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Bolstered by Iran, Hezbollah 'capable of destruction on a whole new scale'

Mahmoud Zayyat, AFP | Since its creation in 1982, the Iranian-backed militia has been a formidable foe of Israel.

Amid an ongoing Israeli operation to find and destroy a Hezbollah cross-border tunnel network, the Lebanese Shia militia poses a greater threat than ever to the Jewish state, strengthened by growing support from Iran and combat experience in Syria.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried Hezbollah’s development of a network of tunnels across the Lebanon-Israel border on Wednesday, describing it as an “act of war”.

Netanyahu’s speech came after the discovery on Sunday of a fourth Hezbollah tunnel infiltrating Israeli territory from across the Lebanese border. Israel’s military launched an ongoing military operation on December 4 to locate and eliminate all such tunnels.

But the cross-border subterranean network is merely one manifestation of the threat Hezbollah poses to Israel. Observers say that thanks to significantly bolstered manpower, resources and fighting experience, the Lebanese militant group has strengthened considerably since its 2006 war with the Jewish state.

‘Destruction on a completely different scale’

“Hezbollah is the biggest strategic threat Israel now faces,” Ely Karmon, a defence and security analyst at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, told FRANCE 24.

A key element behind this is the fact that “Hezbollah is now way better equipped, so it has the capabilities to create destruction on a completely different scale from what we saw in 2006,” added Yossi Mekelberg, a Middle East specialist at Chatham House think-tank and Regent’s University London, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

The Israeli defence ministry estimates that the armed group more than doubled its number of fighters, from 20,000 to around 45,000 fighters, over the past dozen years – but also, its arsenal of missiles and rockets has grown more than tenfold, from around 13,000 in 2006 to more than 120,000 in 2018.

“In 2006 Hezbollah fired up to 3500 rockets at Israel, whereas now it’s estimated that it can fire 1200 rockets a day,” Ehud Eilam, a former private contractor for the Israeli defence ministry and author of “Israel’s Future Wars”, told FRANCE 24. “So it can now fire the same quantity of rockets in 3 days as it did in that entire 34-day war.”

Israel urges UN action over Hezbollah tunnels

Analysts say that the impetus behind this build-up of Hezbollah’s firepower comes from its patron – and Israel’s longstanding enemy – Iran.

“Over the past year or two, the Iranians have been trying to upgrade Hezbollah’s ability to attack northern Israel,” Karmon pointed out. “We’re now seeing direct flights of weaponry – some of it highly sophisticated – from Iran to Beirut,” Mekelberg added.

While Israel has carried out a series of air strikes on suspected arms transfers to Hezbollah in war-torn Syria since 2013, it has refrained from using such measures in Lebanon itself.

‘Totally subject to Iran’s authority’

The Shia militia has consistently relied on Tehran for funding, equipment and direction since it was founded under Iranian aegis in the early 1980s, during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

“Hezbollah’s leadership is totally subject to the authority of the Iranian state, specifically of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei,” Karmon noted. “They have always taken orders from the Iranian leadership. It says a lot that Hassan Nasrallah’s first title is that of personal representative of Khamenei in Lebanon, not that of Hezbollah Secretary General.”

Hezbollah’s primary purpose for Iran is as a tool to use against Israel, according to Eilam: “Iran sees Hezbollah as its strongest ally in the Middle East, and it wants to keep the militia strong in Lebanon as a power base against Israel.”

Since the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian leadership’s animus against the Jewish state has been driven by a “special sympathy for the Palestinian people”, combined with “a desire to use its fight against Israel as a way of trying to win the hearts and minds of Sunnis and Arabs”, said Karmon.

And in response to Tel Aviv’s increasingly trenchant opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme over the past dozen years, Tehran has ramped up support for Hezbollah accordingly. “The Iranian government wants to make Israel think hard before it attacks Iran’s nuclear sites – so it’s using Hezbollah rockets as deterrence,” Eilam noted.

Fighting in Syria gives Hezbollah ‘great advantages’

Hezbollah is not just serviceable for Iran as a proxy to use against Israel. The Lebanese armed group has also played a major role in keeping Tehran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad, in power over the course of the Syrian conflict, participating in decisive victories over rebel groups, such as the 2013 Al-Qusayr offensive and the two 2016 Aleppo offensives.

“Thanks to their engagement in Syria, Hezbollah’s fighters are much more experienced in combat than they have ever been,” Mekelberg observed.

The Iranian-backed militia’s role in Syria has given its fighters “great advantages” to use in any conflict with Israel, Karmon added. “It’s particularly important that they’ve gained significant experience of combat in bigger units, at the level of the battalion,” he continued.

That said, Eilam cautioned that one should be careful not to over-estimate the effect of Hezbollah's Syrian experience in any conflict. "They've been fighting against a much weaker opponent in the shape of Syrian rebel groups, with Russian air support, so they'd find things a lot tougher than what they've been used to if they fight Israel," he explained.

New conflict would be ‘devastating for both sides’

In light of Hezbollah’s augmented strength since 2006, not to mention Israel’s well-known military prowess, experts say that both sides recognise the dangers of another war.

The Shia militia “cannot conquer any land in Israel, it cannot defeat or destroy Israel – it can only harm it,” said Eilam. “But, in the eyes of many in the Jewish state, that would be bad enough.”

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, suggested the threat of punishing retaliation would deter the Lebanese militia from attacking its southern neighbour.

“Hezbollah will never again try to provoke Israel into a conflict in either Lebanon or Syria, because it knows that Israel would respond with extreme ferocity – and neither will Iran allow it to do so,” he told FRANCE 24.

Considering the military capabilities of both Israel and Hezbollah, a new conflict would be “devastating for both sides”, Mekelberg added. “Everyone involved recognises that there would be more civilian casualties than ever and – in particular – Lebanon would be devastated.”

“But that doesn’t mean a war won’t happen,” Mekelberg concluded. “I was in Sarajevo this morning. I visited the street where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. That leads me to think that, if a world war can start like that, just by accident, I doubt that Israel and Hezbollah are immune.”

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