New Hezbollah rockets threaten Israeli cities - IHTMarch 12, 2003

Ralph Johansen michele at
Wed Mar 12 10:43:58 MST 2003

Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune |

New Hezbollah rockets threaten Israeli cities
Larry Collins IHT
Wednesday, March 12, 2003

The Middle East

LONDON The eyes of the world are, quite rightly, focused on Baghdad and a
looming U.S.-Iraq war. There is, however, another potentially explosive
Middle Eastern area that is not getting the attention it deserves. It is the
Lebanese-Israeli border.

In the spring of 2000, Israel's then prime minister, Ehud Barak, ordered the
Israeli Army out of the 20 kilometer (12 mile) swath north of the border
which Israel had occupied since 1982. He did so expecting the Lebanese
government to exercise its natural sovereign rights and move Lebanese Army
troops onto the border. They never did.

Why? Because the leaders of the Hezbollah guerrillas controlling the area
informed the Beirut government that any attempt to replace them with
Lebanese troops would be met with force. The leadership, made up primarily
of Lebanese Shiites, then began to import from Iran massive quantities of a
souped up version of the Katushya rocket with which they had once made life
hell for Israeli villages along the frontier. Labelled the Fajr-3, the new
rockets carry the same high explosive warhead as the original but have a
range expanded from 20 to 50 kilometers. A still newer version, the Fajr-4,
with a range of 70 kilometers bringing the coastal city of Haifa and the
northern outskirts of Tel Aviv within range, has been reaching the Hezbollah
since early 2002.

A year ago Shimon Peres and senior Israeli Army intelligence officers
estimated that the Hezbollah already had 8,000 of the rockets in their
possession. Last week, they both raised that figure to 10,000. At the time
of the first estimate, I was in Lebanon working with senior UN officials
keeping watch on the Hezbollah's activities. They dismissed Peres' estimate
as exagerrated - but were prepared to admit that the Hezbollah could have as
many as 5,000 of the new rockets. Today? They might well raise that estimate
to between 7,000 and 7,500.

The rockets have no guidance system to speak of and in a massive firing many
would splash into the sea or plow up an empty field. Israel's northern
villagers, however, can attest to the damage they can cause when they hit a
building head on. Fire off such a salvo, and some would inevitably hit
high-rise apartment buildings, crowded shopping malls, perhaps a school or a

A fleet of hundreds or thousands of those rockets flying south toward Tel
Aviv could leave in their wake devastation more terrible than anything
Israel has ever known. Will they fly in the event of a U.S.-Iraq war? The
chances, alas, are very high that they will.

Beirut's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the organization's spiritual guide, is on
the record as saying that the Hezbollah will not attack Israel simply
because America invades Iraq. But will he be able to convince the Hezbollah
to keep its powder dry in the face of a nightly barrage of horrifying TV
images of Iraqi homes being destroyed by U.S. smart bombs, women and
children mourning their dead?

Much more to the point, I learned from a first-rate Israeli source that
Ariel Sharon is confiding to his inner circle that when the United States
attacks Iraq, he will seize the occasion to move against the Hezbollah in
the north himself. Undoing the action of his predecessor, Ehud Barak, is
something Sharon has been aching to do since he took office.

Such a move on Sharon's part will almost certainly add a new dimension to
the U.S.-Iraq war, a Syrian-Israeli conflict. While the Hezbollah is
dependent on the mullahs of Tehran for their financing, administrative
guidance and weaponry, those rockets were shipped to Lebanon via the
Damascus airport with the knowledge and approval of the Syrian government.
Sharon, via the good offices of the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, has
informed Syria's President Bashar Assad that if the Hezbollah fires the
rockets, Israel will hold Syria responsible.

But suppose it's Sharon who strikes first? There are between 30,000 and
35,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley north of the Hezbollah
strongholds. How is Assad going to stop them from rushing to the aid of
their Hezbollah friends? If they do, they will be no match for the Israelis.
The Syrian Army and Air Force have not received any spare parts for their
Soviet weaponry since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

So how then might Assad and his generals respond to a humiliating defeat of
their military at the hands of the Israelis? Last summer the thinkers at the
Begin Sadat Institute of Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel
Aviv published a little noticed paper noting that it was Syria, not Iraq,
that possessed the most sophisticated chemical and biological weaponry in
the Middle East. A fortnight ago, a senior Israeli confirmed to me that this
is indeed true.

The Syrians don't have a sophisticated delivery system to hurl such weapons
at Israel, but they don't need one. They live right next door. They can in a
sense toss them over the fence.

The extent to which Bashar Assad is really in control of his nation is a
mystery at the moment to most Middle Eastern thinkers. Is he running the
show or is he still beholden to the Alawite military, police and political
leaders who were his father's supporters and now surround him? In either
case would he or they be crazy enough to such weapons at Israel in a moment
of despair?

That would be a gesture of suicidal madness. It would alter the regional
stability of the Middle East all right, but not in the manner George W. Bush
has in mind.

Larry Collins is, with Dominique Lapierre, the co-author of "0 Jerusalem."
He has spent most of the last three years in the Middle East researching a
book on the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

 Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune

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