Israel Assesses Hezbollah Can Now Strike Its Offshore Gas Platforms

'It's not just declarations but rather capabilities, mainly missiles, aimed at attacking the platforms,' Israeli defense official says ■ Israel doesn't believe Hezbollah would strike just to create a provocation

A Sa'ar 5 Israeli ship near an offshore natural gas platform, 2012.
Ofik Ron-Carmel / B'Machane

Hezbollah has the capability to attack Israel’s offshore natural gas platforms, having acquired the armaments such as rockets to do so, senior Israel Defense Forces officers said on Monday.

Nevertheless, one officer told Haaretz, “Our intelligence assessment is that even if Hezbollah currently has this capability, we don’t see it taking such an extreme step just to create a provocation. The other side also understands that hitting the gas platforms is the declaration of a third Lebanon war.”

In July 2011, in a speech marking the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel’s offshore gas platforms. The organization, which doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence, claims the platforms lie in Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone rather than Israel’s.

“Lebanon is capable of defending its gas and oil resources, and anyone who lays a hand on its assets, we’ll know how to treat him,” Nasrallah said. “If Lebanon is wise enough to act maturely and responsibly regarding the gas and oil fields, we’ll have an opportunity to pay our debts and improve the country’s economic situation.”

His deputy, Naim Qassem, has made similar remarks. “It’s Lebanon’s right to exercise its sovereignty and control over natural resources and gas fields discovered in Lebanon’s waters, and therefore, the resistance is responsible for using all means to assist this,” Qassem said, using Hezbollah’s nickname for itself.

Army sources say the threats that Hezbollah started making in 2010 include Hezbollah's abilities to attack Israel's gas platforms. “It’s not just declarations but rather capabilities, mainly missiles, aimed at attacking the platforms," one defense official said.

The government has tasked the IDF with defending the gas platforms. To do so, the navy plans to acquire four Sa’ar-6 missile boats in 2019. The ships will be equipped with anti-missile systems and other capabilities to deal with potential threats.

But given the intelligence assessment that Hezbollah already has the ability to attack the gas platforms, the IDF concluded that it couldn’t afford to wait for those ships to arrive. Thus last month, it announced that an Iron Dome anti-missile system had been successfully installed on a Sa’ar-5 gunship and was now operational.

“Hezbollah has identified the potential of the sea,” wrote Vice Admiral Eli Sharvit, commander of the navy, in a recently published article. “Therefore, it worked to build a significant offensive missile system that can be defined as a strategic offensive system in every respect. Hezbollah effectively built the best missile ship in the world. It has many missiles, and it can’t be sunk.”

Ever since offshore natural gas was discovered in Israel’s exclusive economic zone, the army has been aware that the gas platforms might by targeted by Israel’s enemies, especially Hezbollah. One naval officer defined them as “two torches burning before their very eyes.”

Moreover, work is expected to begin next year on the Karish and Tanin fields. They lie farther north than the existing fields, meaning closer to Lebanon, and could therefore ratchet up tensions with Hezbollah.

The IDF says Hamas is also trying to acquire the capability to hit the gas platforms. “One of Hamas’ goals in the next conflict will be to hit the platforms,” one source said. “It’s 40 kilometers from the Gaza Strip to the platforms, and that’s not a distance they’re incapable of reaching.”

Nevertheless, the IDF is less worried by the Hamas threat than the one from Hezbollah. At least for now, it believes the ship-mounted Iron Dome system is fully capable of dealing with the former’s missiles.

Another potential threat is an attack on the platforms by small boats or frogmen. But while an attack of that sort could cause damage, it would have trouble putting the platforms out of commission.