Three years after Israel fought a bloody war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, there are 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 stronger than it was in 2006 when it took on the Israeli army in a war that killed 1,191 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians.
Hezbollah has 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 the Israeli Northern Command, told The Times from his headquarters overlooking the Israeli-Lebanese border that the peace of the past three years could “explode at any minute”.
His concerns were due partly to threats from Hezbollah’s leadership. Last month Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, warned that if the southern suburbs of Beirut were bombed as they were in the last war, he would strike back against Tel Aviv, the largest Israeli 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. The real reason, however, probably has more to do with its ally Iran. If Israel carries out its threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the main retaliation is likely to come from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
All sides agreed that the threat was not a bluff. Last month the scale of the Hezbollah build-up was revealed after an explosion at an ammunition bunker in the village of Khirbet Slim, 12 miles from the Israeli border.
Surveillance footage obtained by The Times showed Hezbollah fighters trying to salvage rockets and munitions from the site. Obstructions were placed in the way of Unifil peacekeepers going to investigate.
Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping operations, told the Security Council last month that the explosion amounted to a serious violation of UN Resolution 1701, which imposed a ceasefire and arms ban after the 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 this month and Israel is pressing for the peacekeepers to be more robust in stopping Hezbollah and other armed groups from infiltrating the UN-patrolled region south of the Litani river. Hezbollah, which is armed, trained and financed by Iran, has been engaged in a recruitment, training and rearmament drive since the end of the 2006 war. Although basic training on firing weapons is taught at camps in the mountains flanking the Bekaa Valley, specialised courses are carried out in Iran. Hundreds of fighters have travelled to Iran since 2006 to learn about bomb-making, anti-tank missiles, sniping and firing rockets.
“War will definitely come,” said Hussam, a 33-year-old fighter who joined Hezbollah in 1987 as a scout. “Israel will never leave us alone.”
Military sources close to Hezbollah said that the group wanted to increase the number and effectiveness of its air defence systems. Hezbollah is believed to have acquired large numbers of SA18 shoulder-fired missiles that could mount a challenge to Israeli helicopters and low-flying jets. Western intelligence sources told The Times that Hezbollah fighters were receiving training in Syria on the SA8 system. The radar-guided SA8 missiles are launched from tracked vehicles and have a maximum altitude of 36,000ft (11,000m), which would pose a serious threat. Israeli jets and drones use Lebanese airspace almost daily. Israel said that the flights were necessary for reconnaissance purposes, although the UN considered them violations of Resolution 1701.
Israel said that Hezbollah’s acquisition of advanced anti-aircraft missiles could prompt a military response to destroy the systems. Israeli warnings relayed to Syria appear to have forestalled the entry of the SA8 system into Lebanon, the sources said.
Israel claims that Hezbollah has tripled the number of surface-to-surface rockets since 2006, to about 40,000.
“Hezbollah has not only replaced the munitions but upgraded their missiles,” Danny Ayalon, the Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister, said. “They are bragging now that they can hit Tel Aviv.”
According to Western intelligence sources, Hezbollah hopes to receive an improved version of the Iranian-manufactured Fateh-110 rocket, which can carry a 1,100lb (500kg) warhead more than 125 miles (200km).
Hezbollah officials refused to provide details on its military build-up but they did not deny that they were prepared for another war.
“Hezbollah today is in a better condition than it was in July 2006,” said Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, in an interview with The Times. “And if the Israelis think they will cause more damage against us, they know that we also can inflict more damage on them.”