For years the Israeli defense establishment has been claiming that Hezbollah intelligence’s ability to penetrate the Israel Defense Forces and other security forces is relatively limited. The speech by Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday demonstrated that at least two other Hezbollah sections – the one collecting publicly available information on Israeli society and the one specializing in psychological warfare – are working effectively.
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The man, who after the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon brought us the speech comparing Israeli society to a spider web, returned this time with a new media stunt – threatening to attack the ammonia storage facility in Haifa Bay. He claimed that hitting the ammonia tanks would cause damage similar to that of a nuclear bomb – in other words, that despite Israel’s technological prowess, Hezbollah and Lebanon have weapons equivalent to a nuclear bomb.
In practice, Nasrallah is marketing an old reality in a new package. As usual, he is doing this because he has considerable understanding of the Israeli public’s angst and the way the Israeli media often tends to feed into it. Along the way, the Hezbollah leader is hitching a ride on two issues that prominently figure in Israel’s public debate – the dispute over approving the gas deal, which is perceived as favoring the gas companies, and the fear of pollution in the Haifa Bay region.
The issues are indirectly related, because according to Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay, moving the ammonia storage tanks out of Haifa Bay is being delayed by a financial dispute between the factories and the gas companies. And two weeks ago there was a public storm over a study that concluded with a warning about the effects of pollution on the health of Haifa and Bay area residents.
Nasrallah’s threat is not without foundation. The organization has relatively accurate medium-range missiles. If one of them would manage to evade the Iron Dome system there is potential for damage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September that Hezbollah had smuggled Yakhont mid-range land-to-sea missiles into Lebanon from Syria. Such missiles could also be used to attack Haifa port and its environs.
Moreover, the State Comptroller’s Report on the handling of the home front during the Second Lebanon War criticized the Home Front Command’s delay in dealing with those plants located very close to populated areas, including the ammonia storage facility. That report stated that on July 24, 2006, the Home Front Command issued an order to reduce the quantity of ammonia at a smaller plant in the north. An inspection nine days later found that the order was not followed, but the army did not close the plant.
Two days later a rocket hit the plant and its shrapnel made 15 holes in its storage tank and the pipeline, causing several people who lived nearby to feel ill. It later emerged that some six tons of ammonia had leaked. The big Haifa Chemicals ammonia storage facility has some 12,000 tons. A follow-up report by the state comptroller found that many of the security deficiencies found earlier had been dealt with, but it’s doubtful the enhanced protection around the large tanks have made them completely resistant to attack. Professionals are still recommending that the tanks be moved out of the densely populated area.
This coming July, on the 10th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, there will be those who will continue to try to sell that war as a great success that was not properly understood at the time, based solely on the relative quiet that has prevailed along the northern border since then. But those who’ll try that will be ignoring a central point – that the balance of deterrence is indeed mutual. Israel is deterred by the damage likely to be inflicted on its home front by the more than 100,000 rockets and missiles that Hezbollah has. That’s a major reason why it has avoided another round of fighting with the organization, unlike the way it has been dealing with Hamas in Gaza.
Nasrallah’s periodic threats to Israel seem also to be linked to domestic Lebanese politics. Although the Assad camp, which Hezbollah is part of, is enjoying an advantage in the Syrian civil war for the first time due to Russia’s intervention, the Shi’ite organization is still paying a price for the fighting there. More than 5,000 of its fighters are in Syria at any given time, and an estimated 1,300 have been killed.
So Hezbollah isn’t particularly interested in a confrontation with Israel, either. Even as he threatens Haifa Bay, Nasrallah is presumably taking into account the marked improvement in the IDF’s offensive capabilities, in particular the cooperation between its air force and intelligence units. That Russia is maintaining open channels to Israel even though it’s fighting on Hezbollah’s side in Syria may also be helping to keep Hezbollah in check.