On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah attacked an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) patrol killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two, provoking a bloody 34-day war. Ten years on, the northern border is relatively quiet, but Hezbollah has been diligently expanding and preparing itself for future conflict with the Jewish state. Today, the terrorist group has become the preeminent political power in Lebanon with a military arsenal stronger than many sovereign states.
Hezbollah’s ranks now number over 20,000, of whom thousands are now battle-tested from fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. Concurrently, the terrorist group has amassed a bigger and more destructive weapons stockpile that now includes between 120,000 and 150,000 rockets and missiles. Several thousand long- and medium-range munitions have sophisticated guidance systems that support pinpoint targeting—every Israeli city, town and military installation is now within reach. In a future conflict, Hezbollah could launch well over 1,500 rockets per day (compared with 120 per day in 2006).
While Israel’s Iron Dome and David’s Sling rocket defense systems are effective against limited attacks, a significant barrage could severely strain Israel’s missile shield. In such a situation, Israel could be forced to vigorously retaliate in order to protect its citizens. Israeli officials have made clear that a new conflict would have devastating consequences for the Shiite terror group’s infrastructure in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah has built up its capability to challenge Israel’s air superiority over northern Israel. The terrorist group reportedly possesses advanced surface-to-air missiles systems, including Russian-designed shoulder-mounted SA-16, SA-17 and game-changing SA-22 mobile platforms. Hezbollah also now has drones for intelligence collection and possible use for direct attacks as well as advanced Yakhont cruise missiles to strike Israel’s offshore gas platforms and naval vessels.
Complicating the situation, Hezbollah has made much of southern Lebanon a fortress of underground bunkers, rocket launch sites and tunnels—some of which are reportedly being constructed to infiltrate Israel. In fact, Hezbollah exploits Lebanon’s civilian population as human shields—placing its terrorists and weapons in mosques, schools, hospitals and residential homes. As Hezbollah’s military has expanded, so has its use of this “asymmetrical” strategy. Far more Lebanese civilians are now at risk than during the last war—any future conflict with Hezbollah would yield a significant increase in Lebanese civilian casualties, for which the Iranian proxy group would bear responsibility.
To accomplish its goals, Hezbollah has become Lebanon’s strongest political power. Increased influence in parliament and various government ministries has allowed Hezbollah to erode the central government’s control over society. Since 2014, for instance, it has blocked the election of a new president thereby creating a dangerous power vacuum. Machinations such as this have reduced the Lebanese government to a bystander, allowing Hezbollah to consolidate its control over the southern third of the country and continue engaging in nefarious activities at home and abroad.
Aiding Hezbollah’s rapid rise, the group relies on multiple streams of income, mostly from foreign sources. Iran now provides up to $1 billion annually—making it Hezbollah’s largest patron—and has pledged to increase support using sanctions relief from last year’s nuclear deal.
Hezbollah also earns millions of dollars trafficking drugs in close cooperation with South American drug cartels. Michael Braun, a former federal law enforcement official, told the House Financial Services Committee on June 8, 2016, that “The global drug trade generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year in contraband revenue for Hezbollah and it provides a never-ending source of funding for their war chest.” Other sources of revenue include the exploitation of individuals and businesses inside controlled areas and charity from international sympathizers.
Israeli security planners consider Hezbollah and its arsenal of rockets to be one of the greatest threats facing Israel. Though Hezbollah continues to be distracted by the war in Syria, it continues to support Palestinian terrorists and continuously call for Israel’s destruction. A future conflict between Hezbollah and Israel would likely require Israeli ground forces to neutralize the underground bunkers, rocket launch sites and tunnels embedded within Lebanese towns and villages. As one IDF officer with responsibility for Lebanon recently said, the difference between 2006 and a future conflict “will be the difference between an operation and a war.”
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