With Iran Out of the Picture, Hezbollah Tops Israel's Threat List

Attacks attributed to Israel come against the backdrop of hints by Hezbollah leader Nasrallah that his group's missile targeting capacities have improved.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
A young boy dressed in military fatigue stands looking at a portrait of the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, during a parade in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, Nov. 9, 2014.
A young boy dressed in military fatigue stands looking at a portrait of the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, during a parade in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, Nov. 9, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The aerial assault in Syria early Saturday that has been attributed to Israel, if it was in fact carried out as reported in the Arab media, followed several declarations by senior Israeli officials in which they warned against the acquisition of arms by the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia group.

Following the framework agreement arrived at in early April in Lausanne, Switzerland between Iran and the world powers that is aimed at reining in the Iranian nuclear program, some of the Israeli reactions to the understanding have highlighted the risks of continued transfer of Iranian arms via Syria to Hezbollah.

In a visit to the site of an Israel Defense Forces exercise in the Golan Heights on April 15, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon accused the Iranians of continuing to arm the Lebanese-based Shi'ite militia group. A letter from Foreign Ministry Director General Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, the contents of which was reported at the time by Haaretz, also mentioned the arming of Hezbollah as the most highly urgent and critical issue from Israel's standpoint.

Although Israel's leadership is continuing to warn about Iran's nuclear program, there appear to be signs of the beginning of a wider process. As a practical matter, the progress in the talks between Iran and the world powers has reduced the prospect of a unilateral attack on Israel's part against Iranian nuclear sites to a minimum. The threat posed by Hezbollah missile therefore again assumes the status of the No. 1 security threat from Israel's standpoint.

According to reports on Al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets, the attack early Saturday was against bases of the Syrian missile brigade in the Qalamoun Mountain region near the border with Lebanon. It is doubtful that the Syrian army's missile capacity, which a number of assessments state has been eroded by more than half over the course of the country's civil war, particularly worries Jerusalem. Israeli warnings over the past four years have all focused on the transfer from Syria to Lebanon of weaponry described as "violating the balance."

It is also not reasonable for Israeli to be concerned about the quantity of missiles involved. The best intelligence estimates are that Hezbollah currently possesses more than 100,000 missiles and rockets—at least seven times what it had just prior to the beginning of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. If that is indeed the case, an additional 100 missiles or 100 fewer would not change Israel's strategic reality when it comes to Hezbollah.

But there is another disturbing trend relating to the missiles that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has hinted at more than once. Since the 2006 war, and to an even greater extent in recent years, Nasrallah has been trying through his declarations to establish a sort of balance of deterrence: If Israel damages Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, it will be hit in a similar fashion. Ports, airports and power plants will be hit on both sides. To carry out its threat, Hezbollah doesn't need just missile range, and based on all intelligence assessments, it has missiles with a range to reach all of Israel, but also the capacity to make accurate hits.

There is a huge difference between the extent of potential damage (that could be caused to infrastructure sites and military facilities) by a missile that hits at an average distance of a kilometer from its target and a precision missile that lands at a distance of just dozens of meters from it.

Syrian and Iranian efforts to smuggle weaponry to Hezbollah is also directly linked to the situation of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the current civil war in his country. In recent months, after it had appeared that the regime was managing to stabilize the picture with the help of massive assistance that he has been receiving from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia,

Assad has suffered several failures. Rebel groups, particularly from the most extreme factions from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and from the Nusra Front, have initiated surprise attacks near Damascus (including the capture for a few weeks of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp) and even bombed the area of the Damascus international airport. The adversaries also grouped forces in the Qalamoun area, around which fierce battles were also fought about a year ago.

Holding on to control of the airport and the Syrian-Lebanese border are important to Hezbollah to ensure its regular supply of arms. It cannot be ruled out that a loss of control of these areas would spur smuggling efforts, certainly on cloudy nights during which the leaders of the convoys would assume that the chances of their being discovered by adversaries would be very low.

The question is also raised as to whether if Syria and Hezbollah point a direct finger at Israel over the latest attack, as occurred in connection with prior attacks attributed to Israel, there is a risk that they would respond. The rules of the game between the parties involved are not always clear. When similar aerial assaults in 2013 were reported, Damascus ignored the issue. Later the Syrian authorities acknowledged that the attacks had occurred and apparently in response gave the green light to an attack in response on the part of cells operated by Hezbollah along the Golan Heights border with Israel.

In February 2014, after an attack attributed to Israel on a convoy near Janta, on the Lebanese side of the border, Hezbollah issued explicit threats followed by the firing of rockets and the laying of explosive charges both on the Syrian border (in the Golan Heights) and on the Lebanese border (in the Mount Dov area). The latest flare-up occurred under different circumstances involving the fatal attack on an Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights in late January and then the death of two Israeli Givati brigade soldiers in an anti-tank missile attack on the slopes of Mount Dov in a Hezbollah operation ten days later.

Subsequently, over a period of two and a half months, quiet prevailed in the north. The basic interest, primarily involving Hezbollah and the Assad regime's focus on the Syrian civil war, remains as it appears to be. It is also clear that Hezbollah views the bombing of Lebanese territory with greater seriousness than an assault on a convoy in Syrian territory, as Al-Jazeera claimed occurred overnight between Friday and Saturday.

And yet, over the course of recent years, an increase has been noted in Hezbollah's daring vis-à-vis Israel, particularly in its desire to make it clear to Israel that Hezbollah is not paralyzed with fear in the face of Israeli military might. Whether Israel carried out the attacks attributed to it by the Arab media or not, it would be logical to assume that the Israeli army will remain on high alert in the north in the near future in the face of the danger of a Hezbollah response even if that doesn't currently appear to be the most reasonable possibility.

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