tense but largely calm for the past 10 years

But challenges remain.

"It still doesn't solve the basic problem, which is fighting what's called an asymmetric warfare against an organisation which is not really interested in occupying Tel Aviv," says Amos Harel, referring to Hezbollah.

"It's interested in inflicting damage on our military capabilities and our civilian population and it's interested in a sort of emotional battle, a psychological battle more than anything else."

Kidnap fears

Residents on the border live with that threat every day.

Edi lives in the village of Zarit. He points out the black Hezbollah watchtowers that have gone up in recent months.

He tells me he hears gunfire across the border but for him and his kids, it is part of everyday life. His biggest worry? Being kidnapped.

"It's not a secret that Hezbollah wants to do something very audacious," he says. "I don't think they want to take solders, I think they want to take civilians so it hits the headlines, something that's not been done before."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The war cost more than 150 Israeli and 1,110 Lebanese lives

Ten years ago, it was in the north of the country that Israel was hit but a new war is expected to be more devastating - on both sides.

There is also concern that despite Israel's air defence systems such as Iron Dome, the military won't be capable of intercepting all of the missiles that come Israel's way.

"More missiles and rockets will hit the centre of Israel, the big cities of Israel," says Gen Amidror. "Many more Lebanese will be killed because of the number of rockets and missiles which have been stored by Hezbollah within populated areas."

It seems both sides are deterred for now.

But in this volatile region where nothing is certain, nobody doubts another Israel-Hezbollah war will be more destructive than ever before.