JERUSALEM—On Dec. 26, 2003, a massive earthquake levelled most of Bam, in southeastern Iran, killing 35,000 people. Transport planes carrying aid poured in from everywhere, including Syria.
According to Israeli military intelligence, the planes returned to Syria carrying sophisticated weapons, including long-range Zelzal missiles, which the Syrians passed on to Hezbollah, the Shiite militia group in southern Lebanon.
As the Israeli army struggles for a fourth week to defeat Hezbollah before a ceasefire, the shipments are just one indication of how the militia has improved its arsenal and strategies in the six years since Israel abruptly ended its occupation of southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah is a militia trained like an army and equipped like a state, and its fighters “are nothing like Hamas or the Palestinians,” said an Israeli soldier who just returned from Lebanon.
“They are trained and highly qualified,” he said, equipped with flak jackets, night-vision goggles, good communications and sometimes Israeli uniforms and ammunition. “All of us were kind of surprised.”
Much attention has been focused on Hezbollah’s stockpile of Syrian- and Iranian-made missiles, some 3,000 of which have already fallen on Israel. More than 58 Israelis have died from them — including 12 reservist soldiers, who were gathered at a kibbutz at Kfar Giladi in northern Israel yesterday when rockets packed with anti-personnel ball bearings exploded among them, and three killed last night in another rocket barrage on Haifa.
But Israel says Iran and Syria also used those six years to provide satellite communications and some of the world’s best infantry weapons, including modern, Russian-made anti-tank weapons and Semtex plastic explosives, as well as the training required to use them effectively against Israeli armour.
It is Hezbollah’s skilful use of these weapons — in particular, wire-guided and laser-guided anti-tank missiles, with double, phased explosive warheads and a range of about three kilometres — that has caused most of the casualties to Israeli forces.
Hezbollah’s Russian-made anti-tank missiles, designed to penetrate armour, have damaged or destroyed Israeli vehicles, including its most modern, the Merkava, on about 20 per cent of their hits, Israeli commanders at the front said.
Hezbollah has also used anti-tank missiles, including the less modern Sagger, to fire from a distance into houses in which Israeli troops are sheltered, with a first explosion cracking the typical cement block wall and the second going off inside.
“They use them like artillery to hit houses,” said Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, until recently the Israeli army’s director of intelligence analysis. “They can use them accurately up to even three kilometres, and they go through a wall like through the armour of a tank.”
Hezbollah fighters use tunnels to quickly emerge out of the ground, fire a shoulder-held anti-tank missile, and then disappear again, much the way Chechen rebels used the sewer system of Grozny to attack Russian armoured columns.
“We know what they have and how they work,” Kuperwasser said. “But we don’t know where all the tunnels are. So they can achieve tactical surprise.”
The anti-tank missiles are the “main fear” for Israeli troops, said David Ben-Nun, 24, an enlisted man who just returned from a week in Lebanon. The troops do not linger long in any house because of hidden missile crews. “You can’t even see them,” he said.
The Israelis say that with modern communications and a network of tunnels, storage rooms, barracks and booby traps laid under the hilly landscape, Hezbollah’s training, tactics and modern weaponry explain why they are moving with caution.
Hezbollah’s fighters number between 2,000 and 4,000, a small army that is aided by a larger circle of part-timers who provide logistics and storage of weapons in houses and civilian buildings.
The Israelis say the Iranian Revolutionary Guards has helped teach Hezbollah how to organize itself like an army, with special units for intelligence, anti-tank warfare, explosives, engineering, communications and rocket launching. They have also taught Hezbollah how to aim rockets, make “improvised explosive devices” and, the Israelis say, even how to fire the C-802, a ground-to-ship missile that Israel never knew Hezbollah possessed.
According to intelligence officials in Washington, Iranian air force officers have made repeated trips to Lebanon to train Hezbollah to aim and fire Iranian missiles. The Americans say there is no evidence they are directing Hezbollah’s attacks.