Hezbollah stockpiles 40,000 rockets near Israel border
Three years after Israel fought a bloody war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, there are growing fears that hostilities could erupt again this time with the militant group better armed than ever.
According to Israeli, United Nations and Hezbollah officials, the Shia Muslim militia is today stronger than it was in 2006 when it took on the might of the Israeli army in a war that cost the lives of 1,191 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians.
Hezbollah has stockpiled up to 40,000 rockets and is training its forces to use ground-to-ground missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv and anti-aircraft missiles that could challenge Israel’s dominance of the skies over Lebanon.
Brigadier-General Alon Friedman, the deputy head of Israel’s Northern Command, told The Times from his headquarters overlooking the Israeli-Lebanese border that the current stability was “in danger”.
He added that the peace, which has reigned over the rolling Biblical landscape for the past three years, could “explode at any minute”.
His concerns were partly due to threats from Hezbollah’s leadership. Last month, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, warned that if the southern suburbs of Beirut were bombed as they were in the last war, he would strike back against Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city.
“We have changed the equation that had existed previously,” he said. “Now the southern suburbs versus Tel Aviv, and not Beirut versus Tel Aviv.”
Hezbollah’s rearming is in the name of “resistance” against Israel. But the real reason probably has more to do with its ally Iran. If Israel carries out its threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, then the main retaliation is likely to come from its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. Hezbollah is Iran’s insurance policy.
All sides agree that the threat is not a bluff. Last month the scale of the Hezbollah build-up was revealed after an explosion at a huge Hezbollah ammunition bunker in the village of Khirbet Slim, 12 miles from the Israeli border.
Surveillance footage, obtained by The Times, reveals that Hezbollah fighters desperately tried to salvage rockets and other munitions from the site, while obstructions were placed in the way of Unifil peacekeepers coming to investigate.
Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping operations, told the Security Council last month that the ammunition explosion amounted to a “serious violation” of UN resolution 1701, which imposed a ceasefire and arms ban after the 2006 war.
“A number of indications suggest that the depot belonged to Hezbollah, and, in contrast to previous discoveries by Unifil and the Lebanese Armed Forces of weapons and ammunition, that it was not abandoned but, rather, actively maintained,” he said.
Unifil’s mandate is due to be renewed by the Security Council by the end of this month and Israel is pressing for the peacekeepers to be more robust in stopping Hezbollah and other armed groups form infiltrating the UN-patrolled region south of the Litani river.
But while diplomats negotiate, many believe that it is too late to stop Hezbollah’s build-up.
The group, armed, trained and financed by Iran, has been engaged in a wide-scale recruitment, training and rearmament drive since the end of the 2006 war with Israel.
Although basic training on handling and firing weapons as well as field craft is taught at ad hoc camps in the mountains flanking the Bekaa Valley, more specialised courses are carried out in Iran. Hundreds of fighters have travelled to Iran since 2006, many of them on multiple trips, to acquire skills in bomb-making, anti-tank missiles, sniping and firing surface-to-surface rockets.
The morale of Hezbollah fighters remains high amid expectations of another war with Israel.
Hussam, a 33-year-old veteran fighter who joined Hezbollah in 1987 as a scout, said: “War will definitely come. Israel will never leave us alone. Israel is a hostile, blood-sucking country.”
Military sources close to Hezbollah said that the group had been looking to increase the number and effectiveness of its air defence systems.
Hezbollah is believed to have acquired large numbers of SA-18 shoulder-fired missiles which could mount a challenge to Israeli helicopters and low-flying jets.
Western intelligence sources have told The Times that Hezbollah fighters are also receiving training in Syria on the SA-8 system. The radar-guided SA-8 missiles are launched from tracked vehicles and have a maximum altitude of 36,000 feet, which would pose a serious threat to Israel’s dominance in the skies above Lebanon.
Israeli jets and pilotless drones penetrate Lebanese airspace on a near daily basis. Israel says that the overflights are necessary for reconnaissance purposes, although the UN considers them violations of Resolution 1701.
Israel considers Hezbollah’s acquisition of advanced anti-aircraft missiles as a “red line’ which could prompt a military response to destroy the systems on the ground. Israeli warnings relayed to Syria appear to have forestalled the entry of the SA-8 system into Lebanon, the sources said.
Israel claims that Hezbollah has tripled the number of surface-to-surface rockets since the 2006 war, with the number totalling around 40,000. Many of them are the short range Katyusha variant which were fired into northern Israel in large numbers in 2006 from well-camouflaged underground launch pads. Hezbollah also possesses larger rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv.
Danny Ayalon, the deputy Israeli Foreign Minister told The Times: “Hezbollah has not only replaced the munitions but upgraded their missiles. They are bragging now that they can hit Tel Aviv.”
According to Western intelligence sources, Hezbollah is hoping to receive an improved version of the Iranian-manufactured Fateh-110 rocket which can carry a 1,100 pound warhead more than 125 miles. Syria is attempting to upgrade the rocket by boosting its range and improving its accuracy, according to the sources.
Hezbollah officials refuse to provide details on its military build-up, but they do not deny they are well-prepared in the event of another war.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, said in an interview with The Times: “Hezbollah today is in a better condition than it was in July 2006. And if the Israelis think they will cause more damage against us, they know that we also can inflict more damage on them.”