Israel’s New Frontier With Lebanon

By Charles Perkins

The IDF is facing a new defense reality and a host of new expenses After withdrawing from its security zone in southern Lebanon. With assistance from the United States, Israel is Seeking to strengthen its defenses along the Lebanese border by deploying the latest High-Tech Measures.

Israel’s sudden withdrawal last month from its security zone in southern Lebanon has created a series of challenges for the IDF. While the international border has been relatively calm, uncertainty over the ability of the Lebanese government and U.N. peacekeeping forces to curb the activities of Hezbollah and other groups in the area will require Israel to invest in new security measures until the situation stabilizes. These measures will require a dramatic and expensive reorganization of Israel’s physical defenses in the north and the acquisition of new types of weaponry to counter the easily obtained Katyusha rockets possessed by Hezbollah. These steps, in addition to Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s declarations that any aggression against Israel from Lebanese territory will receive an overwhelming response, will be crucial in maintaining a credible military deterrent in the wake of the pullback.

Fortifying the northern border

The principal security goal for Israel in the near term is to establish a new barrier along the international border to prevent infiltration by terrorists. A new, highly-sophisticated fence and surveillance system now being set up will use a variety of sensors to identify intruders attempting to infiltrate the border and stop their entry into Israel. Other elements of the fortifications will include new defense outposts, patrol roads and mines.

Perhaps the most dramatic boost to Israel’s new defense of the Lebanese border will come later this year when the first Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL) unit is deployed by the IDF to detonate Katyusha rockets in flight before they reach northern communities. An important milestone in the development of this system occurred June 6 in White Sands, N.M. when the THEL successfully destroyed a Katyusha rocket for the first time during a test. This breakthrough technology is more important now than ever because Israeli forces no longer have the nine-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon as a buffer between Hezbollah’s Katyushas and residents in the north.

There should be no illusion, however, that the terrorist threat from Katyushas and other means has vanished now that Israel has withdrawn from southern Lebanon. A senior IDF officer told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv on May 30 that Hezbollah is stockpiling arms delivered by Iran and is coordinating closely with Palestinian terrorist groups.

Israel faces substantial costs after its withdrawal

The cost of adapting to this new strategic reality is steep. Early cost estimates of the IDF’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon came to nearly $250 million, assuming it would be done within the context of a peace settlement. Some estimates, however, now suggest the direct costs to the Israeli economy of the rapid unilateral withdrawal could exceed $1.2 billion in the short term, according to a June 12 article in Defense News.

Brig. Gen. Motti Besser, the financial advisor to the IDF chief-of-staff, indicated in the article that the Defense Ministry’s portion of the cost alone could reach $528 million, although the IDF could reap some cost savings by not having to maintain the security zone and Southern Lebanese Army (SLA). Besser said costs to his ministry include support for the former SLA troops and their families, security for civilians in northern Israel and redeployment activities.

U.S. helping Israel defray costs

The United States has already allowed flexibility in Israel’s security aid to cover some of the construction needed to beef up the IDF’s defensive positions in northern Israel. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk announced recently that the United States was prepared to assist Israel in upgrading its border defenses by permitting $50 million of its military assistance to be spent in Israel for a series of infrastructure projects to be overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, the United States and Israel are also starting to evaluate the development of a mobile THEL that would provide the most flexibility for the military needs of both allies. Although experts estimate deployment of this second-generation THEL may cost upwards of $200 million, the price pales in comparison to the human, property and economic costs which could be incurred if the system is not developed and Hezbollah resumes firing Katyushas into Israel.

Continued American support will be an important element in further developing the THEL and addressing some of Israel’s other defense-related needs. The uncertainties created by the events of the last month in both Lebanon and Syria will necessitate a long period of vigilance by Israel and the United States to ensure that Israel’s northern border remains quiet.

Perkins is AIPAC’s Senior Military Analyst.

Source: Near East Report, (June 26, 2000)