The Winds of War in Lebanon
by Jonathan Schanzer
Translations of this item:
Multiple sources suggest that the winds of war are blowing to Israel's north, and that such a war could erupt very soon.
Lebanese parliamentarian Jean Ogassapian of the Future Bloc issued a warning over the weekend of "dangers of an Israeli strike against Lebanon. There is information that Israel told UNIFIL to take precautions." Ogassapian told Lebanese television, "This warning should be linked to the smuggling of arms from Syria to Lebanon."
Late last month, the Israeli air force reportedly bombed a military convoy suspected of carrying advanced weapons systems from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon (the target was not Syrian research facility, as some had reported). A few days later, Lebanese media reported that the Israeli Air Force struck a Hezbollah transmission tower. Hezbollah later said the explosion was just a stun grenade. The exact circumstances of this episode remain murky.
The military activity continues. Israeli drones reportedly conducted reconnaissance in southern Lebanon twice last week. The drones, according to the Lebanese military source, violated Lebanese airspace for over 17 hours. Israeli incursions into Lebanese airspace are commonplace, but the extended length of time in this case was curious.
Meanwhile, Israel has deployed a third Iron Dome anti-missile defense system to its northern front, removing the critical air defense systems from the embattled south, where in recent years Hamas has fired thousands of rockets into Israeli air space. Israeli media also reports that the IDF ordered the evacuation of civilian aircraft from the country's Haifa airport, which is located in the north of country.
There is ample reason for concern on the Israeli side. Conservative estimates suggest that Hezbollah maintains an arsenal of some 70,000 rockets. As the Israeli website Ynet recently reported, Hezbollah has erected camouflaged defense positions in villages containing Russian anti-tank missiles it received from Syria. Hezbollah has further created arms caches in Lebanese villages, along with a network of underground tunnels that will allow fighters to hide from IDF reconnaissance or operations.
Citing Israeli military officials, Ynet sums up the new Lebanese battlefield this way: "some 180 Shiite villages and small towns situated between the Zahrani River and the border with Israel have been converted into fighting zones in which Hezbollah is preparing —above and below ground — for the next conflict with Israel."
Of course, this Hezbollah infrastructure is not new. The Israelis are keenly aware that, within days of the last conflict in 2006, Hezbollah has been preparing for the next round of conflict.
So, what's making the Israelis so nervous now? Are they seeing longer range rockets or other hardware they have not seen before? And are those items worth prompting a conflict with Hezbollah, given the other potential dangers posed by Syria and Iran?
In a recent closed door briefing with FDD, a senior Israeli official observed, "All of Lebanon is now South Lebanon." He warned, "the world needs to be prepared for the next war with Lebanon," noting that Hezbollah has installed advanced weaponry in densely populated areas. As a result, he explained, there could be a great many civilian casualties in the next round of fighting.
The Lebanese people are keenly aware of this risk. Ogassapian voiced his rejection of "any weapons [in reference to Hezbollah's military arsenal] other than the Lebanese Armed Forces' weapons." But, the notion that Lebanon could somehow disarm Hezbollah before the next round of conflict is not realistic.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets at @JSchanzer.