Israel’s Ministry of Defense has revealed a new program to design a combat vehicle for the future. Three prototypes, showing off the latest technology that will enable manned and unmanned vehicles to secure terrain, were on display in a dusty field below a series of hills. Beyond one of the hills was a fake village, constructed to resemble the kind of environment Israel might have to fight in during a battle in Lebanon. It was a fitting place for Israel to be discussing the battlefield of the future, while a simulation of the current battlefield is in the background. For Jerusalem the challenge is facing well-known adversaries, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, while looking further afield at an Iranian threat now entrenching in Syria and Iraq.
The unveiling of the new program comes just a few days after a Palestinian militant fired on an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) patrol near the Gaza Strip, wounding an officer and two soldiers. According to the IDF, the troops returned fire and killed the assailant. A Hamas military post was targeted in retaliation by an IDF tank. Later the same day shots were fired at Israeli forces in the West Bank. In addition, local media in Syria accused Israel of carrying out an airstrike on the Golan Heights near the armistice line. That day’s activities suggest that a conflict on three or more fronts is brewing for Israel. Israeli media, officials and defense analysts have been warning about a scenario since 2017. The IDF has been working on the assumption that the next war could be fought simultaneously on multiple fronts.
Former Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who has said Israel struck more than one thousand Iranian targets in Syria in the last years, asserted last year that Israel faces challenges in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, Gaza, and in Sinai. In addition, a sixth layer should be added to this, one that includes Iraq, which is where Israeli jets reportedly struck targets. According to this scenario, Israel sees some Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitaries, which are linked to Iran, as a threat. Potential threats include paramilitary militias that could join a future conflict by cutting through Syria to the battlefield and Iranian supplied precision-guided missiles based in Iraq. These Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitaries, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, are linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which Washington has designated a terrorist organization.
Israel hasn’t faced a multifront conflict like this since 1973. At that time the war was fought between Israeli conventional forces and the armies of Egypt, Syria, as well as elements of Iraqi armored divisions and other allies of the Arab states. Today the situation is dramatically different. As a result, Israel is honing its hi-tech military to be more precise, effective, and agile using artificial intelligence, drones, and missiles that fly further than before. That is part of the vision that Israel presented when it unveiled its future combat vehicle program, dubbed Carmel, on August 4. A successful test of Israel’s Arrow 3 in Alaska also shows how Israel hopes to confront ballistic missile threats. All of this gives Israel the types of capabilities that it has deployed at the Gaza, Lebanon and Syrian borders in recent years. That means in Gaza, when Israel has carried out retaliatory strikes against Hamas over the last year, often in response to rocket fire by Hamas, the casualties have been relatively low. For instance when four hundred rockets were fired at Israel on the weekend of May 5, several Israelis and seven Palestinians were killed. By contrast, in 2009, when Israel went to war and launched a ground operation in Gaza, more than one thousand people were killed, and thousands of others were wounded as a result of similar rocket fire.
It is now thirteen years since the 2006 Lebanon war. That destructive war also saw a high death toll of both Hezbollah, Lebanese and Israeli civilians and left both sides scarred. That war was also fought in the context of tensions on the Gaza border. Israel had launched operation Summer Rains in June 2006. Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, not expecting that the IDF would launch a major war in response.
Israel understands the kind of conflict it faces in Gaza. It has blunted Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) threats, stopping tunnels and developing a multitiered missile-defense system. Iran may be able to encourage Hamas or PIJ to pressure Israel, because both have links to Tehran, but neither pose a major threat to Israel. By contrast, Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal of more than one hundred thousand projectiles, some with precision guidance that is far better than 2006, is a major threat. Hezbollah knows this and has boasted it can strike all of Israel. But it has tempered its threats with acknowledgement that neither it nor Jerusalem—nor the United States—wants a major conflict.
The larger question then is what comes next in Syria and how the Syrian front might look in a future conflict. With Hezbollah and Iran playing a role in Syria, one that has been revealed through numerous Israeli airstrikes, the chance of spillover is possible. But Syria’s Russian ally doesn’t want the Bashar al-Assad regime threatened through a new round of conflict. It prefers to focus on Syria’s north and tensions with the United States and Turkey. The recent reports regarding Iraq, particularly allegations of Iranian missiles being based in Iraq and airstrikes, highlight a much larger possible front for Israel and its adversaries. Iraqi media is now responding to the reports of the Israeli airstrike last month. In the past Iraqi Shi’ite militias, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, have pointed fingers at the United States and Israel in rhetoric against both countries. This is linked closely to Tehran and the IRGC’s own regional strategy and Hezbollah’s narrative, which tends to link Washington and Jerusalem. With U.S.-Iran tensions increasing over the past month, the chance of an incident on one of Israel’s borders growing into a larger crisis is ever-present. If that happens, then Israel may have to grapple with a multifront war for Israel.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.