Israel Steps up Shadow War with Hezbollah

Ed Blanche

BEIRUT — Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) stressed in its annual strategic assessment, released January 2nd, that Hezbollah remains the most serious threat the Jewish state faces.
It urged Israel’s intelligence establishment to intensity efforts to block the transfer of advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah — a process that may already be under way with a spate of air and missiles strikes against Syria.
The vast majority of the arms supplied to Hezbollah from Iran pass through Syria. Hezbollah, a key force keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power amid the war in the country, is reportedly building military bases and seeking to establish a presence in the disputed Golan Heights, a strategic volcanic plateau that overlooks Israel’s agricultural heartland.
Iran, Hezbollah’s patron and arms supplier, is listed as the second-ranking military threat by INSS, in part because of its distance from Israel.
Combined, Iran and Hezbollah, which serves as the Islamic republic’s strategic arm in the Levant, present a comprehensive threat to Israel that far exceeds any other. This ranges from Iran’s growing ballistic missile force and the nuclear weapons Israel’s military leaders are convinced it will develop in the coming years to Hezbollah’s emerging tactical capabilities.
Much of that is due to advanced weaponry it amassed in recent years despite repeated Israeli air strikes against weapons convoys and targeted assassinations in Syria and Lebanon of key figures in acquiring or developing Hezbollah’s firepower.
Hezbollah is estimated — largely by Israel — to possess more than 130,000 rockets and missiles, including long-range weapons capable of destroying city blocks.
In recent weeks, the covert war between Israel and Hezbollah that has dragged on for five years apparently flared again, possibly this time with higher stakes.
There have been several missiles attacks reported in Syria, all presumably Israeli weapons launched from either the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights or from Lebanese airspace. These were apparently aimed at curtailing deliveries of advanced weapons to Hezbollah that in the past have reportedly included Soviet-era SA- 22 air defence missiles, which, for the first time, allow Hezbollah to directly challenge Israel’s control of the air in Lebanon and Syria, and Yakhont anti-ship missiles that could be used against Israel’s offshore gas facilities.
On November 30, at least two missiles, apparently fired by Israeli jets in Lebanese airspace, hit a convoy of trucks outside Damascus, triggering speculation the trucks were carrying advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
On December 2, Israel reportedly conducted two air strikes using Popeye missiles around Damascus, one against a weapons depot manned by the Syrian Army’s crack 4th Armoured Division at Sabboura, north-west of the Syrian capital. The other blasted several cars near the Damascus-Beirut highway.
In a 3am strike on December 7, several surface-to-surface missiles hit installations in the Mezzeh military airbase at Damascus International Airport, where Hezbollah maintains a high-security facility for receiving arms airlifted from Iran before they are trucked to Lebanon. The missiles started several big fires at the airport, triggering major explosions.
In a separate attack on that date, Hezbollah facilities in and around the town of Zabadani, on the border with Lebanon and a key junction in the overland arms route to Hezbollah strongpoints, were hit. On January 13, Syria accused Israel of another missile strike on the Mezzeh base in a predawn attack that triggered multiple explosions and caused casualties.
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu acknowledged for the first time in April 2016 that Israel has been mounting air strikes in Syrian territory to curb shipments of what he called “game-changing weaponry” to Hezbollah.
The Jerusalem Post suggested on December 8 that the Israelis’ strikes the previous day had targeted “the presumed base of the Syrian Army’s secretive Unit 450, a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre that is at the centre of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons programme north of Damascus”.
On the same day, Israel’s hawkish Defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, raised the ante by claiming that the Israeli Air Force had thwarted an attempt to transfer chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon.
If that is true, it suggests that Hezbollah and Iran may be prepared to escalate the covert efforts to upgrade Hezbollah’s arsenal to a highly dangerous new level.
Lieberman often shoots from the hip and his comments may have had political overtones but it was the first time a top-level Israeli official had voiced such concerns.
These air and missile strikes constitute what the Israelis call a “campaign between wars”, a concept that involves overt and covert operations designed to thwart emerging threats, particularly the acquisition of advanced weaponry.
This is a finely balanced confrontation short of war in which both sides observe certain restraints that will prevent hostilities escalating to all-out conflict.
But now Israel seems to be stepping up the shadowy conflict with Hezbollah, as Iran seeks to establish a presence in the divided Golan, a red line for Israel.
Lieberman warned that while Israel has no interest in intervening in the Syrian war, it would take action to preserve Israelis’ security, particularly on advanced weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Israel, he declared, “will make decisions according to this policy without taking other circumstances or restriction into account”.
Ed Blanche
has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
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