Hezbollah's expanded arsenal of guided missiles and rockets is drawing Israeli forces into an increasingly deadly ground war in southern Lebanon as they attempt to locate and destroy the hidden weapons.
The Shiite Muslim group has added about 10,000 Katyusha rockets to its armory in the six years since Israel withdrew its ground forces from Lebanon, military experts say. Israel can't rely solely on air strikes to tackle the threat from rockets with improved range and accuracy that may be able to strike Tel Aviv. Nine Israeli soldiers were killed and 22 wounded in one gun battle in south Lebanon yesterday, the army's heaviest casualties since the conflict began 15 days ago.
"It's like Vietnam," Penrose Albright, a former U.S. assistant secretary of homeland security, said in a telephone interview from Washington. "The enemy has an endless supply of cheap weapons and can strike at you from any direction."
Hezbollah's new capabilities, with 12,000 missiles across southern Lebanon, threaten such strategic targets in Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, as the state-owned oil refineries and one of the country's biggest chemical plants. The "Party of God" has also surprised Israel by adding smarter missiles to the unguided World War II-vintage Katyusha warheads.
"Hezbollah has come a long way," said Superintendent Michael Cardash, deputy head of the Israeli Police bomb disposal unit, holding a twisted shard recovered from a Syrian-made 220- millimeter rocket that ripped through the roof of a Haifa rail yard July 16 and killed eight workers. "Their rockets are causing us significant damage."
Hezbollah displayed a technological leap in mid-July off the coast of Lebanon, when its forces used a guided missile to kill four commandos on an Israeli ship.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's 46-year-old general secretary, has promised more "military surprises" for the Israelis. Those include the Iranian-made C802 Noor guided missile that hit the Israeli ship and the long-range Zelzal-2 rocket, which can travel 120 miles (200 kilometers), said Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general who ran Israel's National Defense College.
Hezbollah, founded in 1982, has claimed credit or been linked to scores of attacks on Israelis and Americans, including rocket attacks on Israeli towns, the 1983 bombing that killed 241 U.S. and 58 French soldiers in Beirut and the 1994 attack that killed 95 at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Leaders of the group say its fight with Israel will boost its prestige and popularity in Lebanon and throughout the Muslim world, and that it is in no rush to end the fighting.
The group's strategy is "not to reveal all its cards, to impose its own pace in fighting the war and to prepare for a long war," Ali Fayyad, a member of Hezbollah's Central Council, said in an interview in Beirut.
Nasrallah started planning for the next big conflict when Israel left Lebanon six years ago, said Eitan Azani, a researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, part of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
"He has been preparing artillery, military actions and intelligence just for this particular moment in time," Azani said. "It shows he's the one in charge in South Lebanon."
Israel's Security Cabinet today decided against widening its military operations in southern Lebanon, after yesterday's casualties. The government indicated it may expand operations later, and authorized the army to call up additional reserve forces to put on standby, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said in a statement posted on its Hebrew language Web site.
The Israeli army says 1,436 Hezbollah missiles have landed in Israeli territory since the conflict erupted July 12, when it raided Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers.
Today, a Hezbollah rocket hit a chemical plant in the town of Kiryat Shemona in northern Israel close to the border with Lebanon, the Associated Press reported, citing Israeli security officials. It was not immediately clear what chemicals were in use at the plant, and there were no details on damage, AP said.
Fifty-one Israelis have died and about 1,000 have been injured in the fighting. Israeli air strikes in Lebanon have left at least 401 people dead and thousands wounded.
It probably wasn't too difficult for Nasrallah to expand his arsenal, said Albright, who led a U.S.-Israeli study 10 years ago on defense against short-range rockets. "Katyushas have become like commodities on the international arms market, and you can get them from almost anyone," he said. "They're not an existential threat, but they can certainly disrupt daily life and hurt Israel economically."
Hezbollah's arsenal also contains Iranian-made Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 missiles, which have a range of 55 miles, and Iran's Mirsad-1 drone airplanes, according to the "Middle East Military Balance," an annual survey published by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
While considered "dumb bombs," even the Katyushas are more sophisticated than the homemade Qassam rockets that Palestinians have been firing during the past year at Israeli towns bordering the Gaza Strip, police say.
Hezbollah's superior knowledge of the terrain in south Lebanon, which has been mined and dug full of tunnels and trenches since the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000, gives them significant advantages in the current conflict, said Michael Kerr, a Lebanon expert at the London School of Economics.
The Hezbollah fighters "arrive with an open-roofed truck, fire the rockets and then disappear so anyone retaliating is fighting a ghost army," Kerr said in an interview.
'Needle in a Haystack'
"Lebanon is a mountainous country with lots of forestation so it's perfectly suited to storing weapons," he said. "Israel is looking for a needle in a haystack and sometimes it might hit the haystack instead of a needle."
Olmert says he won't stop fighting until Hezbollah is driven back to a distance north of the Lebanese border from which they can no longer threaten Israel.
Amidror, who also served as of the army's intelligence assessment unit, said Israel's campaign fits into a wider need by the U.S. and its allies to neutralize Iran and prevent it from terrorizing Israel and destabilizing the Middle East.
"Israel must carry out its current military operation against Hezbollah until it is fully neutralized, isolated, disarmed and unable to serve as Iran's long arm," he said.
"There's no way to stop Hezbollah's Katyushas except by going in there on the ground and destroying their weapons," said Albright. "Unfortunately that's going to be a long, drawn-out and bloody process."