War Stories

What Is Hezbollah Up To?

Maybe time really is on their side.

What do Hezbollah’s leaders think they’re doing? Could they possibly believe they could come out ahead in this war against Israel? Well, yes.

Mahmud Qomati, a member of Hezbollah’s political council, told the Agence France-Presse wire service today that the organization could keep up its rocket attacks “for months,” adding, “Time is on our side.” Big talk, but it might be true.

According to data accumulated by the Web site GlobalSecurity.org, Hezbollah units have 13,000 rockets with a range of 15 miles, 500 rockets of 50-mile range, and perhaps a few dozen of 75-mile range.

In the week since this conflict began, they’ve been firing on average 100 rockets a day. Do the math: This could go on, as Qomati said, for months.

Israeli Gen. Alon Friedman claims that Israeli forces have destroyed 10,000 Hezbollah rockets since their air raids began. Not only is the boast doubtful on its face, it’s unclear how any such estimate could be made. During the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. Air Force intelligence officials claimed that coalition air raids were destroying dozens of Iraqi Scud missiles. After the war, battlefield surveys revealed that not a single Scud had been hit.

Hezbollah’s rockets—most obtained, over the years, from Iran—are around 1 foot in diameter and 15 to 20 feet long. Except for those with the longest range (which may be too complicated for Hezbollah fighters to operate without foreign assistance), they can be fired from launchers consisting of a few planks. In other words, they’re easy to hide and quick to set up.

The AFP story reports that the Israelis have been bombing trucks, some of them carrying rockets, on the road to southern Lebanon. A photographer saw 11 trucks destroyed in a suburb of Beirut. Some truck drivers are refusing to drive south, fearful of more attacks.

Bombing the roads and bridges will slow the transportation of missiles and other supplies but probably not halt it. “Interdiction campaigns,” as such tactics are known, have a spotty record in the annals of military history. The other side can fairly easily repair the damage or find alternative routes. It’s also hard to tell a “rocket convoy” from an ordinary truck. In at least one case, the Israelis reportedly bombed vehicles carrying medicine from the United Arab Emirates—a sure way to alienate supporters and harden hearts and times. (The UAE is among the Arab nations that have criticized Hezbollah for starting this round of violence.)

Can Hezbollah’s rockets do much damage? No. The most powerful warheads are packed with only 100 to 200 pounds of explosive. They miss their targets by, on average, two-thirds of a mile. This may be why Qomati said Hezbollah had, for the moment, “suspended” its attempts to target the petrochemical plant in Haifa—they can’t hit it. Still, accuracy isn’t necessary to keep up a campaign of terror—and that may be all Hezbollah needs to do.

But, the question remains, what is it they want to do? If their goal is to destroy the state of Israel, they’re going to fall short. But if their goal is simply to stand up to Israel, to wage a war of attrition, and to walk away from it intact, their reputation enhanced, they could accomplish that.

Did they know what they were getting into last Wednesday when a group of fighters crossed the border, snatched two Israeli soldiers, and their commanders followed up with a barrage of rockets? Did they guess that Israel would retaliate with such force?

Probably not. Hezbollah had tried this gambit before. As recently as last November, they raided northern Israel and tried—but failed—to capture Israel soldiers, then they fired Katyusha rockets into Israeli positions at Shabaa Farms. Last May, they fired barrages at an Israeli base on Mount Meron. In both cases, Israel fired back but only “proportionately.”

Even back in 1996, when a few missile volleys provoked Israel into mounting Operation Grapes of Wrath, a stunningly destructive bombing campaign of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah emerged—hardly unscathed but still breathing.

Hezbollah’s leaders may not have expected the heavy bombardment that came their way this time. But once in the fight, they seem to have concluded that there is no point in pulling out. The calculation may have been rational, at least from their vantage point.

They could reasonably expect that Israel is not going to launch a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. It tried that approach in 1982, and things went badly. They could also reasonably expect—once the first few volleys flew—that the Israeli bombs and missiles would kill Lebanese civilians (as bombs and missiles tend to do). Some Lebanese would blame Hezbollah for the damage, especially at first. But as the fighting escalated, more would blame those dropping the bombs and firing the missiles. The weakness of the Lebanese government makes this all the more likely. As the Israeli bombs have fallen, Hezbollah—not the Lebanese government—has been operating many of the shelters and the medical services. Some may see them as the instigators of the violence, but others see them as the victim-saviors.

If the conflict spreads to Syria and Iran, would Hezbollah be hurt—or, more to the point, do its leaders think they would be hurt? That depends on how sincere they are in their apocalyptic sentiments. If they think escalation would prompt a titanic battle between Islam and the Zionists, and if they believe they are destined to win this holy war, escalation might not be something they fear.

Israel’s strategy at the moment is to keep fighting for another few weeks, with the aim of crippling Hezbollah, so that, once international pressures for a cease-fire can no longer be staved off, Israel will come to the table with a far stronger bargaining hand.

Hezbollah counters that they can play that game, too. And the thing is, maybe they can.