Israel’s top military officer warned today that Hezbollah is more powerful than most of the world’s armies and that a confrontation between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militant organization was a near certainty.
While the threat posed by conventional Arab armies has diminished in recent years, Israel now faces highly mobile enemies like Hezbollah, skilled in asymmetric warfare and equipped with advanced weapons systems, Gen. Benny Gantz said. However, the massive destruction Israel can inflict on Hezbollah’s assets and Lebanon’s infrastructure continues to deter Hezbollah from overt aggression against Israel.
“Bring me four or five states that have more firepower than Hezbollah: Russia, China, Israel, France, and England,” he told Israel’s annual security-oriented Herzliya Conference. “What is this enormous power that they [Hezbollah] have that can cover every area of the state of Israel?”
Gantz’s comments reflect Israel's longstanding concern about Hezbollah’s growing might, which has soared in terms of weaponry, technology, and personnel since the two enemies last fought each other in open war in 2006.
Last week, an anonymous Israeli intelligence officer wrote in Israel’s Maarachot military magazine that in the next war, Hezbollah would not merely defend against an Israeli invasion but could make a “ground offensive and multi-pronged attack on Israeli territory."
In the past eight years, the Iran-backed group is believed to have acquired GPS-guided Syrian-manufactured missiles fitted with 1,100-pound warheads with ranges of at least 150 miles. That puts Tel Aviv within range of the Lebanese border. It also has drones that can carry dozens of pounds of explosive. In October 2012, a drone operated by Hezbollah penetrated Israeli airspace in the south before being detected and shot down by Israeli jets.
Hezbollah’s reconnaissance and communications capabilities have also improved. Fighters serving in Syria use thermal imaging cameras to monitor rebel movements and prepare ambushes, including one in February that killed 175 rebel fighters near Otaiba, east of Damascus. It has built a few dozen training camps across the Bekaa Valley in recent years to process the steady influx of new recruits.
But the most significant change may be the crucial combat experience Hezbollah's cadres have gained from fighting in Syria's war on behalf of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah is credited with helping turn the tide against the rebel forces in the past year, granting Mr. Assad the confidence to hold a presidential election last week that saw him earn his third seven-year term in office in a poll widely derided by the Syrian opposition and the West.
“Iran is investing a lot in Hezbollah in Syria.... Hezbollah is involved up to their necks in it,” Gantz said.
It is fortunate for Israel that Hezbollah's attention is divided between domestic politics, military preparations against Israel, and its intervention in Syria, Gantz said. Fear of a damaging war has served as a mutual deterrence.
“Hezbollah is like a state and they know exactly what is going to happen in Lebanon if they start a war with us, and that this would set Lebanon back decades,” he said.
Despite that, tensions rose in February and March after an Israeli airstrike on a Hezbollah facility in the Bekaa Valley. The target was a 2,450-sq.-ft. utility building, possibly a temporary arms storage facility, beside a track used by Hezbollah to smuggle weapons into Lebanon from neighboring Syria, according to comparisons of satellite imagery on Google Earth.
It was the first Israeli air attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon since 2006. In response, Hezbollah detonated a roadside bomb against Israeli troops on Lebanon’s southern border. It is also thought responsible for staging three other attacks against soldiers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, wounding four.