A Cloud Called Hezbollah by William Mehlman

Hezbollah, with an estimated 130,000-150,000 short, medium and long-range rockets steered by cutting-edge guidance systems, attack and suicide drones and the most advanced air defense hardware coming out of Russia, constitutes “the most serious conventional threat” Israel has faced since the major wars of l967 and 1973.

That’s the message coming out of the highly esteemed Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. It’s an arsenal which exceeds the combined total of all 27 NATO nations, rated as capable of hitting Israeli targets, civilian and military, with 260 missiles every six hours, 1,200 a day. That they have not been unleashed has little to do with either the dwindling constraints of the Lebanese government which hosts this terrorist phenomenon on its southern border or the zero constraints of UNIFIL. UNIFIL is the alleged peace-keeping force that opted out, before the ink was dry, of its obligation under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah following the termination of the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Two factors have kept the lid on a third Hezbollah strike against Israel, both of them linked to the terrorist organization’s financial and operational master, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The German daily Die Welt, citing Western sources, reported in April that Hezbollah is seriously overdrawn on its account with Tehran, the source of 75 percent of its weapons and the working capital critical to the support of 20,000 fighters and another 20,000 reservists. To put it bluntly, the “Party of Allah,” is flirting with bankruptcy, the direct result of its Iranian-ordered engagement in a war to defend and secure Bashar Hafez Assad’s power base in Syria.  The generous remunerations to the families of the estimated 1,500-1,800 fighters who have been killed, the more than 6,000 wounded and the “hazardous duty” bonus allocations to the 8,000 on the front lines of this noble enterprise appear to have at least temporarily stalled plans for a major move against Israel.

The hidden danger to Israel lurking behind Hezbollah’s current financial straits is complacency. Major General Jim Molan, who served as Australia’s chief of operations in Iraq, writing in The Australian, contends that the current calm along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel may be as much a case of deception as necessity – an attempt to put Jerusalem off its guard. “It’s quiet,” he submits, “because Hezbollah wants it that way at present.” And that, of course, means Iran wants it that way until stagnant oil demand gets an expected summer boost and the till for a major operation against Israel is refreshed.

Indeed, any suggestion of permanency to the current quiet should have been dispelled by a Hezbollah sponsored “media tour” in April of the thin line separating Israel from its terrorist adversary. Conducted by a Hezbollah honcho in combat fatigues, it described in depth to the assembled journalists the IDF’s positions on the other side of the line, including a string of barricades designed to stall any breakthrough by infantry forces.  Al Manar, Hezbollah’s official publication, quoted the tour leader as having told the journalists that the organization had developed “special tactics to deal with these structures” and boasted that it had compelled the “Zionist army for the first time in history to move to a defensive position.”

What was the real purpose of this “media tour”?  Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, calls it a showcase of the “power dynamic” in Lebanon, a function of Europe’s and America’s acquiescence to the terrorist takeover of a sovereign nation. “Hezbollah laid it out for all to see, its position at the head of the table,” Badran argues.   In a display of further chutzpa, he notes, they timed their dog and pony show to coincide with a meeting of Lebanese parliamentarians and officials in Washington with the World Bank and the IMF “to plead against harsher sanctions and to rattle the can for more aid.”

“Hezbollah is Lebanon is Hezbollah, part and parcel of the Lebanese government, with 12 seats in the parliament and two ministers in the cabinet”  declares  Education Minister and “inner security cabinet” member Naftali Bennett in a bylined article in The Times of Israel.  He appealed to the Lebanese people to get Hezbollah’s rocket launchers out of their backyards and “stop them from using your schools as command centers. If we are forced to fight,” he warned, “we will view any place used as a rocket launch site, any village hosting munitions storages, any building used to attack Israel as a valid military target for us to strike. Unlike the last time [the 2006 war], we will not use tweezers to search for a needle in the haystack. We will neutralize the haystack.”

Echoes of the “Hezbollah is Lebanon is Hezbollah” theme have been bouncing off the walls in Israel. “Nothing happens in Lebanon without Hezbollah’s approval, informs former military affairs analyst and current editor of the Jerusalem Post Yaakov Katz. “The organization effectively controls the country,” declares former Israeli Counter Terrorism chief Brigadier General Nitzan Nuriel. “Lebanon’s army will fight alongside Hezbollah in any war against Israel.” No argument on any of this from Lebanese President Michel Aoun. He has openly declared that he no longer views the terrorist organization as “an alternative, but as part of the government and its strategy.” Hezbollah, he states, “is a signature component of the Lebanese people,” adding, cryptically, “when the attacker [presumably Israel] comes, it will, of course, be decided by Hezbollah.”

Israel’s first  response to that scenario is a reported contingency plan to evacuate up to 250,000 residents of  vulnerable border communities  within hours of the first Hezbollah rocket launch. Code-named “Safe Distance,” elements of the plan, including housing of the evacuees in hotels, schools, kibbutz guest houses and private homes, were disclosed in an AP interview with a top-ranked member of the IDF’s Homefront Command. Alluding to a warning from Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah that his missile strikes will be abetted by a ground offensive on Israel’s soil, Homefront CO Itzik Bar opined that the battlefield experience Hezbollah gained in Syria has given new meaning to Nasrallah’s threat.

While the Iron Dome interceptor system has proven remarkably effective against a handful of short-range rockets emanating from Gaza, the prospect of a rainstorm of hundreds of missiles a day descending on Israeli towns and cities is another matter. The IDF Air Defense Command is warning of the “impossibility of protecting everything and everyone at all times.” Even if such protection could  be effected, the cost would be beyond reach. The estimated tab for putting a single Iron Dome interceptor in the air is $100,000. Launching price for a medium-range “David’s Sling“ is upwards of $1 million. A single long-range “Arrow” launching runs to $3 million. Beyond cost, there is IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s instruction that the protection of the nation’s strategic assets – literally, its ability to fight – must be given precedence in the employment of these gold-plated defensive weapons.

Unable to store 8 million Israelis underground or to provide them with an alternative hermetic umbrella, what is to be done in the face of a massive Hezbollan rocket onslaught? Israel has two choices – “deterrence or preemption” — asserts former defense minister Moshe Arens, the last of the founding generation’s “wise men,” writing in Ha’aretz.  Deterrence under normal circumstances would be his first choice. “Let them know that our response would be so devastating that they’d better not even think about attacking Israel. It’s what kept the Cold War from becoming a hot war.” He concedes, however, that deterring an Islamist entity like Hezbollah is a whole other ball game. “They think in millennial terms, prepared to disregard casualties, confident of ultimate victory.”

Former Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, on the other hand, thinks a deterrence laced with the latest in Israeli cyberwarfare technology could give even Hezbollah’s Iranian patrons second thoughts about an attack on the Jewish state. He stresses a focus on the “200 to 500 Hezbollah sites in Lebanon that, if hit, would disturb and disrupt their entire offense apparatus. We need real-time information on these targets,” he adds, “and to prepare the ability to hit them in the first hours of the war.”

What about preemption – massively attacking Hezbollah’s rockets at their launching sites? Arens sees two problems with that strategy. First of all, he observes, “Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles are all embedded among civilians and a preemptive Israeli attack would inevitably involve civilian casualties.” Secondly, he points out that “an initial strike could not be expected to neutralize the entire Hezbollah arsenal, leaving a residual arsenal that would be launched against Israel. Israeli interceptor systems might or might not be able to handle the additional rockets.”

Whether the ultimate solution lies in some combination of the most feasible deterrent and preemptive strategies, it had better not be long in coming. “The third Lebanon war is looming on the horizon,” Yaakov Katz cautions, and that’s not a minority view.


William Mehlman represents AFSI in Israel.

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March 2018
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