The Magazine

Hezbollah's Arsenal

It's more lethal than everyone thought.

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By DAN DARLING
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AS THE CONFLICT between Israel and Hezbollah continues to escalate in Lebanon, one of the most alarming discoveries since the beginning of the fighting has been the variety, as well as the capabilities, of the weaponry employed by Hezbollah.

Under the apt headline "Arming of Hezbollah Reveals U.S. and Israeli Blind Spots," the New York Times recently provided a sense of just how powerful Hezbollah has become since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. As the Times explained, "the power and sophistication of the missile and rocket arsenal that Hezbollah has used in recent days has caught the United States and Israel off guard . . . both countries are just now learning the extent to which the militant group has succeeded in getting weapons from Iran and Syria."

There is good reason to be concerned. Since the fighting began, Hezbollah has inflicted more damage on Israel than Saddam Hussein's Iraq was able to inflict on Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Hezbollah has deployed a range of extremely sophisticated weapons against Israel. The most notable has been the Iranian C-802 Noor (Tondar) variant of the Chinese Silkworm missile that was used against an Israeli gunship off the Lebanese coast. Four Israeli sailors were killed, and the gunship was put out of commission.

The Associated Press reports that "Iran is believed to have supplied Hezbollah with up to 120 Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets, with ranges of 22 miles and 45 miles respectively," noting that it was a Fajr-3 that is thought to have been responsible for an attack on Haifa that killed 8 civilians. More recently, Israeli military officials have sought to destroy sites in Lebanon believed to house long-range Zelzal missiles of Iranian manufacture that they suspect are capable of hitting Tel Aviv. And while early reports that an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was responsible for the attack on the Israeli warship were inaccurate, Hezbollah is still assumed to possess several UAVs.

Nor is Iran Hezbollah's only source of weaponry. The New York Times quoted anonymous officials as saying that "some of the rockets in Hezbollah's arsenal--including a 220-millimeter rocket used in a deadly attack on a railway site in Haifa on Sunday--were built in Syria. . . . Officials have since confirmed that the warhead on the Syrian rocket was filled with ball bearings--a method of destruction used frequently in suicide bombings but not in warhead technology." An intelligence official was quoted in the article as saying, "We've never seen anything like this."

Given the apparent intelligence failure surrounding both Hezbollah's acquisition of this advanced weaponry and the willingness of Iran and Syria to supply it, the question whether the capabilities displayed to date by Hezbollah represent the full extent and scope of its arsenal may be worth raising.

Moreover, even the group's more mundane weapons have undergone numerous improvements. The Times reports that U.S. and Israeli intelligence were "surprised by the advances that Hezbollah had made in improving what had been crude rockets--for example, attaching cluster bombs as warheads, or filling an explosive shell with ball bearings that have devastating effect." While some of these advances have come about through experience and murderous innovation, it is undeniable that Hezbollah would not be able to threaten Israel to the degree that it does without the full and active support of Syria and Iran. Clearly, contrary to the prognostications of many, state sponsorship still plays a major role in the amount of force that a terrorist group like Hezbollah can bring to bear against Israel. This is particularly true if, as Time magazine reported on its website in June, Hezbollah's long-range weapons are "under the direct command of officers of Iran's Revolutionary Guards," the elite branch of the Iranian military. According to the New York Times's unnamed intelligence sources, Revolutionary Guards probably "trained Hezbollah fighters on how to successfully fire and guide the missiles."

Given the sophistication and variety of Hezbollah's weapons and the role of Syria and Iran in supplying them, any lasting solution to the situation in Lebanon must involve the full disarmament or destruction of Hezbollah's arsenal, with a firm understanding that it will not be reconstituted.

The Times reported that the administration was reluctant to detail the role of Iran because of "a desire by the Bush administration to contain the conflict to Israeli and Hezbollah forces, and not to enlarge the diplomatic tasks by making Iranian missile supplies, or even those of Syria, a central question for now." While such reticence may make good diplomatic sense in the short term, no agreement that fails to address these issues will last.