Israel ponders response to Hezbollah’s missile capabilities

The “rules of the game” permit Israel to attack targets in Syria linked to Hezbollah with limited chance of a backlash.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Israeli air defence systems on display at the Hatzor Airbase. (AP)
Dark clouds. Israeli air defence systems on display at the Hatzor Airbase. (AP)

BEIRUT - Former Israeli cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar recently called for a pre-emptive strike against suspected Hezbollah facilities for precision-guided missiles, warning that any delay would allow the Iran-backed group to wreak greater destruction against the Jewish state in a future war.

While acknowledging that an attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon would risk a strong response, Sa’ar argued that “we will pay a much heavier price in the next round of confrontation if we will not act [now].”

Sa’ar’s call for action lies at the heart of a dilemma that has plagued Israel since 2000 after it withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon and Hezbollah began a process of acquiring new weapons at an accelerated rate: Should Israel carry out a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah to degrade its military capabilities at the risk of provoking a war or should Israel enjoy the calm along its northern border even though that means Hezbollah grows stronger?

The first test came in October 2000, five months after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, when Hezbollah abducted three soldiers from the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms district.

The Israeli military pressed for a forceful response, concerned that inaction would encourage further attacks by Hezbollah but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak stayed his hand, fearful that a heavy reprisal would elicit rocket barrages into northern Israel and provide fuel for critics who maintained that Israel should not have left Lebanon in the first place.

A year later, Israeli officials grumbled that Hezbollah had amassed 8,000-9,000 rockets, some capable of reaching Haifa, 40km south of the border. There were numerous reports that Israel was planning to attack Hezbollah’s missile storage facilities in the Bekaa Valley but nothing happened.

By the outbreak of war in July 2006, Israel assessed Hezbollah had acquired some 14,000 rockets, including the Iranian Zelzal-2, an unguided system that carries a 500-kilogram warhead a distance of 200km.

From 2006, Hezbollah’s arsenal expanded massively, jumping to estimates of 70,000 by 2014, then claims of 100,000 and today up to 150,000, Israeli officials say.

In 2009, Hezbollah was reported to have acquired the M600, a Syrian-engineered version of Iran’s Fateh-110 family of missiles that would land within 500 metres of its target.

A year later, Israel claimed Hezbollah had received several Scud-D ballistic missiles. While the option of a pre-emptive strike was regularly mooted, successive Israeli governments instead chose to use diplomacy to curb Hezbollah’s ever-expanding arsenal.

Today, Hezbollah’s focus is less on the acquisition of new rockets and missiles and more on upgrading the capabilities of its existing stock by improving accuracy and increasing range.

A Western intelligence source who is an expert on missiles said that since 2016 Hezbollah has been working on the guidance systems of its Fateh-110 missiles to improve their accuracy to within 10 metres of their target and extend the range to 300 kilometres. Additionally, inertial guidance systems are being fitted to Syrian-made unguided M302 rockets to give a similar accuracy of 10 metres or less.

The source said Hezbollah was producing upgraded missiles at a rate of two a week. The work, which consists mainly of altering electronic circuitry and adjusting fins, is carried out in facilities in Lebanon but does not require specially constructed factories and sophisticated equipment, the source said.

In September, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu revealed the existence of what he said were missile plants at three locations south of Beirut near Rafik Hariri International Airport.

The disclosure was followed by a WhatsApp message sent by Israel to residents of the Hadath area south of Beirut showing a satellite image of a residential building with a warning that Hezbollah used it to stash missiles.

The Israelis have used diplomats visiting Beirut to convey messages to Lebanese officials demanding that missile facilities be shut down. However, Lebanese authorities are powerless to intervene in Hezbollah’s military agenda, which raises the question of whether the Israelis will this time apply force when diplomacy fails.

The “rules of the game” between Hezbollah and Israel permit the Jewish state to attack targets in Syria linked to the Lebanese group or its Iranian patron with limited chance of a backlash. However, attacks on Lebanese soil risk retaliation.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah reiterated that point in light of recent speculation that the Israelis may stage a pre-emptive strike. He reminded Israel that the one occasion since 2006 when Israel carried out an air raid inside Lebanon — a strike in February 2014 against a building in a Hezbollah military zone near Janta in the eastern Bekaa Valley — Hezbollah had retaliated “and the enemy was made to understand that any aggression will inevitably be followed by a response.”

Hezbollah’s retaliation consisted of several attacks, all unclaimed at the time, against the Israeli military. All but one emanated from the northern Golan Heights, which was then under the party’s control. One of the attacks left four Israeli soldiers wounded.

It was the first time Nasrallah publicly admitted that Hezbollah staged the retaliation nearly five years ago, although the Israeli military at the time immediately understood the message and has refrained from overtly attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon since.

Nasrallah used his speech to warn Israel that if it was thinking of changing the “rules of the game,” “we will inevitably respond to any attack on Lebanon, any air strike on Lebanon, any bombing on Lebanon. It will not be accepted that the enemy return to violate Lebanon as it did in the past decades.”

If Gideon Sa’ar had made his call for a pre-emptive strike 16 or 17 years ago, the worst Israel would have faced in retaliation was parts of northern Israel being peppered with unguided short-range Grad rockets.

Today, however, Hezbollah can strike specific targets, such as the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, and shut down Israel in its entirety for the duration of the conflict. That represents a huge gamble for the traditionally cautious Netanyahu if he is seriously contemplating attacking Hezbollah facilities in Lebanon.