Christian Science Monitor, by Nicholas Blanford, Correspondent, posted May 7, 2010 at 1:06 pm EDT, Mashghara, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon —
Driving through Hezbollah's stronghold in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a veteran fighter says the militant group has made significant military advances since their last war with Israel in 2006: 'We have many other surprises for the Israelis.'
A magazine vendor in Damascus displays a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad (at left in framed photo) and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Recent allegations that Syria has supplied the militant group with Scud missiles has enraged Israel and renewed talk of war. (Bassem Tellawi/AP)
Nearly four years after Hezbollah fought invading Israeli troops to a standstill in south Lebanon, the militant Shiite group says it's prepared for a fresh conflict and confident of victory.
"We are ready for another war and we eagerly await it," says veteran Hezbollah fighter Abu Hadi on a drive through the Bekaa Valley. "We expect the next war to be short. The Israelis will not be able to endure what we will do to them."
Hezbollah's leadership insists it does not seek a war and that its military preparations are a defense against potential Israeli aggression. Yet, the inconclusive outcome of the 2006 war has stoked a feeling here that another war is inevitable.
War drums have been beating faster in recent weeks amid allegations that Syria has supplied Hezbollah with Scud ballistic missiles – a development that has enraged Israel, forced Lebanese leaders to seek international support, and complicated a gradual US-Syria rapprochement. On May 3, President Obama renewed sanctions on Syria for a year because of its "continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs."
Hezbollah's strongholds in the Bekaa Valley are likely to be one of several front lines during another war with Israel – a war that threatens to be far more destructive than the one in July 2006. Hezbollah says lessons learned from that conflict have been implemented, including new battlefield tactics and the acquisition of improved weapons systems, surface-to-surface rockets, and possibly advanced antiaircraft missiles.
'Too much at stake'
Many analysts believe that the next war will not be confined to Hezbollah and Israel but will also draw in Syria and possibly Iran in a regional conflagration. Hezbollah's leaders say that it would be of sufficient scale and intensity to change the geopolitical balance in the region. "That kind of war would change every parameter in the Middle East," Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said recently.
The stakes for both sides are so great that the military preparations of Israel and Hezbollah to some extent serve as a mutual deterrent against rash action.
"I don't believe there will be [war]. I think there is too much at stake to lose for all the parties," says Michael Williams, the top United Nations official in Lebanon, after an April 28 meeting with Prime Minister Saad Hariri. "I think tensions have been high the past few days. But I hope these will lower now."
Tensions flared when Israel accused Hezbollah of having Scuds and US officials voiced alarm at the increasingly sophisticated weaponry allegedly crossing the border from Syria to Lebanon. In late April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Hezbollah had "far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world.... This is obviously destabilizing for the whole region," he said following talks with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.
Who needs Scuds when you have M-600s?
Syria's Scud-D rockets have a range of 435 miles, which would bring all of Israel within range of Hezbollah's strongholds in the northern Bekaa Valley.
The US has condemned Syria's "provocative behavior" in sending Hezbollah arms, but says it cannot confirm that Scuds have been smuggled into Lebanon. Lebanese, Syrian, and Egyptian officials have all dismissed the reports for lack of evidence.
Some military analysts question the claims, too, asking why Hezbollah would need Scuds, which are liquid-fueled (lengthening launch preparation time) and usually require firing from large-wheeled launchers, which would also need to be smuggled into Lebanon. Hezbollah is believed to already have Iranian-designed and Syrian-built M-600 rockets that are more concealable and quicker to fire.
"The M-600 is more accurate than the Scuds, is easier to use as it has a solid propellant motor, and is smaller and lighter," says Duncan Lennox, editor of Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems in Britain.
Hezbollah officials refuse to confirm or deny the reports, but Abu Hadi says the group has no need for Scuds. "We have many other surprises for the Israelis," he says, exhibiting the determination of Hezbollah's cadres in preparing for war.
"Take a good look around you," he says, pointing to the concrete apartment blocks of Hezbollah's stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut. "Next time, all this will be gone." He's not worried about his neighborhood's potential destruction. "We can always rebuild," he says. "Our dignity is more important than roofs over our heads."
'Jihad places us in a pleasant state of mind'
Most Lebanese dread another devastating war with Israel, especially as Lebanon's economy improves amid a boom in construction and tourism. Such concerns garner little sympathy from Hezbollah combatants, who say they are fulfilling a religious obligation in confronting Israel. "The atmosphere [among Hezbollah cadres] is very spiritual," says Hassan, a burly university student. "In our belief, we are waging jihad and that places us in a very pleasant state of mind."
Hezbollah's leadership refuses to discuss details of its armaments but acknowledges its military advances since 2006.
"We have ... plugged some of the loopholes, and improved the good things," deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem told a Saudi paper recently. "Now, we certainly are more impregnable, and more at ease in ... preparing to confront the possibilities of an Israeli aggression than at any previous time."
•Hear more from Hassan and Abu Hadi about Hezbollah's weapons and tactics at CSMonitor.com