Israel loses control of its borders

Khalil Harb, The Cradle, January 23, 2024 —

In past wars, Israel was able to establish buffer or security zones inside enemy territory. But Tel Aviv’s adversaries have flipped the map today, forcing the occupation state to evacuate its own borders — perhaps permanently.

Israel once reigned supreme on the back of some immovable narratives: widely spun myths of a “promised land,” a “land without a people,” the “only democracy in the Middle East,” and the “only secure place for Jews in the world.” Today, those lofty soundbites lie in tatters, with the occupation state reeling from an unprecedented blow to its foundational ideas.

This transformation has unfolded with unexpected intensity since the 7 October Al-Aqsa Flood resistance operation and Israel’s devastating, genocidal war on Gaza.

But it is not just the challenge of narratives that has Israel on its back feet. For the first time in its 76-year history, Israel’s entire security calculations have been turned upside down: the occupation state is today grappling with buffer zones inside Israel. In past wars, it was Tel Aviv that established these “security zones” inside enemy territory — advancing Israel’s strategic geography, evacuating Arab populations near their state border areas, and fortifying its own borders.

This shift can be attributed to various factors, including vulnerabilities within the so-called “Arab Ring States” (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon). Throughout its history, Israel has consistently exerted military and political dominance, enforcing security measures on neighboring states, with the unconditional backing of allies like the US and Britain.

Israel’s new border realities 

But in this current war, Tel Aviv is slowly understanding that the equations and calculations of military confrontation have fundamentally changed — a process that began in 2000 when the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah, forced Israel to withdraw from most occupied territories in southern Lebanon.

Today, Israel is horrified to find itself retreating from direct confrontation lines with its arch-enemies in Gaza and Lebanon. The formidable capabilities of the resistance now include drones, rockets, targeted projectiles, tunnels, and spanking new shock tactics, casting doubt on the feasibility of Israeli settlers remaining safe in any of Israel’s border perimeters.

There is now one common refrain among settlers in the north and south of occupied Palestine: “We will not return unless security is restored on the border.”

But prospects for their return appear elusive at present. The Israeli Defense Ministry, which pledged a swift and decisive war to safeguard its settlers over 100 days ago, is now actively devising plans to shelter approximately 100,000 people along the northern border, deeper inside its territory. This measure could involve evacuating settlements that may come under fire during any future military escalation with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This situation implies three critical outcomes: any immediate return of settlers remains unlikely, additional evacuations are anticipated, and numerous Israeli families – in the interim – may establish permanent settlements in other, more secure locations at a much further distance from the borders with southern Lebanon and the Gaza envelope.

Failed objectives and the northern front 

Preliminary reports from settler councils in the north assessed settler “displacement” to be around 70,000 in the initial weeks of the conflict. Subsequent reports, however, suggest a vastly higher figure of approximately 230,000.

Against this backdrop, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah emphasized a crucial point in his 3 January speech. He referenced Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s concern that Israelis are not only reluctant to reside in the border regions, but that their apprehension about remaining in any part of Israel will also likely rise if Tel Aviv’s war fails to achieve its stated objectives.

Indeed, since 7 October, a significant toll has been exacted on Israeli forces, with 13,572 “soldiers and civilians” wounded in the battles in Gaza and along the northern border with Lebanon, as reported by Yedioth Ahronoth.

One suspects those numbers may be underreported. Skepticism has recently grown over the accuracy of the Israeli Ministry of Health’s data, with various experts, independent sources, and media investigations suggesting a considerably higher casualty count. The IDF Handicapped Organization, for example, estimates that approximately 20,000 individuals have been disabled in the ongoing war — a number much higher than the health ministry’s findings.

The secrecy surrounding Israeli casualties is particularly evident on the Lebanese war front, where data is virtually nonexistent, and Tel Aviv’s military censorship tightly controls all information flows. This leads to a critical question regarding Israel’s ability to establish strategic “border” equations as a compensatory measure for what appears to be a military and political setback in achieving its stated war goals — which include the elimination of Hamas and the release of all captives.

Moreover, doubts arise about Israel’s capacity to wage a major war in the north given its clear shortcomings in its southern military campaign, in which it faced heavily besieged adversaries with multiple vulnerabilities. The Lebanese resistance, in comparison to its Gazan counterparts, boasts considerable and many unknown military capabilities, which it can exercise from within a sovereign state that is neither besieged nor landlocked. Furthermore, Hezbollah, which singlehandedly routed Israel from its territories in both 2000 and 2006 — makes it plain that it has thus far revealed and utilized only a fraction of its new military capabilities.

Decolonization in progress 

In November, Hezbollah’s introduction of the Burkan missile, a domestically-made weapon with a range of up to 10 kilometers and destructive power of 500 kilograms of explosives, adds a potent dimension to the confrontation.

While Hezbollah has primarily targeted Israeli military barracks and troop gatherings with the Burkan, hundreds of guided missiles such as Kornet and Katyusha rockets have been employed with precision against specific targets within empty residential settlements, extending up to 10 kilometers in geographic depth from Lebanon’s border.

Map of Israeli evacuation zones on the borders with Gaza and Lebanon

As of the onset of 2024, Hezbollah has conducted over 670 military operations against all 48 Israeli outposts, spanning from Naqoura in the west to the occupied-Shebaa Farms in the east, along with 11 rear military positions.

This is a major advancement in the Lebanese resistance’s border strategy. For 15 years — from 1985 to 2000 — Israel struggled to defend its “border strip” in southern Lebanon. Today, it faces many hundreds of attacks on its positions in northern Palestine, but fears opening a second war front that could complicate its already militarily draining Gaza campaign.

The so-called “defense” line along the border with Lebanon is now heavily compromised. Deemed insufficient for safeguarding the hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in the north, the recently displaced residents are demanding assurances about the future safety of that zone and their ability to return.

In December, the head of the Upper Galilee Regional Council revealed that the Israeli government had effectively created a buffer zone approximately 10 kilometers wide by evacuating towns in the north. This area, stretching from Mount Hermon in occupied Syria to Ras al-Naqoura, is reported to be nearly devoid of residents, with Israeli forces predominantly present.

At the so-called Kibbutz Manara border, a settler told Hebrew Radio North that 86 of the settlement’s 155 homes had been completely destroyed by Hezbollah rocket fire, raising the question of whether settlers would even have homes to return to.

Even if Israel dares to launch a full-scale aggression against Lebanon, just as it has faltered in besieged Gaza for 17 years, it will not be able to guarantee its success in achieving its objectives on the Lebanese front.

A land of false promises 

The days when Israel could impose security arrangements on its Arab neighbors through military force and political machinations are gone.

Previously, Israel attempted to establish a security strip inside southern Lebanon through operations like the 1978 “Litani Operation.” This vision ultimately collapsed in 2000, with the occupation state’s humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon.

Israel now seems to be revisiting this approach — via American intermediaries — aiming to clear the southern Litani of resistance factions by brandishing the threat of war against all of Lebanon. This is a perilous strategy, particularly given the precarious position of its army in Gaza.

Israel’s tactics of bulldozing and bombing entire residential areas in the northern and eastern parts of the Gaza Strip, ostensibly to create a security strip with a depth of up to 2 kilometers, have hit a hard wall. Even its US ally has raised objections about the territorial delineation from Gaza, and the military efficacy of such measures. But more importantly, the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance appear prepped to mirror Tel Aviv’s ploys by eliminating Israeli habitation in the Gaza envelope and northern Palestine.

‘Destroy our neighborhoods, and we will destroy yours.’ This is surely not a response expected by Israel, whose military and political leadership are unaccustomed to repercussions for their aggressions. This new tit-for-tat that the occupation state appears unequipped to counter only further highlights Israel’s fragility and irreversible decline.

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