Hezbollah’s Rules of the Game and the Missile Threat
On April 15, an Israeli drone fired two Hellfire missiles at a Jeep Cherokee that had just crossed from Lebanon into Syria, near Jdeidet Yabous, which is just over the Syrian-Lebanese frontier. The first missile didn’t hit the target while the second struck it almost two minutes later. The vehicles had three occupants, who survived the strike, due to the time-lapse. An almost-comical CCTV recording of the strike even showed that the occupants had time to repeatedly return to their vehicle and retrieve their belongings before it was destroyed by the Israeli drone.
Conflicting reports soon emerged about their exact identities. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya – based on allegedly “exclusive” information – claimed one of the passengers was Mustafa Mughniyeh, the younger son of Hezbollah’s fallen commander Imad Mughniyeh. It identified another as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operative Imad Karimi, whom it claimed hailed from Iran’s Fars province. However, Kuwaiti Al-Jarida – based on “an informed source in Tehran” – said the latter was actually a Hezbollah commander. The New York Times later identified him instead as “Imad Kraimi,” a “senior Hezbollah operative” who worked with one of the group’s units responsible for “smuggling sophisticated weapons.”
The Times, in an analysis addressing the so-called “war in between the wars” – namely the clandestine, low-intensity conflict between Israel and Hezbollah primarily in Syria – concluded that the Israelis had intentionally missed. Not just in this instance, but that despite conducting routine airstrikes on weapons shipments to Hezbollah, the Israelis have largely intentionally avoided killing the group’s fighters in Syria for fear of retaliatory action leading to escalation. But the piece overlooks two critical aspects: rules of the game in Lebanon versus Syria and the complexity of Hezbollah’s missile threat.
- Hezbollah’s Casualties and the Rules of the Game
The piece quotes an unnamed “Syria-based member of the pro-Iran axis in the region,” – a source of dubious reliability, at best – who states that the Israelis have only killed 16 of the group’s members since they began conducting their airstrikes in 2013. It’s difficult to confirm or deny that number. Indeed, reviewing a timeline of Israeli strikes in Syria (up to April 2017) shows that most of those strikes didn’t result in casualties. Reports by Syrian opposition sources, like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, suggest a higher Hezbollah death toll but have admittedly become increasingly unreliable in recent years.
Nonetheless, taking Hezbollah or Axis of Resistance claims about their casualties at face value is problematic. Hezbollah has been dishonest about its involvement in the Syrian Civil War from the outset. For the first two years of the war, it denied any participation in that conflict. After it finally admitted its deployment in Syria, it began downplaying its losses to contain rising discontentment among its Lebanese Shiite support base over the high numbers of casualties lost in a war that was not clearly in defense of Lebanon. Furthermore, the group very rarely – if ever – divulges the exact circumstances of its fighters’ deaths in Syria, often stating at most that they “died while conducting their jihadi obligations.”
Hezbollah has a compelling reason to downplay the number of its fighters who have been killed by Israel in Syria. The group wants to avoid war with Israel, at least for the foreseeable future. Admitting higher casualties at the hands of the Israelis puts it in the untenable position of either having to retaliate against the Israeli strikes – with retaliation risking an unintended escalation – or refraining from retaliation, and thus eroding its Resistance bona fides.
Moreover, Israel seemingly sparing the two Hezbollah members on April 15 may have had less to do with a desire to avoid killing the group’s fighters overall than refraining from killing them in Lebanon. In other words, Israel may have been adhering to the “rules of the game” that have emerged between the two adversaries over the last seven years.
Those rules evolved after the February 24, 2014, Israeli airstrike near the Lebanese village of Janta – on the border with Syria – that targeted a Hezbollah weapons shipment. The group initially denied that the strike had landed in Lebanese territory, but later backtracked and vowed retaliation against Israel, following through with several attacks on Israeli troops near the Golan Heights. Hezbollah’s message was clear: per these new rules, the group would tolerate Israeli strikes in Syria but would retaliate for any that occurred in Lebanon.
Per the Times, the Jeep Cherokee targeted in the April 15, 2020 strike “had just crossed” from Lebanon into Syria. The Israelis may have held their fire to verify that the vehicle had indeed crossed into Syria, where it would be a fair target.
Indeed, the critical difference between how Hezbollah views Israeli strikes in Syria versus Lebanon could have accounted for Israel avoiding killing the group’s members in the August 2019 incident in Dahiyeh, which the piece uses to buttress its argument. The Times references the Israeli drones, which crashed (intentionally or otherwise) in Dahiyeh in August 2019, stating the timing of the attack was designed “to avoid killing Hezbollah members.” But this ignores two critical matters. The first is that Israel had no qualms about killing two Hezbollah fighters, Hassan Zbeeb and Yasser Daher, in Syria during a strike that occurred shortly before the drones crashed in Dahiyeh. While Hezbollah did attack Israel after Zbeeb and Daher were killed, it’s not because the rules as they applied to Syria had changed. Instead, the group seems to have used the death of these two fighters as an excuse to send a message to the Israelis to halt their escalating strikes on its allies in Iraq.
The second is the different “rules of the game” that hold in Lebanon, as opposed to Syria. Israel was already crossing the established “red line” by carrying out the August 2019 attack in Dahiyeh, assuming the drones that crashed in Dahiyeh were indeed on a “suicide mission” (and for that we also only have Hezbollah’s claims ). The Israelis likely had good reason to violate these established rules, but knowing the consequences of doing so, wanted to mitigate the fall out as much as possible and avoid an escalation, and therefore refrained from causing Hezbollah any casualties.
- Unpacking Hezbollah’s Missile Threat
Hezbollah’s missile threat, as stated in the Times piece, must also be unpacked. The piece states that the group has “100,000 missiles and rockets that can reach all corners of the Jewish state,” suggesting that all or most of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal consists of long-range projectiles. The Times further suggests that the Iron Dome missile defense system alone would contend with these projectiles, stating that it “would be unable to shoot down a large volley of rockets simultaneously.”
Indeed, Israeli estimates indicate that Hezbollah will attempt to fire 1,000-1,500 such rockets at Israel per day, compared to the maximum of 160 rockets per day that the group fired in 2006. At face value, this indeed seems like a nightmarish scenario, but the reality is more complex, and a detailed breakdown of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal and how the group will employ it is necessary to understand how a future war will unfold.
Hezbollah’s Short-Range Rocket Arsenal
Hezbollah’s arsenal has grown exponentially since its 2006 war with Israel, from approximately 14,000 rockets to a current estimate of 100,000-150,000 projectiles. Yet, the vast majority of this arsenal – even according to Israeli sources – consists of relatively short-range, inaccurate, projectiles carrying lower explosive payloads. This short-range arsenal is comprised mostly of Katyusha variants – with maximum high explosive weight of 20 kg and range of 40 km, respectively – but also includes: the Fajr-3 (45 kg, 43 km); the Fajr-5 (90 kg, 75 km); the Raad-2 and Raad-3 (65-70 km, 50 kg); and the Khaibar-1 (150 kg, 100 km).
According to a late 2016 Israeli Home Front Command assessment, fully 95% of the rockets Hezbollah will fire at Israel will be short-range, 122 mm Katyusha rockets. In the 2006 conflict, these rockets accounted for 90% of the projectiles fired by the group.
Despite this rocket’s drawbacks, Hezbollah’s emphasis on Katyushas is by design: they are cheap to produce (about $100-$150 per rocket). They can be fired on short notice in large volleys either remotely or from mobile launch pads and have a short flight time and flat trajectory – making them difficult to detect or intercept. Israel developed the Iron Dome to counter the threat of such missiles. Unable to develop rockets sophisticated enough to breach the Israeli missile defense system, Hezbollah opted for the low-tech alternative of overwhelming it with sheer numbers of the cheap Katyushas, with the added benefit of carrying out psychological warfare against the Israeli civilian population.
The Iron Dome has proven highly successful in previous combat engagements. But with an interception rate of somewhere between 86-90%, it is no hermetic seal over Israel’s skies. Moreover, based on open source information, each of its Tamir interceptors can cost up to $100,000-$150,000 per unit. It will therefore be technologically and economically unfeasible for Israel to intercept all of these rockets. At the daily rate at which Hezbollah projected to fire these rockets, an estimated 100 to 210 rockets will make impact within northern Israel. Effectively, this will replicate the rate of Hezbollah’s rocket fire from the 2006 war. Though the IDF Home Front Command estimates that “only 1%...will make impact and directly hit inhabited areas or cities,” the threat they will nonetheless pose to northern Israel will force its residents into bomb shelters, recreating the same economic and social disruption that Hezbollah’s rockets caused in the last war. Due to these rockets’ inaccuracy, it’s hard to predict the damage and casualties they will cause Israel. But, as in the previous war, Hezbollah will likely attempt to concentrate its Katyusha attacks on cities and residential areas – like Haifa and Nahariya – within the rocket’s range, to maximize their harmful impact.
Hezbollah intends for its rockets to have an additional psychological impact on Israel. The group has long used psychological warfare to amplify the impact of its armed attacks, and as a means of bridging the conventional power gap vastly favoring the IDF. As in past engagements with the IDF, Hezbollah will likely concentrate the use of its psychological warfare against the Israeli civilian population rather than Israeli soldiers.
The IDF’s conventional military superiority over Hezbollah is showing no signs of abating. Considering that disparity, Hezbollah will want to shorten the duration of a future war with Israel, to reduce the amount of damage the IDF can inflict upon it and ensure its own survival. In a scenario where – per the Gideon Doctrine – combined Israeli forces are deployed in full force in Lebanon, but Hezbollah is nonetheless able to continue firing rockets and breach Iron Dome in sufficient numbers to recreate the disruption and harm (at a minimum) of the 2006 Lebanon War, a feeling of unsafety will set in among Israelis, despite their army’s best efforts to rout Hezbollah. Over time, the Israeli civilian population could become demoralized, believing their army’s efforts to protect them are ineffective or futile. This could lead them to pressure their government into a premature ceasefire.
This scenario presupposes a single-front conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, with maximum Iron Dome battery deployment in the north. However – based Hezbollah’s threats and Israeli defense establishment assessments – the likelier scenario will involve a multi-front conflict, with Hezbollah’s “Resistance Axis” allies operating from the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip. Israel has ten currently operational Iron Dome batteries and plans to deploy a maximum of fifteen. In the event of a multi-front war, these batteries will have to be divided accordingly, potentially impacting their interception rate and increasing the number of projectiles that will strike the Israeli Home Front on each front.
Hezbollah’s Mid- and Long-Range Missile Arsenal
Yet, Hezbollah’s missile arsenal is also comprised of a mid- and longer-range tier of projectiles. These include the unguided Zelzal-1 (600 kg/125-130 km), Zelzal-1A (500 kg/160 km), and Zelzal-2 (600 kg/200 km) rockets; and so-called Precision-Guided Missiles (PGMs), like the Fateh-110 variants (500-600 kg/130-300 km, and potentially Scud-D missiles (985 kg/300 km).
If Hezbollah were able to bypass Israel’s missile defense system with these rockets, they would theoretically be able to strike anywhere within the Jewish State. However, increasing their chances of bypassing that system cannot be accomplished by overwhelming Iron Dome with shorter range rockets, as the Times piece seems to suggest.
While Iron Dome can intercept longer-range projectiles, its primary purpose is to confront the shorter-range rockets. Instead, David’s Sling – the second tier of Israel’s multi-layer missile defense system – would counter Hezbollah’s mid- to long-range rockets. While Hezbollah will likely succeed in overwhelming Iron Dome in a future conflict, that would have no bearing on David’s Sling, which will activate to intercept the longer-range projectiles.
In theory, Hezbollah could also attempt to overwhelm David’s Sling. Like the Iron Dome, it is also not a hermetic seal. During tests conducted in 2012, the system notched a 90% or higher interception rate, meaning some Hezbollah missiles – particularly if fired in large volleys – could strike their intended targets within Israel. On July 23, 2018, during its first operational use, the missile defense system also failed to intercept two Syrian SS-21 Scarab tactical ballistic missiles. David’s Sling interceptors also cost $1 million, so the cost of intercepting all of Hezbollah’s PGMs would be prohibitive.
However, Hezbollah might not possess PGMs in sufficient quantities. In 2010, a Pentagon official estimated that Hezbollah possessed 40 or 50 Fateh-110 missiles. Five years later, an Israeli military official said the group had acquired “around 10” advanced Scud-D missiles. While it’s plausible that Hezbollah has expanded this arsenal in the intervening years, in December of 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that the group only possessed “dozens” of PGMs, without specifying precisely which kind. A week later, Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hezbollah lacked the domestic ability to produce precision-guided missiles.
Hezbollah might be trying to compensate for this shortage, however, by attempting to convert its arsenal of unguided Zelzal rockets – estimated at around 14,000 – into guided projectiles by equipping them with GPS packages. The Zelzal-2, with its 130 km range, can reach from central Lebanon as far as northern Tel Aviv. Ordinarily, its inaccuracy of striking within a mile of its intended impact point renders it useless as a military weapon, as opposed to an indiscriminate instrument of terror. Equipped with these GPS packages, however, it would become a potent addition to Hezbollah’s arsenal.
While this would considerably – and cheaply – expand Hezbollah’s PGM arsenal, there are nonetheless mitigating factors to consider. The first is that the efficacy and accuracy of these missiles depend on GPS packages that have never been tested in combat. Second, Israel’s means of contending with Hezbollah’s PGM arsenal are not confined to defensive methods or reliance on David’s Sling. The Israel Air Force, now operating F-35s, is likely to maintain virtually unchallenged aerial superiority over Lebanon (and Syria) in a future conflict. This would give Israel the ability to destroy many of these PGMS – which are larger, with more detectable heat-signatures, less mobile launch pads, and longer launch-preparation times – on the ground.
Launching a 36-foot Scud-D, which uses liquid propellant, takes 45 minutes to prepare, and must be done from a huge wheeled transporter-erector-launcher (TEL), backed by support vehicles – making them easier prey for Israeli jets. The Zelzal-2 – and its guided, longer-range Fateh-110 derivative – are solid-fuel rockets, and can,, therefore, be set up to be fired in less than fifteen minutes. However, because of their weight, they must be carried by a large TEL, which presents a large infrared and radar signature for targeting when out in the open. This inherent vulnerability proved decisive in the 2006 war, allowing Israel to destroy most of Hezbollah’s Zelzal arsenal before any had been fired – either during the 34-minute Operation Mishkal Sguli aerial blitz or over the course of the war.
Hezbollah could try to shield these weapons from Israeli jets by placing them deeper in Syria. Indeed, recent Israeli strikes and statements from Hezbollah’s leadership suggest it is doing just that. But that would reduce the distance to which they could penetrate Israeli territory, and such placement has not immunized these rockets from Israeli aerial attacks so far.
Thus, the New York Times’ report overlooks the different rules of the game in Lebanon and Syria and oversimplifies the missile threat from Hezbollah.