Hezb'allah's Missiles

The guerrilla movement's increasing missile capacity is raising the Israeli state's level of insecurity to dangerous new levels.

The Hezb'allah movement in Lebanon has been stepping up the intensity of its preparations for war with Israel in recent months, clearly unfazed by the strength of military projection its Israeli enemy could unleash on both Hezb'allah itself and the Lebanese state.

The most recent reports exuding from the region suggest that the movement, fearing the eventual demise of its allied regime in neighboring Syria, has been busy helping itself to vast quantities of the most sophisticated military arsenals belonging to the Syrian Armed Forces.

Perhaps this explains why Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel's dreaded secret service, Mossad, recently claimed that the politico-religious movement's guerrilla arm had amassed missile power equal to that of almost 90 percent of countries in the world.

Although the accuracy of Dagan's statement can never be substantiated, Hezb'allah has certainly made little secret over the last few months with regard to its determination to roundly confront Israel.

But for all the intermittent warnings of severe retaliation coming out of Tel-Aviv, Hezb'allah leaders seem content almost to scoff at the idea of any Israeli onslaught ever bearing fruit.

The Iran- and Syria-backed movement is already believed to be in possession of a substantial number of Iranian-made Fajr, Fateh, and Zelzal rockets, with estimated ranges of between 75 and 200 kilometers.  This is in addition to several dozen purported M600 surface-to-surface missiles from Syria -- each of whose warheads carries half a ton of high explosives.

Although no accurate estimates of the number of missiles Hezb'allah possesses can be substantiated, it is believed to be in excess of 50,000 according to U.S. and Israeli estimates.  If that is true, it means that Israel could be showered with around 500 missiles, some with guided systems, for every day it fights the Lebanese movement.

This means that almost every city and major town in Israel could be hit with around three times as many projectiles as they were in the 2006 war, where missiles at a rate of around 200 per day were exploding indiscriminately in the mainly northern part of the  Jewish state.

The scenario of this armed non-state actor having the capability to fire at will upon the 7 million people of Israel, with the precision to hit any town or city it chooses, is no doubt inherent in every single Israeli calculation when it comes to readying war plans designed to deal with Israel's most imminent neighboring menace.

And the wily old veteran experts of Israel's formidable military and defense apparatus are well-aware of why Hezb'allah has been incessantly acquiring an advanced missile capability.

In a live address via video link last year, Hezb'allah's secretary general all but spoon-fed audiences with the details.  He stated that "most of the Israeli population is on a coastal line...after Haifa through to Southern Tel-Aviv, 10 kilometres or 15 kilometres[.] ... [I]n that specific part we have the oil wells, we have the factories, we have the population centres, we have the institutions ... everything is in that specific area[.]"

In other words, should Israel (in the event of an escalation) think it can hit Lebanon unimpeded, Hezb'allah can now return the gesture.  Not only is civilian and state infrastructure now at risk, but just weeks later, in another address, Hezb'allah's secretary general threatened to strike ships (civilian or otherwise) which headed towards Israel's coast.

The Israeli establishment must have understood the message loud and clear: belligerent reprisals, be they under the logic of self-defence, will now have a new dimension.

Perhaps this explains the constant war drills, saber-rattling, increased drone and reconnaissance flights, and ever-constant attempts to covertly infiltrate the secretive military apparatus of the politico-religious movement.

As Syria teeters on the brink, Israel seems quietly confident that a desperate Damascus regime will not undertake the suicidal task of initiating a war with Israel in order to distract attention from Syria's internal opposition -- despite rumors of replenishing the missile stocks of Hezb'allah.  The Syrians are just too weak and disunited; an attack on Israel is just too remote to be taken seriously.

But it's the tensions over Iran's nuclear program, and their ability to unleash Hezb'allah as a first-strike window of opportunity, which are weighing heavily on the minds of Israeli policymakers.

An attack on Iran, even if limited to crippling that country's nuclear infrastructure, will no doubt embolden Hezb'allah for ideological, political, and strategic reasons to launch a first-strike missile barrage of its own.

In that situation, Israel's likely response must be seriously game-theorized by Hezb'allah planners.

To strike out unilaterally at one of the most powerful military forces in the world -- and a nuclear-armed state on top of that -- may on face value be foolish, if not suicidal.

Israel is an extraordinarily strong country, united by violence against it.  The thinking that multiple missile attacks would be enough to make Israelis cower in fear and retreat into surrender seems implausible.

But even as both sides takes steps to reduce the risk of sliding into conflict, the potential of Hezb'allah's long-range rockets and missiles hitting Israel at its most precious, and militarily most sensitive, locales will remain in place so long as each side remains committed to the violent opposition of the other's right to exist.

Mohammad I. Aslam is a Ph.D. candidate in political science in the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies and a teaching assistant in the Department of Theology & Religion, King's College London.

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