Next week, the officer in charge of the northern border sector will conclude his tour of duty there. Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder has been commander of the 91st Division (also known as the Galilee Formation) for two years and eight months. It was a tense period in the most sensitive military arena. But apart from a handful of incidents, which spawned lengthy periods of preparedness, Binder hopes to complete his term, as most of his predecessors did, without having to contend with any sharp plot twists.
Binder, 47, was born in Haifa and lives in the Golan Heights. He began his military career as a combat soldier in Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff’s elite special-operations force. He went on to lead the sayeret, the Egoz commando unit and the Golani Brigade. In a few months he will, for the first time, take a desk job in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, Israel’s military headquarters. He will head its nerve center, the General Staff’s operations division. Barring a very extraordinary development, he will go on to become a member of the General Staff with the rank of major general in two or three years.
The conversation with him touches on a state of affairs that rarely makes the evening news – they’re busy with other matters – namely, the long economic and political collapse of our neighbor to the north, Hezbollah’s difficulties and the preparations on both sides for a possible third war in Lebanon.
Lebanon became increasingly mired in a severe economic crisis, was declared insolvent and struggled to provide basic necessities such as electricity, medicine and even food to its citizens. Binder is convinced that Hezbollah’s insistence on quarreling with Israel at a time like this affected the organization’s popularity with the Lebanese.
“I think that most of Lebanon’s citizens are no longer impressed by Hezbollah’s efforts to present itself as the country’s protector. That narrative took a blow,” Binder says. “Hezbollah is not in the consensus, not even among Shi’ite Muslims. Internal opposition has sprung up. There are many people who want freedom and who object to fundamentalism. The proof is that the organization murders opponents from within the community if they attack it openly.
“A year and something ago,” he continues, “Lokman Slim, a Shi’ite journalist who was critical of [Hezbollah], was murdered in southern Lebanon. Don’t forget the explosion in Beirut Port, where Hezbollah stored explosives, the explosions in arms depots throughout Lebanon, the anger of the Druze in the south when Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel from the area of their villages last August. The Lebanese have a lot to lose. The economic situation is absolutely awful. Inflation and unemployment are rampant, and there is significant emigration to Europe and South America. Many Sunni Muslims and Christians are leaving the country. It’s estimated that nearly 120,000 people left within a period of about two years.”
According to Binder, “Amid the crisis, Hezbollah is expanding the Iranian foothold. While ordinary citizens don’t have food or fuel, Iranian-funded grocery chains and gas stations are assisting the Shi’ite community. The Iranian takeover is affecting Lebanon like the proverbial frog that gets boiled alive slowly. Even if Iran is subject to international sanctions, its aid to Hezbollah, though it has been affected, hasn’t stopped. A soldier in Lebanon’s army earns less than a Hezbollah operative. A Lebanese general makes $500 a month, like a rank-and-file Hezbollah operative. The Iranian influence is dangerous, not least because today they are more ready to be bold and play with fire in our direction.
“Is the country functioning? Their definitions are different from ours,” he says. “The bar is low: The electricity supply rises and falls, there is a large ‘black economy.’” Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May. “My assessment is that not much will change. Hezbollah is in control behind the scenes. They are the political kingmakers and in the end it will attain the balance that it wants. When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund demand [economic reforms in Lebanon], there’s a sham of it occurring. Hezbollah is entrenched in the corrupt order and won’t allow it to change. It’s a political body no less than it is a military one, and it has economic interests in the country. Nasrallah will do all he can to halt Western influence of a moderating nature in Lebanon.”
Lessons from Ukraine
The main change that has occurred on the border in recent years relates to the arrival of the Radwan unit, Hezbollah’s elite force, and its deployment in southern Lebanon, after years in which they garnered experience in the Syrian civil war. “They have tools they didn’t have in 2006, notably an attack plan and capability in our territory. They have expanded the firepower aimed at our home front and they have improved their defensive capability in the face of an IDF maneuver. The chief of staff calls them a terrorist army. One of the blatant signs of the transition from guerrilla status to an army is the development of broad offensive formations, and not only point-specific offense or defense. That is not necessarily bad for us. The more of an army they become and create permanent patterns, the more they generate targets for attack by us. An army needs to move, to accumulate forces. That leaves footprints.”
At the end of the last war, there was a clear inclination in the IDF to magnify Hezbollah’s combat capabilities and especially the fighting spirit of its troops. Binder suggests that we shouldn’t exaggerate. “In my eyes they don’t come close to our capabilities. They know how to work with an envelope of intelligence, firepower and other means, as they did alongside the Russians and the Iranians during the fighting in Syria. But that’s a less complex and less well-oiled system than ours. Our principal threat reference for many years is Hezbollah. We are planning, training and thinking about that. We have a stronger connection between intelligence, firepower and ground maneuver.”
Still, the IDF finds it difficult to define for itself the essence of victory in a confrontation with an enemy that is not exactly an army. In the first Lebanon war, in 1982, Israeli forces reached Beirut, but withdrew in a despondent atmosphere, despite the fact that Yasser Arafat and PLO officials left. In 2006, against Hezbollah, the IDF advanced only 10 to 15 kilometers and left Lebanon with the sense of a frustrating stalemate. That is a problem the high command continues to contemplate, but it’s clear that the tendency today is more to degrade the enemy’s assets than to seize territory and hold it for the long term. The goal, Binder says, will be “to finish when Hezbollah has sustained a mortal blow. We will try to reduce significantly their arsenal of all types, to strike at commanders and fighters. The hope is that it will lead to deterrence of many years.”
The war in Ukraine, which the IDF is following closely for its professional lessons, has shown once again how difficult it is for an army to capture densely built-up urban areas. For more than a month the Russians have been having difficulty in conquering Mariupol, in the southeast of the country, despite their vast superiority in combat personnel and weaponry. Paradoxically, it’s the immense destruction in the city that is aiding the defending force to some extent, as it’s easier to find shelter in that situation.
“There is a great deal to be learned from what the Russians are encountering,” Binder notes. “It’s illustrating very well what should be done and what should not be done. What a logistics convoy should look like, how important it is to maintain tanks and to invest in emergency depots, and to protect armor from aerial attacks.”
“Hezbollah,” he says, “has a great deal of advanced weaponry. It won’t be possible to portray them as an impoverished army that is just taking a beating.” But an extensive offensive thrust by Hezbollah, he believes, “will inflict disaster both on the organization and on the Lebanese state.” Even though Nasrallah has been relatively cautious for years in his long-term duel with Israel, Binder maintains that the Shi’ite leader underestimates the IDF’s current offensive capability as well as Israel’s readiness to take far-reaching measures if attacked. “That will vent something within us that I don’t think he fully grasps.”