The Growing Hizbullah Threat to Israel
Last week, the ICEJ’s annual Envision pastors conference ventured to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon to learn more about the threat of Iran and Hizbullah to Israel and the urgent need for more community bomb shelters in the northern border region. Streaming live from kibbutz Mizgav Am, we began the broadcast with ICEJ Vice President & Senior Spokesman David Parsons interviewing IDF Major (Res.) Elliot Chodoff, one of Israel’s leading military analysts, about the growing threat posed by Hizbullah and Iran to Israel. Here are portions of their discussion.
David Parsons: We’re really in this stunning location where over here you can see majestic Mount Hermon with its white snowcap. This is the very finger or northern tip of Israel, the Hula Valley, very lovely, and the hills of Lebanon behind us. But we have to stand here in this incredible place and talk about a serious subject, which is the threat to northern Israel emanating from Lebanon and Syria. And we really have one of Israel’s best experts on military/security threats, Major (Res) Elliot Chodoff. It’s good to have you with us. You’re in the reserves, which means you can speak a little more freely.
Maj. Eliott Chodoff: Yes, everything short of classified.
Parsons: You served for 35 years in the Israeli military and actually wrote some of the training and operational manuals for the combat and other units in the IDF. And now you’re in the IDF reserves, with the HomeFront Command for the northern front… a very important role. We’ll get a little more on your background as we go, but it’s good to have with us. Now, a year or so ago, the Israeli government did a study on the threat on the northern border. There’s been so much focus on Hamas in Gaza and all the rockets in four or five rocket wars in southern Israel in the last 15 years or so. But it’s been relatively quiet up here since 2006, the Second Lebanon War. Yet this study said the northern front is likely to heat up and there’s a huge lack of secure civilian defense shelters. What’s the situation up here?
Maj. Chodoff: The situation is that Israel has not been able to keep up with the changing threat. When the state was established, bomb shelters were standard in construction. But those were community bomb shelters for groups of people, numbers of families, because the perceived threat was the possibility of an enemy air attack coming in and striking anywhere in Israel. But it would be a passing threat. In other words, air raid sirens, go into the shelters for half an hour, 45 minutes, and then come out, it would be over. And in fact, it was a very, very rare occurrence, even during the wars, that such a thing actually happened. With the shift toward the Hizbullah rocket threat today, being far more than anything we’ve ever faced before, certainly even more than Hamas, we’re suddenly facing a reality which we saw in 2006, when Israeli families particularly in the North, and now it’ll be much greater throughout the country, but the North will certainly get hit more. We will have to stay in a sheltered situation, possibly for weeks – like what happened in 2006. And our civilian defense system physically hasn’t caught up with that reality… Here, we’re talking about rocket alerts of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, which completely changes the time frame to reach safety. The best solution for that is either a shelter or what we call a safe room, a hardened room inside each home or as part of an apartment. But most older homes or buildings were not built to that standard. That’s a huge endeavor in terms of construction. It’s also very expensive. So, many residences in the North, including my home, don’t have these safe rooms and that’s the gap, that’s the reality we face.
Parsons: After the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein fired Scuds at Israel, Israel adopted a new policy that with any new residential construction, you had to build a shelter in your home. This was a way of passing on the costs of passive missile defense to the public, correct?
Maj. Chodoff: Yes! And even then, there was a great debate, and I was involved in some of that. The fear with Saddam’s missiles was the possibility of him using chemical weapons, poison gas. Civil defense against conventional explosives is very different from defense against chemical weapons. And the decision was the chemical threat was a much greater threat than the conventional one. Which is why most people had sealed rooms and gas masks. We were not in actual shelters per se, because they were defending against chemical attacks. Today, of course, the standard is that any major shelter also has filters to filter out chemical agents.
Parsons: We know that in Gaza, Hamas has learned to make their own rockets. They now have rockets that can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and they may have 20,000 or 30,000 rockets. But the threat from Hizbullah in the North, it’s been allowed to build up to much, much more. Can you fill us in on that?
Maj. Chodoff: Yes, just let me start with a sense of scale. In 2006, my estimates were that Hizbullah started out with about 20,000 rockets. The Israeli Air Force did an excellent job taking out a good number of them. And in the end, some 4,000 rockets fell on Israel over the five-week war. So, I’m going to say that number again, 4,000 rockets in northern Israel over five weeks. Today, my estimate is that Hizbullah has somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 rockets. In other words, way over ten times what they had.
Parsons: I think the UN says at least 150,000 rockets, right?
Maj. Chodoff: Right! Here, I think it’s important to point out official estimates will always be low… Their plan is to fire some 2,000 rockets a day at Israel to saturate the area… We’re talking about in two days absorbing what we faced in five weeks in 2006. But what it also means at that rate, is that the Iron Dome, which is semi-miraculous technology…it’s not going to work up here, because it’ll be flooded. Now, it will take out some, but not like the situation in Gaza, where Hamas puts up, say, ten or a dozen rockets in the air at a time, the Iron Dome system can sift and figure which are and which aren’t threatening to civilian areas and take them out. If Hizballah was firing multiple volleys of hundreds of rockets at a time, the Iron Dome system will just be swamped. So, the civil defense issue now becomes that much more critical. In addition to that, in 2006, Hizbullah’s maximum range of serious munitions, in terms of numbers, was more or less the line of Hadera, which is just south of Haifa. Today, Hizbullah has rockets that can reach every city in Israel, except for Eilat. In other words, they can cover the entire country, including Tel Aviv and Beersheba.
Parsons: And they can sit in Beirut and fire their rockets from there.
Maj. Chodoff: That’s right! With that longer range, they can go further north to fire them and even reach further south than they did in 2006.
Parsons: Which means 95% of Israel’s population is now under threat from Hizbullah. And it’s not just throwing up rockets to see where they land. A lot of these rockets are now guided?
Maj. Chodoff: Part of what we’ve been dealing with over the past couple of years in Syria is preventing the delivery of guidance systems from Iran to Hizbullah. Now, I think it’s important for people to understand that very often they are referred to as a proxy of Iran, but that’s not accurate. Hizbullah is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the “Quds Force.” In other words, they’re part of the command hierarchy. They’re not operating independently. And that is a completely changed situation. Hamas is a proxy. And the Iranians are trying to get more sophisticated guidance systems to Hizbullah today. Let’s also be clear, the electronics for these guidance systems is elementary by our modern standards… Nonetheless, everything they can possibly do to make their system more accurate means that many more of their rockets will go into populated areas, as opposed to missing them. They don’t have the accuracy to aim at one specific building, say, but they do have the accuracy to fire dozens at a time and to put all of those dozens of rockets into Haifa.
Parsons: Where there are chemical plants, oil storage facilities…
Maj. Chodoff: Correct! But certainly, to put millions of Israelis under perpetual threat for possibly weeks on end.
Parsons: Now, Hizbullah has been preoccupied in recent years with the civil war in Syria, helping to keep the Assad regime in place, which is friendly to them and to Iran. And they’ve lost a lot of troops trying to prop up the Assad regime. A lot of these villages that we see in the background, they’ve had to hold funerals for their sons who were fighting in another country. But they also gained combat experience there. Overall, what is your assessment of the strength of Hizbullah coming out of the Syrian civil war?
Maj. Chodoff: Certainly, they came out stronger. They gained an enormous amount of combat experience, operational experience, command-and-control experience. They’ve gone from what I would have called in 2006 a guerrilla force, obviously a terrorist organization, whereas today they’re an army. They’re not a fully equipped army, they don’t have tank forces, but they are an army. They are organized in military formation of companies, battalions, brigades, etc. They have the training, both from Iran and locally. They’ve set up training bases at a much greater scale than what they had in the past in Lebanon, with Iranian instructors as well. And from the point of view of personal combat skill up through organizational command and skill, they’ve come out way ahead.
Parsons: So, this is a serious force. We saw that basically they already fought Israel to a standoff in 2006, wouldn’t you say?
Maj. Chodoff: Yes. But I would say that in 2006, tactically, we overwhelmed them. Strategically, we didn’t do so well. The high-command decision making was, I’ll be generous and say… it wasn’t exactly a successful operation. But on the ground, tactically, we defeated them. Handily, I would say from a battlefield point of view. Not that they weren’t good, but we were overwhelmingly better. Still, they have improved considerably since then.
Parsons: Even though there was a UN Security Council resolution that said no one can rearm them?
Maj. Chodoff: UN Security Council resolutions, in this case, are not worth the paper they’re printed on.
Parsons: Do they have factories to make rockets within Lebanon now?
Maj. Chodoff: They do have factories, but they’re getting most of their stuff directly from Iran. We have to pick and choose what we’re going after. We can’t stop all of it. So, they’re gaining power. But I would say of less concern, to me, is the quantity of rockets at this point. In other words, as I said earlier, 250,000 rockets – a few more, a few less – is not really the issue. Their actual combat skill, their ability to use battlefield tactics and weapons has gone up significantly. And that means that when we have to go in after them – because it’s a matter of when and not if – we’re going to be fighting possibly the most competent ground force we’ve ever fought in our history in the whole region.
Parsons: I understand this strategy of using rockets against the civilian heartland of Israel, which didn’t really face this until around 2000, that it came from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. This is when Iraq spent eight years firing Scud missiles at Iran. In Tehran, you lived in fear of these Scud missiles for years. And Iran learned firsthand what a terror weapon this can be. And they’ve now turned that strategy on Israel, by ringing Israel with all these rockets.
Maj. Chodoff: It goes back earlier than that. The PLO in the 1970s was firing rockets out of Lebanon into Israel. These were all the Katyusha variants, a rocket type originally built by Russia in World War Two… And they are a very effective military weapon in large quantities… in the sense that you can sit over there and fire it, and nobody can touch you unless they come in after you. The other tremendous advantage of rockets is that the rocket itself is the weapon, as opposed to artillery… Every time you fire one of these, you fired the weapon along with the munition, there’s nothing left to hit. You can take out the launcher, but they are ridiculously cheap and simple to make. And the rockets are cheap to make as well.
Parsons: So, Iran has been investing in Hizbullah for years with billions of dollars and recruiting and training this extension of their military forces, given them hundreds of thousands of rockets and missiles. That is a lot of waste. And they’re currently bleeding Lebanon dry. Lebanon is in complete economic collapse… Why is Iran so interested in destroying Israel?
Maj. Chodoff: You have to go back to Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, who by the way also established Hizbullah. Khomeini stated from the outset of the 1979 Revolution that the eradication of Israel is a primary objective of Iran. It was an extermination, if just you read his works. And they read like the Nazis… And he imposed that as the ideology of Iran, and by extension Hezbollah is absolutely religiously loyal to Khomeini and his legacy… So the destruction of Israel is not a tactic, it’s at the core of their existence.
Parsons: These Hizbullah rockets have also built up a deterrence, to keep Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has to calculate that by striking Iran’s nuclear programs, they know they’re going to be facing a major rocket war, correct?
Maj. Chodoff: There’s certainly an element of deterrence in that, but it’s a deterrence that’s going to wear thin. In other words, the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel, as the Iranians have said correctly, “Israel is a one bomb country.” They could detonate a nuclear weapon over Tel Aviv and that’s a very real, existential threat which Israel needs to be able to deal with… One of the reasons that we haven’t dealt with it yet… that we’re stringing it out as much as possible, is the retaliatory threat coming from here in Lebanon. But there’s going to be a point where those curves cross and we’re just going to have to deal with the consequences.
Watch the interview with Maj. Elliot Chodoff.
Please consider a gift to the ICEJ’s “Israel in Crisis” fund to help provide portable bomb shelters to vulnerable Israeli communities living under the constant threat of rocket attack from Lebanon and Gaza.