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Hezbollah Rocket Inventories Worry Israel, U.S.

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, May 2 2010 (IPS) - Recent warnings by the United States that Hezbollah (Party of God) possesses more rockets than most governments has once again placed the party’s arsenal under the spotlight.

Dahyeh, a southern suburb of Beirut after the 2006 war.  Credit: Mona Alami/IPS

Dahyeh, a southern suburb of Beirut after the 2006 war. Credit: Mona Alami/IPS

In recent weeks, pressure has been mounting on Hezbollah – the political party that began as a resistance movement against the 1978-2000 Israeli occupation of Lebanon – amid accusations that the organisation has acquired Soviet-origin surface-to-surface missiles (scuds).

“We are at a point now where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world,” said U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates, after a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.

Following the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in July 2006 – which resulted in some 1,200 Lebanese deaths but left the Party of God’s command relatively untouched – the U.N. Security Council issued resolution 1701 banning weapons smuggling into Lebanon.

However, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his February 2008 report to the Security Council, declared that Hezbollah has since managed to replenish its weapons inventory.

The U.S. is now accusing Syria and Iran, two regional Hezbollah allies, of providing military, logistical and financial support to the party.

“Hezbollah’s main arms supplier was Iran and under the Hafez al Assad regime [1966-2000] in Syria, weapon supply to the party was monitored by Damascus. Any that could possibly affect the balance of power in South Lebanon [where Hezbollah was stationed] were banned,” explains Nicolas Blanford, a Beirut defence analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly, a military magazine.

Bashar al Assad was elected Syria’s president following his father’s death, and under his leadership the weapon ban was lifted to a certain extent. “Syria now provides Hezbollah with anti-tank missiles, AT-13 Metis and AT-14 as well as long-range Uragan rockets [with a 70-km range),” the analyst said. Uragans are a multiple-rocket launching system.

It was during the July 2006 war that Israel first experienced the extent of Hezbollah’s weaponry and military strategy. “Hezbollah was successful in the 2006 war because it was able to retain its firing capacity in spite of the Israeli bombings,” said Timur Goskel, defence analyst and professor of conflict resolution at the American University of Beirut.

Blanford is sceptical about the Israeli Defence Force’s claim that much of Hezbollah’s chief long-range rockets were destroyed at the beginning of the 2006 war. “The party installed several dummy rocket launchers with fake heat signatures, which might have protected the party’s long-range capabilities,” he told IPS.

The 2006 war also revealed that the Party of God had C-802 cruise missiles of Chinese origin, which were used against an Israeli battleship on Jul. 14. “No one imagined then that Hezbollah had this type of capability,” says Goskel.

According to the professor, Hezbollah fighters exercised a great deal of mobility and stealth during the month-long battle by relying on rocket launchers that were loaded on vehicles and easily hidden. They also relied on a network of bunkers that now seem to have been moved north of the Litani river, outside the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) jurisdiction.

Israel estimates that Hezbollah’s arsenal now consists of some 40,000 rockets. Solid evidence regarding the exact number of rockets in their possession remains elusive, both analysts agree. However, they admit that Hezbollah supply lines have most probably not been affected by the Israeli incursion or UNIFIL’s peace-keeping presence in South Lebanon.

According to Blanford, Hezbollah’s military capability today comprises a variety of weapons, including standard 122mm Katyushas with a range of 20 km. Goskel adds that Hezbollah’s arsenal also includes medium- and short-range weapons that are easily concealable and do not require much manipulation.

“The movement’s long-range (over 20 km) rocket inventory remains unclear, but appears to consist of Iranian rockets – namely, the Fajr-3, a 240mm rocket with a 43 km range, the Fajr-5, a 333mm rocket with a 75 km range, and the Zelzal-2, a 610mm rocket with a range of 210 km,” says Blandford.

“Rockets supplied by Syria reportedly include the 220mm Uragan, with a range of 70 km, and a 302mm rocket with a range of 100 km,” he adds.

Hezbollah also has the Russian designed RPG-29 anti-tank grenade launcher, and Kornet short-range guided missiles that are used against tanks and armoured vehicles.

The party’s biggest shortcoming remains its lack of air defences, feels Goskel. In 2006, Hezbollah was armed only with light shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, which were unable to seriously target the Israeli Air Force, leaving it relatively free to safely bombard from the skies.

“This is why Hezbollah is now interested in obtaining long-range anti-aircraft systems and radar-guided missiles,” explains Blandford.

In response to Arab and Western media claims that Hezbollah operatives have been training in Syria to use SA-6 anti-aircraft batteries, Blanford explains that the SA-6 is an old system that does not constitute a threat to fighter jets and can only be used against helicopters at a lower altitude.

Blanford claims that Hezbollah is now focusing more on guidance systems rather than on achieving distance and, along with Goskel, doubts U.S. and Israeli charges that they have been supplied with scud missiles.

“Scuds are very bulky to transport and difficult to hide and manipulate, requiring 45 minutes of preparation,” says Blanford. “They do not provide Hezbollah much advantage compared to the Fateh 110 surface-to-surface missiles, which have a 250-km range and are equipped with a 550kg warhead.”

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