Hezbollah's Strategic Threat to Israel
By Patrick Devenny-Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2006
In May 2005, as international pressure increased for Hezbollah's disarmament,[1] the group's spiritual leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, announced, "They say [we have] 12,000 rockets ... I say more than 12,000 rockets."[2] It was the first time Nasrallah had ever publicly quantified Hezbollah's arsenal. The risk of escalation has increased in recent years as internal events in Lebanon become less predictable and as Iranian and Hezbollah activities and interests have come into greater conflict with U.S. and Israeli security concerns. A number of scenarios exist in which Hezbollah might order a missile strike against Israel. As the Iranian government works to develop nuclear weapons, both the U.S. and Israeli leadership may consider a military strike to delay achievement of that capability. Hezbollah may also be tempted to apply its deterrent to Israeli actions in any renewed conflict with Palestinian groups or strike at Israel as it lays a claim to a greater regional role or to Jerusalem.
The Threat
The Hezbollah missile threat to Israel has expanded not only in quantity but also in quality. In recent years, the group's operational artillery reach has grown. Experts and analysts generally put the Hezbollah rocket force somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 missiles.[3] The heart of this arsenal remains rooted in Hezbollah's massive stocks—perhaps 7,000 to 8,000—of 107mm and 122mm Katyusha rockets, virtually all of which were supplied directly from existing Iranian army stocks.[4]
In the past, these were used to attack Israeli border towns and settlements. Hezbollah wields two variations of the 107mm rocket, one man-held while the other is fired from the approximately 144 Haseb-type multi-barrel rocket launcher mobile systems provided to Hezbollah by Iran. The 107mm has a small payload and an effective range of just over 5 miles. Most of Hezbollah's more deadly 122mm rockets are man-portable, but the organization does field over 70 mobile Noor, Hadid, and Awash multi-barrel rocket launcher systems which fire heavier rounds with warheads weighing over 100 pounds capable of reaching targets up to 20 miles away.[5]
Of far greater concern to Israel than these antiquated and relatively short-range projectiles are Hezbollah's growing stocks of Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets. Iran began large-scale delivery of the Fajr-3 in 2000 and the Fajr-5 in 2002, with the approval of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.[6] Iranian cargo and passenger jets transport the weaponry from Iran to Damascus International Airport where they can be off-loaded by Hezbollah agents and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The weapons are then trucked to the Bekaa Valley. Other reports suggest some Iranian cargo flights land at Beirut International Airport, providing Hezbollah with a more direct supply route although this process may have changed with the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the change in Lebanese government.[7]
The Fajr-type rocket represents a significant upgrade to any threat assessment of Hezbollah. Designed by Iran with aid from China and North Korea, both classes of weapons are fired from mobile launchers, including customized Japanese trucks, and carry 200 pound high-explosive payloads. The Fajr-3 has a range of 25 miles while its more powerful upgrade, the Fajr-5, has a range of 45 miles. Accordingly, the Fajr extends Hezbollah's strike range well beyond Haifa. While the number of Fajr missiles in Hezbollah's possession is unclear, Israeli estimates suggest an arsenal of at least several hundred.[8] In addition, Hezbollah has an unknown number of other missiles such as Syrian reproductions of Soviet BM-27 220mm rocket systems, which also can carry a warhead of 220 pounds to a range between 30-45 miles.
How Would Hezbollah Attack Israel?
Hezbollah's augmented arsenal has transformed it, from an Israeli perspective, from a manageable border menace to a strategic threat. Traditionally, Israel's northern administrative region has borne the brunt of rocket attacks across the Lebanese frontier. First, Palestinian terrorists and, later, Hezbollah have launched shells and rockets into the towns and kibbutzim (collective farms and settlements) near the border. While disruptive, civilians living in Israel's northern regions have adjusted to the threat, keeping shelters well stocked and accessible. A concentrated barrage of 122mm rockets further south, for example, on a town like Safed, could be far more destructive and render the town unable to function. Heavy damage would lead to breakdowns in regional power supply, communication, and transportation.
Adding the Fajr rockets to the mix, however, raises the threat. Haifa, Israel's third largest city with a population of some 270,000 people, now lies within Hezbollah range. Even a modest barrage of 75 Fajr-5 rockets hitting the city would represent 15,000 pounds of high explosives detonating in the midst of a densely populated cosmopolitan area. The coastal cities of Acre and Nahariya—with populations of 55,000 and 41,000 respectively—might expect an even heavier assault due to Hezbollah's ability to target them with both the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 models. While the Fajrs are not very precise—the sheer number of rockets at Hezbollah's disposal makes Israel vulnerable.
Any Hezbollah barrage will not likely be random, however. The group's external intelligence service has concentrated recently on targets and trajectory algorithm selection. In January 2005, Israeli security detained Danish citizen Iyad ash-Shua after he was caught filming northern Israeli military installations on behalf of Hezbollah.[9] The arrests of other Hezbollah agents have indicated the group's special interest in fuel refineries and military bases around Haifa.
Moreover, Hezbollah no longer depends exclusively on human intelligence. The group now has access to Iranian-designed and controlled Mirsad One unmanned aerial vehicles. While crude and rudimentary, the Mirsad is able to transmit live video footage, a capability instrumental in scouting targets that were previously inaccessible to Hezbollah human intelligence agents.[10] In addition to the Mirsad, Hezbollah planners now have access to commercially available, high-resolution satellite photographs and open-source geographical imagery offered by companies such as GlobeXplorer and Google. These may enhance Hezbollah's targeting ability.
While Hezbollah would launch its rockets with the goal of causing mass casualties to shock and demoralize the Israeli population, they would also likely attempt smaller but more devastating infrastructure assaults. High-value targets would include the industrial section of Haifa, whose sprawling petrochemical plants and oil refinery would be vulnerable to bombardment. The loss of the Haifa refinery, one of only two such installations in Israel, would threaten Israel's economic security. Hezbollah could also launch rockets against the city's port and Matam Park, a hub of Israeli high-tech development. Even minor damage could lead to serious disruptions in Israel's delicate economic framework. The vulnerability of the Israeli economy to a Hezbollah rocket attack was demonstrated by events in 1996 when the group fired over 500 Katyushas into northern Israel; Israeli officials placed the cost of the relatively minor two-week assault at approximately US$100 million.[11]
Credible Defense?
Discovering the missile positions has been a challenge for the Israeli military. While the bulk of the short-range Katyushas are situated in the southern border region of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah since the Israeli withdrawal of May 2000, the Fajrs are more elusive. Hezbollah has likely pre-selected a network of firing positions close to the Israeli-Lebanese border that would enable rapid launch procedures and accurate targeting measurements. Truck-mounted launchers, though, can be disguised to travel on civilian roads without attracting attention.
Facing such a threat, Israel has worked to develop advanced anti-rocket systems. The centerpiece of this effort is the Tactical High-Energy Laser program (THEL). The development of the THEL began in 1996 and represents a joint effort between Northrop Grumman and several other smaller Israeli and U.S. subcontractors, all working on behalf of the U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. The device was first tested successfully in 2000, leading three years later to the development of the Mobile THEL (MTHEL), which represents a more flexible wartime defensive response. Further controlled tests have been relatively successful with the THEL destroying numerous incoming rockets and artillery shells. The first operational versions of THEL/MTHEL are not expected to be fielded by the Israel Defense Forces until 2008 at the earliest, at a procurement cost of $25 million per unit.[12]
THEL could negate much of Hezbollah's lower-grade missile threat. The THEL has proven its effectiveness against Katyusha-style rockets in particular, destroying numerous short-range weapons even when they are fired in mass volleys. However, preliminary indications suggest that the THEL will be unable to engage the Fajr series and will not be able to shield Israel for several more years, during which time crises involving the Iranian nuclear program and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could escalate.[13]
Denied an effective defense against incoming projectiles, the Israeli government would have little choice but to mitigate Hezbollah's new capability with a preemptive attack, much as the Israeli air force negated the Egyptian air force in the first hours of the 1967 Six-Day war. The responsibility for preemptive or reactive strikes would fall primarily to the Israeli air force fleet of fighter-attack aircraft, such as the F-16 Falcon, along with helicopter gunships such as the AH-64 Apache.
Only if Israel launched a preemptive strike would it have sufficient time to prepare the battlefield. Such a process would include active reconnaissance followed by air strikes intended to degrade Hezbollah's rocket force before it could be deployed. Hezbollah does enjoy some air-to-surface missile capability, but the Israeli air force could overwhelm it. Nevertheless, because so many Hezbollah rockets are mobile and man-portable—and because the Fajr-5 requires little time to launch—Hezbollah could still fire a significant salvo, even under omnipresent air cover.
A better option would be a preemptive Israeli ground incursion into southern Lebanon negating the ability of the group to fire mass numbers of Katyushas into Israel proper. The Fajr missiles could still deploy, but their range umbrella would be limited by the ongoing operation. The greatest benefit of a rapid Israeli ground offensive would be the destabilization effect it would create with regard to Hezbollah operations. Their orderly positioning scheme would be disrupted as would their ability to travel freely the roads of southern Lebanon. Such an Israeli effort would rely on speed in order to punch through Hezbollah defenses and engage the rocket launchers. Hezbollah, wary of a future Israeli incursion, has laid minefields and constructed artillery positions.[14] These preparations will do little to stop an Israeli offensive but would buy the organization time to retreat.
Even if Israeli ground forces did drive into southern Lebanon, the defensive advantage would be temporary. While Hezbollah positions, equipment, and manpower would be degraded by an Israeli assault, these components are replaceable. Hezbollah, after all, has faced concentrated artillery and air attacks from Israel before and has had little difficulty in further expanding its power and strategic reach.
Is a New Conflict on the Horizon?
Former Israel Defense Forces officer and military expert Moshe Marzuk expressed Israeli unease when he said, "The purpose of the [Hezbollah] rockets is not to decorate south Lebanon."[15] Hezbollah is both a creation and client of Iran and, more specifically, of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Its ideology mimics the twin pillars of religious rule and export of revolution that is the basis of the Iranian theocracy.[16] The Iranian government may consider the Hezbollah arsenal as a forward deployment of its own capability, just as the Soviet Union once stationed its missiles in Cuba.
The Hezbollah leadership maintains tight contacts with Iran's leadership and security apparatus. Nasrallah is a frequent visitor to Iran, as is Imad Mugniyah,[17] Hezbollah's operations chief and a suspect in a number of anti-U.S. and anti-Israel terrorist attacks. Hezbollah religious leaders such as Ayatollah Fadlallah have trained in Iranian seminaries and maintain close connections with the ruling Iranian clerics. While the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is, in many ways, an outgrowth of this more informal connection, the Iranian government has also instituted a bureaucratic mechanism to maintain their interests within the organization. Iran has tasked the Ministry of Information and Security and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to guide the actions of their surrogates. To cement the connection at lower levels, promising Hezbollah recruits are sent to Iran for training and indoctrination, including time at the Iranian intelligence academy.[18] This institutional bond is bolstered by the material and financial connection, which has increased following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 to the tune of an estimated $100 million a year.[19]
An ancillary component of the Iranian ability to order a Hezbollah rocket attack is the question of who has physical control of the ordinance. While such a question may seem superfluous given the considerable, even if remote influence wielded by the Iranian leadership over the command structure of Hezbollah, it is, nonetheless, relevant. Considering the importance of the rocket arsenal and the relative ease in launching the units, the Iranian leadership may not have entrusted fire control to the Hezbollah leaders. Iran's mechanism of control in Lebanon is embodied in Revolutionary Guard forces stationed in Hezbollah-held areas since the Lebanese civil war. The Revolutionary Guards have been involved in supply, training, and construction of several secured storage sites. The pace of their efforts has increased over the past few years, matching the rise in associated diplomatic tensions resulting from Iran's pursuit of nuclear capability. Until earlier this year, the rockets were apparently kept under the shared control of both the Syrian military and the in-country Revolutionary Guards. While Iranian deployments in Lebanon have shifted in recent years for cosmetic political reasons, there is no indication that their presence has declined.[20]
The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April 2005 may have worsened the security situation in southern Lebanon with regard to Israel. Damascus long exerted a brake on Hezbollah's actions for fear that Israel would hold it as suzerain responsible for terrorism emanating from Lebanon. The Syrian government invoked this controlling interest in 2001 when Israeli warplanes destroyed Syrian radar sites in Lebanon in retaliation for a Hezbollah rocket attack. Following the destruction of the radar sites, Damascus restricted further Hezbollah attacks.[21] Likewise, in October 2003, the Israeli air force attacked a Syrian-run terrorist training camp located ten miles from Damascus in response to the terrorist bombing of a Haifa seaside resort that resulted in nineteen Israeli deaths.[22] But with the Syrian military gone from southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, Damascus no longer needs to restrain Hezbollah. Tehran, meanwhile, may feel that its distance from Israel insulates it from retaliation.
Will Hezbollah Launch the Rockets?
The augmentation and modernization of the Hezbollah rocket capability poses a significant threat to Israel. Opposition to Israel's right to exist lies at the heart of the Islamic Republic's ideology. On December 31, 1999, before tens of thousands at a Jerusalem Day rally in Tehran, Iranian supreme leader ‘Ali Khamene'i declared, "There is only one solution to the Middle East problem, namely the annihilation and destruction of the Zionist state."[23] Israel's ability to deter an attack depends upon the retaliatory threat Israel poses to Iran. Should Tehran acquire nuclear weapons, the Iranian government's fear of Israeli retaliations would dissipate. On December 14, 2001, then-Iranian president ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said, "The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would totally destroy Israel, while [the same] against the Islamic world would only cause damage. Such a scenario is not inconceivable."[24]
Assuming—as many analysts do—that the Islamic Republic will acquire nuclear capability, Israel's window of opportunity to deter Iran is limited. In order to prevent or delay such capability, Israel may seek to strike Iranian nuclear facilities in a fashion similar to the 1981 Israeli air force attacks on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. Israel itself has done little to deflect such speculation, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying, "Israel will not allow Iran to be equipped with a nuclear weapon."[25] Vice President Dick Cheney suggested in a January 2005 interview that Israel might attack the Iranian reactors were it to feel sufficiently threatened.[26] While the White House had welcomed the opportunity for the EU-3 to try diplomacy,[27] President Bush has made the U.S. position clear. In June 2003, he declared that the United States "will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon."[28]
As Israel and its closest ally—the United States—consider some form of confrontation with Iran, Tehran's Hezbollah card raises many questions: would an Israeli government be willing to risk a high level of damage in order to accomplish the goal of crippling Iran's nuclear infrastructure? Conversely, if Iran were to acquire a nuclear strike capability, would Hezbollah consider itself shielded and be emboldened to augment its involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict? Might the group even launch a first strike for its own ideological reasons?
A targeted Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would prove difficult logistically. Iran is both farther away from Israel than was Iraq, and its nuclear sites are dispersed over a wide area. Iran would likely respond to any Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities with a Hezbollah missile barrage, thereby exacting revenge while maintaining its own distance. The aggregate Israeli conventional threat against the Iranian nuclear program is minor in comparison to a potential Hezbollah response targeting Israel and its economy.[29]
Hezbollah itself would have little to fear from the international community. While the United Nations Security Council has demonstrated a willingness to condemn Hezbollah and call for its disarmament,[30] after any missile launch, a U.N. condemnation would be immaterial. The damage would be done. Should the Israeli military enter southern Lebanon in retaliation, the international community would likely dilute its condemnation of Hezbollah.
The scenario is far from academic. The continuing diplomatic impasse between Iran and the West brings military action into the realm of reality. On September 24, 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency found Iran "non-compliant" with its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and recommended referral to the U.N. Security Council.[31] The Iranian government rejected the finding with bluster. "There is no legal reason for such a measure but if the West intends to adopt bullying attitude, it can do so and see which sides will incur damage most," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said.[32]
In the wake of the IAEA ruling, several Israeli officials restated their unwillingness to tolerate a nuclear Iran. On September 29, Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, suggested that U.S. and European officials should make clear to their Iranian counterparts there would be "no chance [Iran] will ever see the fruits of a nuclear program."[33] Yosef Lapid, leader of Israel's centrist Shinui Party, said Israel "will not live under the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb."[34]
Should the impasse continue and a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities be considered, Washington and Jerusalem may not be able to limit the conflict to the Iranian theater. Because Tehran may consider Hezbollah to be its best avenue to either deter or retaliate for a U.S. or Israeli attack, any U.S. or Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would likely be accompanied by an Israeli ground assault into Lebanon, an event with serious diplomatic and military implications. Israeli raids into Lebanon could serve as an excuse for opponents of the peace process to augment their terror sponsorship. A populist backlash might undercut Lebanon's fragile political stability. Anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment would skyrocket across not only the Middle East but Europe as well.
Iranian ideologues, Hezbollah leaders, and their sympathizers may find such a backlash to their advantage. Some may calculate it to their interest to instigate conflict, even prior to any strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Hezbollah's ideology attracts such diehard opponents of both Israel's right to exist and Western liberalism. In an August 2000 video broadcast on the group's Al-Manar satellite channel, Nasrallah declared, "Israel is utterly null and void, and it's a raping, deviant, occupying, terrorist, cancerous entity that has no legitimacy or legality at all, and never will" while a chorus sang, "From the land of angry Jerusalem, drive out the raping occupier … Strike them with the stone, slingshot, and knife."[35]
While many Western analysts may consider the possibility remote, there is nevertheless a chance that Hezbollah or a constituent faction might launch a barrage against Israel for strategic or ideological reasons. For example, the group might threaten a missile strike to pressure Israel to deter a military operation against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza or the West Bank. Such a move might both deter Israel and augment Hezbollah's position in the eyes of ordinary Palestinians, especially when juxtaposed to a weak Palestinian Authority. While such a scenario would suggest a level of Hezbollah autonomy vis-à-vis Iran and Syria unexpressed during the first two Palestinian uprisings, terrorists groups and militias have over time grown more willing to engage in violence. A number of Palestinian factions and terrorists groups participated in the second intifada in order to claim the same legitimacy through bloodshed claimed by those Palestinians who led the first intifada.[36]
Hezbollah will maintain its rocket arsenal as long as Iran continues its violent opposition to Israel's right to exist, the Assad regime retains control in Syria, and Hezbollah continues to leverage its militia for political power inside Lebanon. Hezbollah may find the threat of its arsenal outweighs its use.
The deployment of more than 10,000 missiles, in combination with international tension over the Iranian nuclear program and growing discord in Gaza, undercuts U.S. interests in the region and complicates or curtails policy options in Washington's battle against proliferation and the global war on terror. There is a tendency for diplomats to compromise, consider, and delay. In southern Lebanon, the failure to address Hezbollah's arsenal today may escalate future violence in an already volatile region.
Patrick Devenny is the Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.
[1] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, S/RES/1559 (2004), Sept. 2, 2004.
[2] Associated Press, May 25, 2005.
[3] The Jerusalem Post, June 7, 2004.
[4] Calgary Herald, Sept. 28, 2002.
[5] All technical military information, unless otherwise noted, comes from the following sources: "Iranian Artillery Rockets," Global Security, Washington, D.C., accessed Sept. 28, 2005; Gary C. Gambill, "Hezbollah's Strategic Rocket Arsenal," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Nov.-Dec. 2002; Defense News, Dec. 13, 2004.
[6] The Miami Herald, Apr. 12, 2002.
[7] Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), Oct. 7, 1999.
[8] The New York Times, Sept. 27, 2002.
[9] Agence France-Presse, Jan. 26, 2005.
[10] Agence France-Presse, Dec. 12, 2002; Associated Press, Feb. 2, 2005; The New York Times, Apr. 12, 2005.
[11] Agence France-Presse, Apr. 22, 1996.
[12] Associated Press, May 7, 2004.
[13] Aviation Week and Space Technology, July 1, 2002.
[14] The Daily Star (Beirut), Mar. 20, 2003.
[15] "Sparks of War Reach Lebanon," Global Information Network, Aug. 16, 2003.
[16] Ahmad Hamzeh, In the Path of Hezbollah (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004), p. 109.
[17] Ukaz (Riyadh), Oct. 13, 2001.
[18] Kathryn Haahr-Escolano, "Iran's Changing Relationship with Hezbollah," Terrorism Monitor, Oct. 2004, pp. 6-8.
[19] Daniel Byman, "Should Hezbollah Be Next?" Foreign Affairs, Nov.-Dec. 2003, pp. 54-63.
[20] Gambill, "Hezbollah's Strategic Rocket Arsenal"; Canadian Jewish News, Mar. 10, 2005; The New Yorker, Oct. 14, 2002.
[21] Associated Press, July 8, 2001. For the Syrian response, see Flynt Leverett, Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), p. 263.
[22] The Chicago Tribune, Oct. 6, 2003.
[23] Daily Telegraph (London), Jan. 1, 2000.
[24] Agence France-Presse, Dec. 14, 2001.
[25] Sunday Times (London), July 18, 2004.
[26] Sunday Times (London), July 18, 2004; The Washington Post, Jan. 21, 2005.
[27] Condoleezza Rice, "U.S. Support for the EU3," Washington, D.C., Mar. 11, 2005.
[28] News release, White House, June 18, 2003.
[29] Ehsaneh Sadr, "The Impact of Iran's Nuclearization on Israel," Middle East Policy, Summer 2005, p. 58.
[30] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.
[31] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," International Atomic Energy Agency, Board of
Governors, Sept. 24, 2005, GOV/2005/77.
[32] Islamic Republic News Agency, Sept. 27, 2005.
[33] The Washington Times, Sept. 30, 2005.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Avi Jorisch, Beacon of Hatred: Inside Hizballah's Al-Manar Television (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004), pp. 62-3.
[36] See, for example, Reuven Paz, "Force-17: The Renewal of Old Competition Motivates Violence," PeaceWatch, no. 316, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Apr. 5, 2001.