Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah recently issued a new threat to Israel’s cities and sensitive sites, boasting of his terror organization’s ability to hit targets deep inside the country.
The threats came in a televised speech, serving as a reminder of the ambitious arms race that the Shi’ite terror army is engaged in, with the massive assistance of its state sponsor, Iran.
The Lebanese Hizballah is the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, and its surface-to-surface firepower arsenal – estimated at around 150,000 projectiles – is larger than most state armies’.
The Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) main war preparations focus on the offensive and defensive operations needed to deal with this threat.
On July 12, Nasrallah told Al-Manar television station, which is affiliated with his terror organization, that Hizballah improved its offensive capabilities. Displaying a map, he threatened strikes on strategic Israeli targets including Ben Gurion International Airport, the Dimona nuclear facility, a power plant in Hadera, Ashdod sea port, and ammonia tanks in the city of Haifa. Hizballah makes no distinction between civilian and military targets, and has made the goal of terrorizing Israeli civilians a top priority in future wars.
Nasrallah also threatened to hit the IDF headquarters in the heart of Tel Aviv, as well as a series of air force bases.
Hizballah built up its arsenal by smuggling projectiles into 200 southern Lebanese villages, as well as launch sites in the Bekaa Valley in east Lebanon. It therefore has embedded its firepower in the heart of Lebanese communities, turning Lebanese civilians into human shields if Israel needs to target launch sites and bases.
The projectiles are manufactured by Iranian arms factories, as well as joint Iranian-Syrian weapons factories in Syria. The Iranian Quds Force is responsible for smuggling the weapons into Lebanon.
This arsenal is mostly comprised of short-range rockets with a 45 kilometer (about 28 mile) range, but it also includes thousands of mid-range rockets that can reach central Israel, where the majority of Israel’s population lives, and which is home to the country’s economic hub. In addition, Hizballah has several hundred long-range rockets, and dozens of ballistic missiles.
Just before the Second Lebanon War broke out in 2006, Hizballah had around 11,000 rockets – less than 10 percent of what it has today – the vast majority of which were short-range.
Hizballah’s top goal is converting its rockets and missiles into guided weapons. Stopping that from happening has become a top Israeli national security priority.
With Iran’s help, Hizballah has repeatedly attempted to set up “conversion factories” that install GPS guidance kits onto unguided missiles and rockets. “Relevant components are transported from Iran to factories in Syria and Lebanon, either by land, or by air via Damascus, using civilian aircraft,” a recent report by the British Israel Communications and Research Center said.
According to an assessment by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, “Nasrallah’s threats express his growing self-confidence (and of his sponsor, Iran), based on the significant improvement in Hizballah’s offensive capabilities since the Second Lebanon War. Those capabilities are a function of a large arsenal of rockets and a relatively small number of precision missiles that cover strategic targets in Israel.”
Yet Nasrallah’s arsenal is significantly less precise than what he and the Iranians would have wanted it to be by this stage.
This is due to the determined, mostly low profile Israel campaign to disrupt the Hizballah arms build-up of guided projectiles, whether by stopping the production and trafficking of such components in Syria, or by issuing clear warnings that missile precision sites Lebanon need to cease their activities, or face attack.
Israel holds that it is essential to act now to stop Hizballah from gaining precision destructive firepower, rather than wait and face weapons that can change Tel Aviv’s skyline in a future war.
This logic appears to be linked to reports on Wednesday of new alleged Israeli strikes on Iranian military targets in southern Syria. The strikes reportedly hit military outposts formerly held by Russian forces that have since been taken over by Iranian-backed militias.
On Tuesday, Israel’s United Nations Ambassador Danny Danon exposed Quds Force arms trafficking to Hizballah via Beirut’s sea port, using civilian maritime channels. “The Port of Beirut is now the Port of Hezbollah,” he said. The smuggling included components meant for Hizballah’s conversion program to make unguided projectiles into precision missiles.
In the meantime, the Iranian-Hizballah axis continues trying to threaten Israel in other ways. On Wednesday, the Shin Bet intelligence agency exposed a Syrian-based Iranian terror network which tried recruiting agents inside Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. It tried to use recruits to gather intelligence and organized attacks on Israeli targets.
“The network operated out of Syria, under Iranian direction, and was led by a Syrian named ‘Abu Jihad,'” the Shin Bet stated. It used fictitious Facebook profiles to try to recruit Israeli Arab citizens and Palestinians, to get them to gather information on military bases, sensitive security facilities, high profile figures, police stations, and hospitals, all as part of Iranian efforts to prepare a target list.
The Shin Bet said it detected and monitored the network from its outset, closely monitoring handlers abroad and recruits in Israel and the West Bank who expressed willingness to cooperate. The agency noted that “the big majority of Israeli citizens [who were approached] refused to cooperate, since they suspected a hostile element was involved, and cut off communications.”
This shadow conflict can escalate into a full-blown conflict due to minor catalysts. Tensions in the Persian Gulf between Iran, the United States, and other countries could form one such catalyst, as Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz noted on July 14.
Speaking to Israel’s Channel 13, the minister said that Iranian brinkmanship could end up causing a conflict that would trigger an Israeli-Hizballah conflict.
“I’m not ruling out that within weeks or months, there could be an explosive clash U.S.-Iran clash. And its echoes could reach us,” Steinitz said. “There could be a conflict with Hizballah. There could be a direct clash with Iran. Anything can happen. We are prepared.”
“For four years already, we have foiled Iranian attempts to build bases in Syria, and stopped them from building thousands of projectiles, [from bringing] jets, and the IRGC from bringing tanks [to Syria],” he said. “The Hizballah threat, and the direct Iranian threat remain intact. We are preparing for these day and night.”
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.