Israeli officials have been complaining about massive Iranian airlifts to Hezbollah since March 2001, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that Iran, "in full cooperation with Syria," was providing Hezbollah with large numbers of rockets capable of hitting "the center of the country."1 By late January 2002, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was declaring before the Knesset that Iranian airlifts had expanded Hezbollah's arsenal to 10,000 "missiles" (this frequently-used term is technically incorrect, as even the long-range rockets lack in-flight guidance systems).2
Although Tehran issued repeated denials and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah carefully avoided confirming the airlift, other Hezbollah officials were less reserved. In May 2001, a member of the group's political bureau, Nawaf Moussawi, declared during a rally that "2.5 million Israelis are now in range of our missiles," a boast which appeared to confirm Sharon's claim.3 A February 2002 report by the Christian Science Monitor quoted a "well-connected . . . Hezbollah insider" as saying that "truckload after truckload" of military equipment had been arriving in the border district since the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000.4
After a New York Times article in September cited American officials as confirming that Hezbollah had received long-range Iranian-manufactured Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets,5 even Nasrallah could not resist alluding to them. While careful to speak in hypothetical terms, he boasted of the suffering that such an arsenal could inflict on Israeli civilians. "In 1996 . . . with Katyushas alone, the resistance was able to displace two million people and [the Israeli government] had to look for places in central Israel to settle them," he declared last month. "[If] Hezbollah's missiles can now reach all population centers in Israel, then where can they flee?"6
Notwithstanding Nasrallah's wishful claims, most of Hezbollah's arsenal consists of old stand-byes (albeit in unprecedented numbers): 122mm Katyushas with a range of 12 miles (20 km) and 107mm Katyushas with a range of 5 miles (8 km). However, it also includes several hundred 240-mm Fajr-3 rockets and 333-mm Fajr-5 rockets.
The Fajr-3, with a range of 25 miles (40 km), and the Fajr-5, with a range of range of 45 miles (72 km), each carry a 200-lb warhead and can be launched from vehicles, making them relatively easy to move and conceal. The Fajr-5 would allow Hezbollah to hit targets south of Haifa, a range that covers about a third of Israel's population, around half of its industry, and its main oil refinery. Some Israeli analysts believe that the Fajr-5 may have some form of rudimentary guidance capability. Both the Fajr-3 and the Fajr-5 would likely evade Israel's Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL), currently under development, which is designed to intercept projectiles with a range of 5-7 miles (8-11 km).
There have been reports that Syria has shipped rockets to Hezbollah. Israeli security officials have recently accused Damascus of providing the group with 220mm rockets. While the New York Times cited Israeli officials as saying that the Syrian-supplied rockets have a range of 12 -18 miles (20-29 km), the Washington Post cited an Israeli estimate of 45 miles (72 km).7 The only imported weapons in the Syrian arsenal with this caliber are 70s-era Soviet-manufactured BM-27 220mm rockets with a range of about 25 miles (40 km), but some reports have said the rockets supplied to Hezbollah are domestically-manufactured imitations of the BM-27 (which could explain the low range estimate reported in the New York Times). Other reports have said that Damascus supplied Hezbollah with rockets that have a range of up to 50 miles (80 km).8
While the Katyushas are deployed in scores of positions along the border, it is not entirely clear where long-range rockets end up - but they are almost certainly somewhere in the heavily Syrian-occupied Beqaa Valley of eastern Lebanon. It is highly unlikely that any of the Fajr rockets have been placed under the direct control of Hezbollah field commanders. Unlike launching a Scud missile, firing a Fajr rocket in the general direction of north-central Israel would not require much expertise. The risk of an unauthorized rocket launch would therefore be too high to deploy them in the field.
There have been conflicting reports as to whether the rockets are under the control of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or Syrian commanders. Following the September 11 attacks, Iran's Supreme National Security Council reportedly ordered the withdrawal of an unspecified number of IRGC personnel from Lebanon.10 In November, the Lebanese daily L'Orient Le-Jour quoted "well-informed sources" as saying that about 100 "Iranian experts who assist Hezbollah" had departed the country.11 There is no evidence that all IRGC personnel (or even most) were withdrawn, however, and there have been unconfirmed reports that some have returned. Most probably there is some form of joint Syrian-Iranian supervision over the long-range rockets.
In April, there were unconfirmed reports (denied at the time by the Lebanese foreign ministry) that IRGC personnel were constructing a major installation in the Beqaa to house the rockets. During the summer, it emerged that Syria had ordered a large shipment of mobile SA-18 ground-to-air missiles from Russia, possibly to defend the rocket installation from Israeli air attacks. The deployment in the Beqaa of SA-18 missiles, which can hit aircraft five miles away and are more effective against counter-measures than earlier versions, would have greatly bolstered Syrian air defense capabilities. Last month, however, Israeli officials managed to persuade Russia to cancel the sale.12
There is little Israel can do to halt further shipments of rockets. Most, along with other weapons supplied by Tehran, are shipped by air from Iran to Damascus International Airport, then driven overland in trucks to the Beqaa. After September 11, the United States pressured Turkey into closing its airspace to Iran's weapons airlifts, but the flights were resumed after Iran received permission to use Iraqi airspace. It's possible that Iran's accelerated shipments of rockets over the last year is motivated in part by the recognition that Iraqi airspace will not be accessible much longer.
Some Israeli officials see the rockets as a strategic Iranian asset, allowing it to threaten Israel with thousands of warheads while it moves toward full production and deployment of the Shahab-3 ballistic missile - which, in an October 3 interview with the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, the head of Iran's missile development program declared was designed for the purpose of retaliation against Israel. Much of Hezbollah's espionage in Israel has been devoted to determining the precise locations of industrial sites, gas depots, power stations and other strategic targets.
The main goal of the deployment could be to deter Israel from launching air strikes against Iranian nuclear installations (which it has threatened to do once Tehran is on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon). However, the timing of the deployments - the bulk coming since the September 11 attacks - suggests that they may also be intended to deter the United States from targeting Iran down the road in the war on terror, or perhaps even to obstruct American action against Iraq. A flare-up of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah (which is likely to spur increased attacks by Palestinian terrorist groups) would complicate American efforts to mobilize support for either.
But Israeli officials have made it clear that they will retaliate for any major cross-border rocket attacks against Syria. "It is very clear to us that nothing happens on our northern border without the knowledge and permission of the Syrians," warned Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer after the last major Hezbollah attack on August 29, which killed an Israeli soldier and wounded two. "We hold them responsible for every violation. We have warned them several times in the past . . . we will not ignore provocation." In April 2001, the Israeli air force demolished a Syrian radar station in Lebanon following a Hezbollah attack which killed an Israeli soldier. Two and a half months later, Israel bombed a second Syrian radar station after an Israeli soldier was wounded.
Increasingly strident warnings from the Israeli government that the rocket arsenal across the border constitutes an unacceptable security threat do not seem to have phased Damascus, which is surprising - Sharon is not exactly known for tolerating security threats emanating from south Lebanon. The Syrians may be wagering that he will be reluctant to launch a major campaign to eliminate the missiles as long as Israel is dealing with daily threats from Palestinian suicide bombings and the US-Iraqi confrontation remains unresolved. That may be true, but few Israelis believe that Sharon's hesitation will be indefinite.
Eyal Zisser, The Return of Hizbullah, Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002.
1 Ma'ariv, 23 March 2001.
2 Voice of Israel (Jerusalem), 30 January 2002.
3 Agence France Presse, 28 May 2001.
4 "Emboldened by US jibes, Hizbullah prepares for war," The Christian Science Monitor, 8 February 2002.
5 "Militants Are Said to Amass Missiles in South Lebanon," The New York Times, 27 September 2002.
6 Al-Manar Television (Beirut), 22 October 2002.
7 "Clashes on Border Drive Israeli Fears; Wider Conflict Predicted With Hezbollah," The Washington Post, 2 November 2002.
8 Israel TV Channel 1 (Jerusalem), 31 May 2002.
9 "Iranian missiles can reach Israel," The Sunday Times (London), 20 October 2002.
10 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 November 2001.
11 L'Orient Le-Jour (Beirut), 26 November 2001.
12 The Jerusalem Post, 29 October 2002.