Netanyahu’s accusations about Hezbollah trigger fears of confrontation
BEIRUT - Accusations by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Hezbollah has missile facilities adjacent to Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport reignited jitters that Israeli may change strategy and conduct air strikes against Hezbollah facilities in Lebanon.
Those concerns were reinforced by the delivery by Russia of S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Syria to beef up Damascus’s air defence capabilities in response to the accidental downing by Syrian air defence of an Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft during Israeli air raids on targets near Latakia in north-western Syria.
Netanyahu’s expose, complete with satellite images, at the UN General Assembly was shortly after Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah confirmed for the first time that the party has acquired precision-guided missiles.
Nasrallah’s comment was intended as a riposte to Israel, which, since January 2013, has been striking targets in Syria to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring “game-changing” weapons systems, including guided surface-to-surface missiles, air defence systems and anti-ship missiles.
Of course, this has occurred innumerable times since the war in 2006 between Hezbollah and Israel ended inconclusively, leading to expectations that another round is all but inevitable.
Nasrallah’s boast that Hezbollah’s arsenal includes precision-guided missiles is the latest in a multi-year series of “deterrence” stances intended to warn Israel of the risks it faces should it begin aggression against Hezbollah and Lebanon.
By the same token, Netanyahu’s propaganda stunt was intended to needle Hezbollah by suggesting Israel has good intelligence on the disposition of its military assets — assuming the Israeli prime minister was telling the truth — and to unnerve the Lebanese population, who might blanch at living close to a Hezbollah missile warehouse the coordinates of which are known to the Israeli Air Force.
What of Netanyahu’s claim? There is little doubt that Hezbollah has amassed a considerable quantity of rockets and missiles since 2006 — as Nasrallah said in 2007 after a truck carrying weapons to the south was halted by the Lebanese Army. “We have weapons of all kinds and quantities, as many as you want… we don’t fight our enemies with swords made of wood,” he said. He has since said that Hezbollah could hit any part of Israel.
However, if another war erupts, it will likely begin very quickly and with considerable violence from both sides. That means Hezbollah will not have the luxury of time to transfer sizeable numbers of missiles from depots — whether in Beirut or elsewhere — to launch sites across the country. In all likelihood, Hezbollah’s offensive missile arsenal is already in place to allow for a speedy launch should a conflict break out.
Sources close to Hezbollah often hint about the automated nature of the rocket firing systems. Long gone are the days of trudging through olive groves in southern Lebanon with a 122mm Grad on the shoulder and loading the rockets by hand into the launchers.
Therefore, one should treat with some scepticism Netanyahu’s claim that Hezbollah has three missile warehouses near Ouzai neighbourhood of southern Beirut.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil attempted to refute Netanyahu’s claim by inviting a group of bemused diplomats to inspect some of the facilities in Ouzai. The tour was poorly organised, diplomats who attended said, and less than convincing.
They visited Al-Ahed football stadium, one of the three sites listed by Netanyahu, and strolled around the pitch. They were taken to a warehouse just north of the stadium that contained nothing more than rags and debris. The problem, however, was that the warehouse was not one of the three facilities cited by the Israeli prime minister.
The two remaining sites listed by Netanyahu were a warehouse next to the airport perimeter and a small quay beside one of the airport runways, just north of the Ouzai fishing harbour. The quay, which is fenced off from the adjacent public beach, is known locally as a Hezbollah facility, although it is unclear whether missiles are stored in the warehouses on the dock. It was from here that Hezbollah launched an Iranian variant of the Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile in the 2006 war that disabled an Israeli naval vessel.
Netanyahu’s revelations at the United Nations likely do not portend a shift by Israel to attack Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. First, the S-300 air defence systems in Syria appear to be under the control of the Russian military. Although the Russians have said that the system is intended for the Syrian military, it reportedly will take three months for Syrian crews to be trained. Even then, it is unclear whether the Syrian military will have full control of the S-300s or operate them with Russian oversight.
The presence of S-300s, even if fully under Syrian control, will raise the threat factor for intruding Israeli aircraft but it is unlikely that the presence of the missiles will deter Israel from attacking Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, given Israel’s suspected technological edge.
However, Israel knows that it would run a great risk by striking targets in Lebanon, thereby compelling a Hezbollah response. That is why Netanyahu’s posturing in New York, like Nasrallah’s admission over the precision-guided missiles, is simply part of a long-understood and ongoing effort to bolster the mutual balance of terror that has helped ensure calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border for more than 12 years.