Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Lebanese militia Hezbollah has been building factories in the heart of Beirut for the purpose of converting rockets into missiles with pinpoint accuracy, striking targets with centimeter precision. Waving photos of the sites during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu blasted Hezbollah for “deliberately” using citizens in Beirut as human shields. Hinting that Israel will soon bomb the factories, Netanyahu warned Hezbollah that “Israel knows what you are doing, Israel knows where you are doing it, and Israel will not let you get away with it.”
The factories are in the neighborhood of Uza’i, close to Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. One site is located inside a stadium belonging to a Hezbollah-supporting soccer team. Further, missile conversion factories are in the middle of a residential neighborhood and close to civilian residential buildings, while another is at a dock only 500 meters from the airport’s landing strip.
Hezbollah’s decision to transfer its factories for turning rockets into precision missiles marks another stage in the multi-year cat-and-mouse game the Iranian proxy has played with Israel. The group and its Iranian patrons have been attempting relentlessly to transfer advanced “game-changing” weapons to Lebanon that will shift the strategic advantage that Israel currently holds.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah is a sworn enemy of Israel and fought a bloody 34-day war with the Jewish State in 2006 that saw both countries suffer massive bombardments. Ever since the cessation of hostilities, both Israel and Hezbollah see the next round of warfare as a matter of when, not if, and have taken steps to prepare themselves accordingly. For Hezbollah, that meant embarking on a massive buildup that focuses on two main areas: Air defense systems and ground-to-ground missiles.
During the 2006 war, Israeli aircraft pounded Lebanon relentlessly, bombing critical infrastructure and laying waste to large swaths of the country. Israel’s air force grants the Jewish state a major absolute advantage, as Hezbollah does not have any air capabilities other than its drone program. In the wake of the destruction, Hezbollah views neutralizing the superiority Israel’s air force enjoys as critical to the group’s military effort.
Since 2010, Hezbollah and Iran have attempted to take advantage of the chaos caused by the Syrian civil war to smuggle advanced air defense systems that can shoot down Israeli plans. Almost all attempts to transfer the missiles into Lebanon have ended in the shipments being bombed by Israeli warplanes as part of its policy not to allow Hezbollah to obtain advanced weapons. While Hezbollah has managed to obtain some medium-range anti-air missiles that are capable of downing Israeli drones, helicopters, and low-flying fighter jets, Western intelligence does not think it has managed to get its hands on anti-aircraft missiles that can neutralize Israel’s fleet of fighters.
After being repeatedly stymied by Israel air strikes, Iran and Hezbollah shifted to a strategy of building up its missile arsenal. At the onset of 2006’s Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah possessed 12,000 rockets. Twelve years later, the number ballooned to between 130,000 and 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles, more than most NATO nations. Hezbollah views these missiles as a central pillar of its deterrence with Israel, as the massive arsenal has the ability to lay waste to Israel’s home front and kill thousands of civilians. With a total area smaller than the State of New Jersey and with 70 percent of it’s population crowded into its center region, Israel has to think twice about embarking on a military operation with Hezbollah that would cause it billions of dollars of damage.
However, while Hezbollah’s missile arsenal is a formidable threat to the Jewish State, it is not seen as a weapon that can change the balance of warfare with Israel. Other than crippling Israeli air force bases, the rockets are unable to stop advancing Israeli military forces and cannot neutralize the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
In addition, the vast majority of Hezbollah’s missile stockpile are made up of inaccurate Katyusha, Grad, and Scud missiles. Besides the Fateh-110 missile, which is accurate up to a kilometer, these rockets can cause considerable harm to tiny Israel’s infrastructure but would not change the balance of power between the two nations. Because of this, Iran’s focus from 2010 until 2016 was on smuggling missiles with pinpoint accuracy to Hezbollah. The vast majority of these weapons shipments were summarily destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Syria and Sudan. While Israel does not claim responsibility for the airstrikes, senior officials periodically shed light on the effort to prevent Iranian shipments.
In August 2017, former Israeli Air Force Commander Amir Eshel revealed that Israel attacked convoys bringing arms to Hezbollah more than 100 times in the previous five years. The number of Israel attacks have also been steadily rising. Recently, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said that “in the name of military sources, so I can quote it too – that in the last two years Israel has taken military action more than 200 times within Syria itself.”
Iran has since shifted tactics and is now trying to produce missiles within Lebanon itself. Iran believes that the large volume of munitions it can manufacture, and shorter supply lines will make it harder for Israel to thwart. In March, an Iranian general told the Kuwaiti Al-Jarida daily news that Iran had established multiple facilities for making rockets in Lebanon. The general added that the factories were tens of meters below ground and were fortified with multiple defense mechanisms to defend against an Israeli attack. Israel has responded by attacking the rocket sites and assassinating top personnel involved with the rocket project, including the killing of Syrian rocket scientist Dr. Aziz Asbar in a car bomb back in August .
Hezbollah’s decision to shift its sites for rocket production and conversion to Beirut from rural areas in northern Lebanon can be understood as a way to deter an Israeli aerial bombardment. Like Hamas in Gaza, which hides its missiles in highly residential areas, Hezbollah expects that Israel will refrain from carrying out an airstrike that will kill dozens of civilians.
This shift in tactics, culminating in a decision to place the rocket production sites near Rafic Hariri International Airport, can also be understood in similar light, for the international community would never forgive Israel for bombing a major international transit hub. As of now, Hezbollah’s bet that Israel would not bomb missile sites located in the heart of a residential neighborhood seems to have paid off, as Israel has chosen to deal with the threat via diplomatic means and not military action.
Other than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations, Israel has attempted to whip up Lebanese public sentiment against Hezbollah. As part of these efforts, IDF spokesperson Brigadier General Ronen Manelis contributed an op-ed to the Lebanese press in January, warning that Hezbollah’s newfound ability for missile manufacturing would eventually lead to all-out war that would leave scores of Lebanese dead.
“Through the actions and inaction of the Lebanese authorities, Lebanon is turning into one big missile factory while much of the international community looks the other way,” wrote Manelis. “It’s no longer about transfers of arms, money or advice. De facto, Iran has opened a new branch, the Lebanon branch — Iran is here…Iran and Hezbollah are currently trying to build a precision missile factory.”
Should Israel choose not to bomb the Beirut missile sites, Hezbollah can be expected to expand its effort to hide sensitive military infrastructure in the heart of major cities. The odds of this policy continuing are growing increasingly likely, as recent tensions with Russia suggest that Israel’s policy of choosing diplomacy over bombings will continue.
After Israel bombed an Iranian weapons shipment in the Syrian port city of Latakia in early September, the resulting Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian Ilyushin IL-20 turboprop reconnaissance aircraft, killing all 15 troops aboard. As part of the resulting diplomatic fallout, Russia announced that it would sell Syria the S-300 anti-aircraft system, which is considered one of the best air defense systems in the world; accurate up to 150 kilometers and with detection capabilities stretching to 300 kilometers, it is capable of taking out enemy aircraft, ballistic missiles, and UAVs, and is considered by military experts to be second only to the United States’ Patriot batteries. Ever since it first announced the sale, Russia had come under heavy international pressure not to deliver the S-300 to Iran and Putin had frozen the deal in 2010.
Despite assurances by former Israeli Air Force Commander Amir Eshel, who in 2017 said that the S-300 was a “significant but not insurmountable challenge,” analysts say that its delivery will put an end to the Israeli Air Force’s heyday in the Syria skies. In fact, the Israeli security establishment fears the anti-missile defense system to such an extent that Prime Minister Netanyahu made a secret trip to Moscow in both 2009 and 2013 to meet with Putin in an attempt to scuttle its transfer to Iran. In addition, the system added a new wrinkle in a potential Israeli strike, as Israel now has to take into account Russian reaction. A key component to an air assault is taking out the opposing side’s missile defense, yet Russia has made it abundantly clear that it will not tolerate an Israeli military action against the expensive S-300 system.
For example, following an Israeli air strike in Syria in April 2018, Russia announced that it would arm President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the S-300 and warned that should Israel attempt to destroy the anti-aircraft batteries it would be “catastrophic for all sides.”