x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Hizbollah arsenal tripled, Barak says

UN official dismisses Israeli defence minister's statement as electioneering and a bid to force peacekeepers into action.

BEIRUT // Escalating rhetoric between Hizbollah and Israel over the past few months has led to claims this week by Israeli intelligence officials that the militant Shiite group based in Lebanon more than tripled its capabilities since the July 2006 war in violation of the UN-brokered ceasefire implemented in Aug 2006. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister who as prime minister ordered Israel's unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, claimed in an interview this week that Hizbollah had expanded its missile arsenal to more than 42,000 projectiles today from 14,000 rockets in 2006. "Hizbollah's strength at present is triple its strength at the end of the Second Lebanon War," Mr Barak told members of the Knesset's foreign affairs and defence committee. "The organisation has rockets that are also capable of reaching Ashqelon, Yeruham and Dimona. They possess 42,000 rockets, as opposed to the 14,000 rockets that were in their possession on the eve of the war." Although the claim cannot be directly verified, Hizbollah militants have long bragged about their increased manpower and weapons systems since the 2006 conflict, which killed more than 1,000 civilians, hundreds of militants and soldiers and displaced more than a million people on both sides of the border. Mr Barak did not make the intelligence on which he based his claim public, but said any conflict with Lebanon would likely expand much beyond the 2006 war, which mostly saw the Israelis target only infrastructure and structures associated with the group. His threats follow similar statements by Israeli defence officials that the new role of Hizbollah in the Lebanese government could turn Lebanese political and government facilities into legitimate military targets in the case of a new conflict. Hizbollah's head of foreign relations, Nawaf Moussawi, immediately responded in a local paper to claims that the Israeli military lacks the capability to assault the newly bolstered militant group, which is largely armed and funded by Iran. "The Israelis are not ready for field battles, the resistance in Lebanon is more ready to engage in military battle," Mr Moussawi said. But he seemed to dismiss the possibility of a broader regional war saying, "all nations are preoccupied with their internal affairs", a reference to impending elections or transfers of political power in Israel, the United States and Lebanon. All three are expected to hold elections or see new leadership by early next year. But such reassurances from Hizbollah of no impending conflicts have meant little in the past. Just before the 2006 conflict, Sayed Hasan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's general secretary, personally assured Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Sinoira, that the resistance did not expect a conflict with Israel that summer. Just weeks later a Hizbollah operation targeting Israeli soldiers captured two hostages and sparked the 34-day war. A Hizbollah military wing member said, "We are definitely stronger than in 2006. We have increased our manpower, our weaponry and our knowledge. We cannot wait for them to try and enter Lebanon again. We have tasted the meat of the Israeli and it is easy to swallow." A former top official with the UN peacekeeping presence in southern Lebanon responsible for maintaining a ceasefire dismissed the Israeli claims as "strictly politically motivated". "Did they really know how many missiles Hizbollah had in 2006? If they did, why did they claim they had wiped them all out in the first 24 hours only to see them continue to fire them for another 33 days?" Timur Goksel asked. "This is Israeli election posturing and an attempt to pressure Unifil [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] to take more measures against Hizbollah." But Mr Goksel said the areas believed to harbour the Hizbollah fighters have long been moved outside of Unifil's operational mandate. "It's very doubtful these weapons are held anywhere near Unifil's area of operation," he added. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in a statement defended the performance of the UN peacekeeping operation and called upon Lebanon to use the current political stability to pursue regional peace. "The general improvement of the situation in Lebanon, together with the continued stability in the area of operations and encouraging prospects in the region create a potential momentum that both Lebanon and Israel must seize to make bold strides toward a permanent ceasefire and long-term solution," he said. The secretary general said he was "disturbed by the repeated exchange of threats between Israel and Hizbollah, in particular when apparently directed against civilians". He reiterated his call to both sides "to refrain from statements and actions that could serve to increase tension". He also said that although the UN took Israeli claims that Hizbollah was rearming in violation of the ceasefire, the UN "is not in a position to verify this information independently". mprothero@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by the Associated Press