By MICHAEL R. GORDON (NYT) 1448 words
Hezbollah Militants Are Said to Amass Missiles in South Lebanon
Published: September 27, 2002
YIFTAKH, Israel - Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon have amassed thousands of surface-to-surface rockets, including missiles with the range to strike cities in northern Israel, according to senior Israeli and Western officials.
As the Bush administration moves to confront Iraq, some officials are concerned that Hezbollah could step up its attacks on Israel. In April, the administration urged Syria, a primary Hezbollah patron, to restrain the group, which Washington has classified as a terrorist organization. But now there are concerns that the warning may be wearing off.
''We are sitting on a powder keg,'' Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, the officer in charge of Israel's Northern Command, said in an interview at his command post here. ''It is a very sensitive and problematic situation. This entire area can go up in flames in no time or it can be very quiet,'' he said.''
Western and Israeli security officials say most of Hezbollah's rockets have been provided by Iran, one of Israel's staunchest enemies. The officials said that thousands of rockets were flown to the Syrian capital of Damascus and driven by truck to southern Lebanon. Israeli security officials said that Syria has now begun to send rockets of its own.
During the buildup, which Israeli and Western officials said had intensified in the past year, Hezbollah has generally limited its attacks to military targets in Israel. Hezbollah appears eager to keep pressure on Israel, while avoiding a major Israeli retaliation. Indeed, Israeli officials say they are reluctant to open a second front or confront Syria while contending with the Palestinian uprising and suicide bombings by Palestinian militants.
Still, officials worry that the buildup of so many rockets could tempt Hezbollah to expand its operations. Adding to this worry is the fear that Iran or Syria might encourage Hezbollah to stir up tensions along Israel's northern frontier to divert attention from Iraq and complicate the Bush administration's plans to topple Saddam Hussein.
According to some analysts, neither Iran nor Syria wants to see an American occupation of Iraq because they fear that it could be a platform for Washington to project more power throughout the region.
''We may have to face this problem on the eve of going into Iraq,'' said Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration's special envoy to the Middle East. ''I think there is a strong impulse on the part of the Iranians and to a lesser extent the Syrians to head us off in Iraq because they fear they could be next. If suddenly there is a war raging between Israel and its neighbors, that creates pressure to deal with that issue first and shifts attention away from Iraq. The Europeans and the Arabs will be saying first things first.''
There is no consensus, however, as to Iran's and Syria's intentions.
Some Israeli officials and analysts said that an American confrontation with Iraq and the deployment of thousands more American troops in the region could make Iran and Syria more cautious and reduce the chances of an escalation of tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border.
''Iran will be worried that it is next in line and will avoid any provocations,'' said Shai Feldman, the head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. ''Syria's incentive will be to avoid steps that would make it a charter member of the 'axis of evil.' ''
In recent months, Syria has cooperated with the United States in sharing intelligence on Al Qaeda. However, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has continued to support Hezbollah, and Syria imports oil illegally from Iraq, Western intelligence officials have said.
According to Israeli and Western officials, Hezbollah has accumulated 8,000 to 9,000 Katyusha rockets, with a range of about 12 miles. But in the past year, Israeli officials have begun to warn that Iran is also providing longer-range systems, including the 240-millimeter Fajr-3 missile, with a range of about 25 miles and the 333-millimeter Fajr-5 missile, with a range of about 45 miles, meaning it could strike the northern Israeli city of Haifa, and areas to the south, from southern Lebanon. Israeli officials say that Hezbollah has several hundred Fajr rockets. American officials have acknowledged that Hezbollah has the Fajr systems, but have been cautious in specifying how many the group controls.
Syria has also begun to provide 222-millimeter rockets, which have a range of 12 to 18 miles, according to an Israeli security official, who said it was a new development.
''What happens up north could very easily spiral into a much wider confrontation,'' said a Western official. ''It is of great concern.''
At the Israeli army post here on the border with Lebanon, a wire fence has been erected to protect the soldiers from rocket-propelled grenades. The Israeli military uses cameras, reconnaissance drones and balloons, as well as patrols, to secure the wire fence that divides Israel from southern Lebanon, which the Israeli Army left in May 2000 after a 22-year occupation.
Directly opposite the post, a Hezbollah sentry has set up camp in the shadow of a United Nations watchtower. He notes the comings and goings of Israeli soldiers and visitors and, when asked questions through the wire fence, does not answer them. The yellow Hezbollah standard has been raised and a Hezbollah poster shows the severed head of an Israeli soldier killed during Israel's Lebanon deployment.
Last spring, Hezbollah began to lob mortars and rockets at Israeli military positions, apparently in support of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza. The attacks took place in the foothills of Mount Hermon, an area in the Golan Heights that is occupied by Israel but which Hezbollah calls Shebaa Farms and claims as part of Lebanon.
In March, several militants used a ladder to sneak over the border fence and killed six civilians near Kibbutz Matsuva in western Galilee. Hezbollah did not claim credit for the attack, but Israeli officials believe it was carried out by Palestinians with Hezbollah's support.
When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell traveled to Israel in April, Hezbollah began a mortar attack while he was being briefed at a command center. An Israeli reconnaissance drone broadcast live pictures of the attack to the command center, and Secretary Powell later flew to Damascus to urge the Syrians to put an end to the Hezbollah attacks.
Vice President Dick Cheney also telephoned Mr. Assad, with a similar message.
Western officials say, however, that the United States may need to caution Syria again before taking on Iraq.
Last month, Hezbollah militants fired anti-tank missiles and mortars at Israeli outposts in the Shebaa Farms area, killing one Israeli soldier and wounding two. Hezbollah also fires anti-aircraft guns, sending shrapnel into Israeli territory; Israel dismisses Hezbollah claims that it is firing at Israeli warplanes.
Israeli and Western officials said that the rocket buildup reflects different agendas. For Iran, the officials said, the rockets give it a stopgap ability to threaten Israel through Hezbollah proxies while completing the development of its Shahab-3 missile, which, with a range of 780 miles, could strike Israel from Iranian territory.
In Syria, Mr. Assad has forged a close relationship with Hezbollah's leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, according to Western and Israeli officials. A Western official said that Mr. Assad appears to have interpreted Secretary Powell's appeal for restraint as a sign of Israeli weakness.
Israeli officials say they hope to avoid opening a second front, but insist that Israel will hold Syria responsible in the event of major attacks by Hezbollah.
''The Syrians are the more serious threat,'' said an Israeli military official. ''They have got brigades of Scuds, a full Air Force and chemical weapons. But this is a state and I can identify the rationality. Hezbollah is not a state. It is a terrorist organization. Therefore, it makes me more worried. Syria should ask itself: can it count on its ability to control Hezbollah in a time of crisis?''
General Gantz added: ''One day the price we have to pay may be too high, and that means we will have to act. And then we have a few addresses, so everybody should be warned.''